The Last Wave ? By Michael Thiel

My husband Michael has been surfing for 50 years now.  Surfing is far more than just something he does and loves, it is the essence of who he is.  Many of his stories are of his surfing experiences, the lessons they have taught him and how they have served as a metaphor for life.

The experience he recounts below was written about five years ago when he was turning 60.  As he now nears 65 he is still nowhere close to riding his “Last Wave” although like many of us at this age we have known some near and dear to us who have and often wonder why…

Its been on my mind a lot this summer- the Last Wave.

The One After Which There Are No More.

A confluence of events has caused me to think about that.

First, there’s turning 60. There’s something about crossing into the 7th decade that causes me to consider that “Never” might become “Someday” after all.

Then there’s my back- what a pain in the ass it’s been -literally. Apparently 50+ years of surfing and everything else that many years of living does,  have caused the disc between my 3rd and 4th lumbar vertebrae to become (in the words of my surgeon) “a flat tire”.

Now this is not so bad in and of itself, but when the tire deflated, there was a nerve in the way. The resulting debilitation has kept me out of the water, and pretty much everything else, for the past 8 months, long enough for me to wonder if in fact I’d already ridden my Last Wave.

And finally there’s my friend. I’m pretty sure there’s a God, and I’m pretty sure that he/she/it has a plan for all of us. But when that plan causes a healthy, vital, completely alive father and husband to suddenly drop dead in his late 40s…well…I must say it completely passes my comprehension.

It was silly. He left one morning on a bike ride and just never returned. A stroke and he was gone- just like that. He didn’t surf, but I wondered if in his last split second of consciousness he knew that he’d just ridden his last wave, and if so, how he felt knowing there’d be no more.

Sometimes we’re given a gift however – when what we think is the “last wave” is faced and embraced, and then becomes the “first wave” of a new life.

For me it was a cold, grey June morning, several years back.  The surf (as it usually is at that time of the year in my part of the world) was- in a word- “shitty”.  In fact it was worse than that, it was dispiriting.  The flat sky, the cold water, the onshore wind, the crappy little 1-2 foot windswell.

surfingglowI was going surfing, fully aware that I might be about to ride my Last Wave. You see, the cancer that had taken root in my body had reached the point where either it had to die or I did. I was scheduled for major surgery the next day, and the odds were… well, the odds.

So I paddled out.

I remember how cold the water felt, and how salty it tasted.

I sat alone and felt the wind in my face.

The waves I caught were so small and weak that I couldn’t even stand up on most of them- just bellyboarded them in.

I was of course completely alone. Nobody else was out. Nobody else needed to be.

And why was I, exactly?

I could have done any number of things on that day.

Gotten drunk.

Written letters to friends and relatives.

Spent time with my children.

Reviewed my will.

But I went surfing instead.

Because I love it. Pure and simple.

Surfing isn’t just something I do, it’s what I am. The thing before all other things in me.

And I was damned sure that if this were to be the last time, and I were about to cease existence, I was going to be fully and completely aware and conscious of it.

So I surfed.

It was cold and grey and crappy and I was scared and I cried and I surfed.

And with every wave I caught, every grain of sand between my toes, every piece of kelp stuck in my hair, every salt crystal in my eye, I affirmed that love and the consciousness and the connection it created.

The me it created.

And I left the water with a kind of peace, knowing that I had somehow done the right thing.

I was at my friend’s memorial today, along with hundreds of others. I listened as his mother, his brother, his son and his friends brought him alive one more time before laying him to rest. I was struck by how rich his life had been and how many people he had touched.

One line in all the remembrances particularly struck me. It was in a letter his wife had written to him upon his passing. She said: “You knew what to love.”

I believe knowing what to love makes us who we are.

And knowing that we love lifts us to heaven.

If only we will remember.


surfcolorsBorn in the Deep South and raised west of Pacific Coast Highway…Michael has spent most of his life Out There.

Lucky for him, he has tethers connecting him back to the (so called) Real World…:

He lives in the world’s most beautiful place.

He’s in love with the world’s most beautiful woman.

He’s the father of the world’s most incredible girls.  He’s been paid to do what he was born to do.   And he’s retired!  So he has the time, energy and inclination to create every day.  He also has the time, energy and inclination not to.  He’s a surfer, not a bowler.  He plays guitar and sings in a little bar a half block from his house.  And sometimes people put bread in his jar.

He almost died…from pancreatic cancer- that’s a bad one.

His family is as dysfunctional as yours.  He has faced black despair.

Sometimes he has no idea what he’s doing here, or why he’s been given this gift of life and love and learning and laughter.

But like the man said: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

And he is so grateful to be awake.

And awakening.  Right Now.

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