An Octogenarian Confronts the Ocean Francesca A. Nadalini Arts & Culture, Society & Culture When I was a child, we lived with the Mediterranean sea at our shoulders and not a day went by that we didn’t see it, or take a walk on the wet sand along the edge of the water. In fact, my mother used to tell me I would have been born on a beach had she not hurried home just in time. In the winter, on a stormy day, when the rain had abated but the wind still blew, my sister and I stood on the end platform of one of the rows of beach cabins perpendicular to the water and watch and listen in awe as the sea hissed, rumbled, and roared – huge waves standing erect spewing gallons of foam until they collapsed with a mighty boom. In summer, we swam for hours, rowing out to deeper water where we could dive for hours from our white patino–two pontoons joined together, with a couple of seats nailed across. Sometimes, we encountered medusas (jelly fish)–lovely transparent, iridescent globes trailing their long filaments through the water. When I came to the US as a young woman, I fell in love with the Atlantic Ocean, wild, unpredictable and much fiercer than the Mediterranean sea, deep blue in good weather, the color of pewter when it stormed. In summer, my friend Anna and I took our children to one of the Jersey beaches, spending many days frolicking in the water. None of us knew how to body surf and we weren’t such good swimmers, but we loved being tossed about by the waves, gasping for air as the water pulled us along and swept us towards the shore. When the children got older, I went to the beach less often. There was one friend who belonged to a club and invited me occasionally – she lived at the shore–and I always accepted. She didn’t go in the water herself due to health problems, but she would sit and watch me while I swam. I loved it: plunging into the cold water gave me a refreshing jolt, and then waiting for waves to topple me over. Exhilaration. Revitalization. One by one the children left home, I pursued a college education, got a Master’s degree, eventually got divorced. With an active career in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, I became too busy to go to the beach and frolic in the waves–didn’t even give it a thought. But I dreamed about it. In the beginning, when I was dealing with an onslaught of feelings I had repressed for years–working as a psychotherapist, especially in psychoanalysis, requires us to face up to our own inner demons–I often dreamt of being at some imaginary beach, looking out towards the sea. Mammoth waves were forming in the distance, far enough away that I knew I was safe, but menacing nonetheless. It wasn’t reality, but I knew the feelings were real and that I had to deal with them. As time went on and I dealt with my internal storms, the dreams changed. I was at the beach but swimming in the sea, letting the waves toss me around, just as I remembered. It was such a great feeling: splashing in the sparkling blue water…I felt free and full of the joy of life. Time kept passing, I hit seventy, seventy-five, eighty. Last summer, when I was eighty-six, I said to my daughter Sandy, who is in her early sixties: “I miss the ocean, how about going down to the shore to frolic in the waves?” “Sure,” she said. “Let’s do it. Let’s go tomorrow, while the weather’s good. What are we going to wear for a bathing suit?” Neither one of us had one, so we settled for tank tops and shorts. Once we got to the beach and parked the car, the first order of business was carrying all the needed paraphernalia across the sand down to a spot where we could plant our umbrella. It was a long trek. “Let’s take a rest,” I said, “have something to drink and then go in the ocean.” “Sounds good to me,” Sandy said as we stretched out in our beach chairs and opened bottles of water. It was windy, so the umbrella didn’t stay put. We struggled with it for 15 minutes until a sweet young man came to the rescue and managed to secure it firmly in the sand. “Come on,” said Sandy, just as I breathed a sigh of relief, “listen to the ocean, it’s calling us, we mustn’t disappoint it.” There were people in the water just in front of the lifeguard’s stand, so we walked over and down to the edge of the ocean. I planted my feet in the wet sand, looked over at my daughter, who was doing the same, and I watched the water as it came flowing towards me. Suddenly I felt dizzy, the edge of the water was swaying from side to side as it flowed towards me and then receded–that’s what it felt like anyway. Good grief, I thought. I’m not sure I can keep my balance, the ocean’s coming at me from all directions and I can’t stand upright. My daughter saw my hesitation. “Well, well,” said Sandy, “it’s not like you to shy away from something. What’s going on?” “What’s going on,” I said, “is that I’m scared to death to take another step with all this water rushing past me. I feel like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. My joints are rusty and I’m all wobbly.” “Come to think of it,” said Sandy, “I don’t feel too steady myself. Maybe we are just out of practice. Give me your hand and we’ll go in together.” I grabbed her hand, in we went, I could feel the strong pull of the water under my feet, I let go of her hand, the next minute I was under, and then a wave toppled me over and I couldn’t get up, nor did I have the slightest idea where I was relative to the shore. It was terrifying, not only was I completely disoriented, but underwater I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up and balance on my feet. Suddenly, I felt many hands grab hold of me and haul me to the surface. Four young dark smiling faces greeted me as I arose from the water–an unlikely Venus with dripping white hair. “It didn’t take them a minute to see you were in trouble,” said Sandy, “I didn’t even have to ask them for help. You wouldn’t have drowned, you know, we are just a few feet from the shore.” “Says you,” I spluttered, coughing up water, “a sudden current might have washed me out to sea and then zoom, down to the bottom, like the Ancient Mariner.” We thanked them profusely, these endearing young men. They rescued me, and I loved them for it. As I gathered myself together I felt a rush of sadness. “How devastating,” I thought to myself, “I was looking forward to a good toss about in the waves and I can’t even hold my own stepping into two feet of water. What has happened to me during these last thirty years?” You’ve gotten old, said the inner voice. Every year older and older, you’re no match for the ocean. The ocean is neither young nor old, it just is. You, on the other hand, first you are born, you are young, then you are old, you die, you no longer are. That’s it, in a sentence. Inside I wept. It wasn’t fair. The wrinkles, the white hair, the sagging body, I could accept all of that, but I wanted the ocean part of me back, the me that could run into the water and meet the wave head on, get knocked around, turned upside down, tossed back up, dumped on the shore laughing, with my balance intact. “Sandy,” I said, “I’m just going to stand here, close to the edge of the water and I’m going to see if I can keep my balance while the ocean rushes at me.” “What do you mean,” she said, “by the ocean rushing at you? I don’t see anything rushing, the water just flows back and forth at a steady pace.” “That may be so,” I said, “but to me it feels like the ocean is rushing at me, then it’s going to topple me over and drag me around.” “Okay,” she said, “but we are going back in, so don’t expect to stand there very long.” We went in holding hands, up to our waist. “Go in a little further,” said a young woman who was watching us, “until the water is up to your chin, then, when you see the swell coming towards you, jump in gently and you’ll have a nice ride back to the shore.” She was right. I jumped in gently, the swell lifted me up as it turned into a wave and carried me gently back to the shore. “You know,” I said to Sandy, “I might as well face it, the ocean likes them young. It will just have to be a different relationship now, but it can still work. Let’s jump into the next swell together–gently.” Further Reading: James Campbell, “Aging Happens To Us All” Melissa Troyer, “Language, Memory, and Aging–And The Words To Say It” Irene Park, “Why is Genome Instability a Hallmark of Cancer and Aging?” Doc Bijou I can feel it – great article – along with my own sense of how ageing has affected the things I like and have enjoyed doing. You needn’t allow your enjoyment to ‘age’. Modification does not necessarily spoil the pleasure we derive because if we put our minds to it, it often makes that pleasure even more intense.