There are so many things and absolutely zero things going through your head after a loved one dies. Shock, confusion, anger, sorrow, love, bewilderment, even joy. The mind oscillates between everything and nothing, between rage and peace, between life and death.
A year ago, I found myself sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom, now hers, clad in my teenage Umbros and a Stüssy sweatshirt, leaning against the hospital bed and staring blankly out the window, contemplating precisely how all these emotions could surge through me at once, then simply vanish, how I could feel overbearing sadness one moment and genuine inspiration the next. Birds may or may not have flown by, someone may have come in to talk to me, honestly, I don’t know. I was lost in a sea of agony, attempting to fathom what life would look like without her, how I could go back to “normal,” what I would do when the wake passed. The waves were hitting me. Hard.
The first time I was seized by such an undertow of fury was actually in my OG Umbro years. Twelve, uni-browed, and wistfully fearless, I was an early ocean addict...until that fateful July afternoon when I finally got pummeled by an extra large Atlantic wave. I say finally because if I have learned anything, when you live life intensely, intense experiences are inevitable.
In the matter of a nano-second, my carefree mermaid-Baywatch-Kelly Slater glee turned into outright hysteria. I was eating sand instead of breathing, perhaps from the ocean floor, perhaps from the currents swirling around me, and had lost all sense of what was up and what was down, let alone where my limbs were, or how to use them to find the air I knew I needed to survive. Blind, confused, and terrified, a disjointed octopus being tossed by a force I could not see.
After what felt like an eternity, I felt someone grab me and pull me up to the surface, my father and uncle. They took me back to shore, my prized neon blue & yellow one piece Speedo full of thousands of grains of sand. As my uncle joked that I got shot by machine gun fire and my mother handed me some Gatorade, my father prepped me to go back in. I viscerally recall relishing in the Lemon-Lime glory as the afternoon sun reflected off our shared southern Italian noses, the machine gun sand attack scratching my skin, my ultimate cheerleader of a mother encouraging me to shake it off. Perhaps for the first time, I consciously realized I did not have a choice; I had to dive back in.
So back in to the waves I went, this time with perspective and a personal lifeguard. Before long, I had almost completely forgotten about the earlier incident - until I put my Umbros to head home. As I sat in the back of the Isuzo Trooper, seatbelt-less and popsicle in hand, I felt an odd sense of accomplishment and relief, happiness and awe. Although I had been pummeled by the fiercest of waves and felt like I would not make it, I somehow, did, and now had an inexplicable sense of excitement for the next adventure.
Life is an ocean, Between the Waves a human condition. Grief and growth the most frustratingly unlinear of them all.
But as only grief can show you, life is not about riding the waves; it is about swimming between them. Moving through motion and surrendering to strength. Breathing against the tide and letting go into the rip. Life is about learning to go under the break and find peace as the current roars around you, learning to dive through the waves and discover freedom as the force streams past you. That is a life of ecstasy and grief, and in such, a life of humility and fortitude.
Earlier this week, I again found myself in vintage Umbros, these from my husband’s collection, and this time sobbing behind a palm tree at his parent’s house, the same tree my now deceased father-in-law used to come find me behind when things became just too overwhelming. Notice of the passing of a sixth loved one in twelve months, just hours before another’s funeral, a week before the anniversary of my grandmother.
As tears dropped onto that truly singular Umbro fabric, I realized that my understanding of grief actually goes hand in hand with that Atlantic beating decades ago, and not just because of my retro-tween covid wardrobe of late.
Grief is a lot of things, and in the past year we have all had our fair dose of it, whether in relation to a loved one or a cherished pizza joint, a perception of self or conception of civil society. But when it comes down to it, Umbros are a tangible reminder of what it feels like to make it to the other side, salt water an inherent fertilizer for life lived to the max, popsicles a sensorial compass for all beautiful things worth experiencing, and the pummeling a badge of honor for living Between the Waves.
(Photo by Phil Thurston)