“Morning darlin’. I’m heading to Ditch if you wanna do your camera thing. I’ll pick you up in five.”
It was 6 a.m. and though it was an abrupt wake-up from a deep sleep, I couldn’t have been happier about it.
“Are you gonna surf?”
He’d already hung up.
No sooner had I brushed my teeth, thrown my hair up, my swimsuit, sweats, and flip-flops on, grabbed my sunglasses and my camera, he was pulling up the driveway in the Shaggin Wagon.
The van was straight out of “Endless Summer,” a rickety blue surf van with pinstripe detail and baby blue velveteen bucket seats. It was kitted out with a cooler, a cord strung along the side windows to hang towels and wetsuits, trinkets dangling from the mirror, surf wax, the odd shell and stone, a tube of zinc, and a mangled packet of gum strewn on the wood-grain valet under the dash.
Early morning sun in the rearview mirror, we were off to Ditch.
It was one of those stellar September Mondays, no crowds but still plenty of happy-the-season-has-ended locals, warm temps, and azure Indian summer skies. We didn’t chat too much on the way to the beach. I could tell he was focusing on the impending surf session, and we were happy just to be together, rumbling along in the wagon, taking in Montauk as it woke up, salty and slow, pink sidewalks glistening, flag blowing atop the gazebo, an unhurried flow of normal-looking cars with drivers making their way around doing normal people things.
Entering Dirt Lot, the parking was mostly full but not overflowing. We grabbed a spot about midway to the beach. The vibe was bright like the light and snappy like the breeze. There was that surf family camaraderie, some surfers just arriving and suiting up, like us, others doing the magic costume change under their beach towels, a few chitchatting on the bench, and of course the dozen or so in the lineup, bobbing up and down on their boards, backs to us, eyes and ready-to-paddle arms facing the rolling water, surveilling the blue-green liquid for the heave indicating the next set coming in.
The rocks are the things that always get my attention at the break. You can see their sharp edges jutting out as a wave pulls back, and hear them rumbling under the tide. Being a non-surfer, they scare me.
“But what about when you fall off, at the end of a ride, if you’re lucky enough to get one, and then you smash your head on the rocks?” I’d ask my surfer friends as I did my annual weighing the odds of fun time vs. broken face.
“You just fall shallow,” they’d tell me. As if I’d have a menu of options for how I would fall while trying to surf for the first time. Gerry never indulged that line of questioning.
“Just enjoy yourself, darling,” he’d say. And that would be it. I’d be off the hook for another year and I’d go back to watching, and enjoying watching, everyone else surf, especially him.
Four months earlier, I was at his kitchen table in Dublin; it was his 40th birthday and I’d gone over to spend it with him and his family. His mom and I were having our morning tea, putting the finishing touches on wrapping his gifts.
“Do you understand it, Melissa, this surfing thing? I see the photos, from the places he’s gone all over the world, and it’s quite amazing, where he’s been to, but the surfing, that’s the thing behind all of it. Montauk, too. I’ve often asked him, ‘What is it, why do you love it so?’ ”
“What does he tell you?” I was as curious as she was, having never heard him or anyone put it into words that made total sense.
She looked out the window toward the sea in the distance. “I think he said something about freedom.”
I brought some copies of the photos I’d snapped the day the boys gave him the new board. Seemed like the perfect moment to give her a sneak peek before stuffing them in his birthday cards. The board was a Joel Tudor, custom-made with red rails and psychedelic stripes in bright colors; yellow, teal, orange, it had a squared-off nose, which Joel shaped specifically for Gerry’s style of surfing, the way he “danced” on the board. It was huge and shiny and a real work of art. And he was one happy dude.
“Gigantic, isn’t it? Well, he can’t stop talking about it, let’s hope he gets to try it out.”
We finished our tea and scones and chatted about Montauk and how he was planning to make a visit come autumn.
He pulled the board carefully from the bag, through the open back doors of the van. He was beaming with anticipation and at that moment, he looked as healthy as he ever had. Blue eyes clear and smiling, a bit of color in his cheeks, and sure he looked a bit thin in the wetsuit, but solid in a way he hadn’t just last night at dinner. I started snapping photos straight away. I wanted to document it all. He’d been planning for it for months; I was going to make it last forever.
The boys showed up and Matty went immediately to check the waves. Chris did his handshakes and hugs with a big smile, but something was going on behind his eyes, some preoccupation.
Matty came back with a more serious smile, checked Gerr out in his wetsuit, and said, “Okay, you sure you wanna do this?” It was more like they were going to rob a bank than ride a wave, the way he asked.
Gerry must have seen my confusion and said, “Don’t worry, darling, they’re just afraid I’m going to drown out there or something.”
Matty still looked a bit serious about the whole thing. “That’s not even funny.” Then he lightened up, “C’mon, let’s see what that board can do.”
And off they went. The swell wasn’t so big, but there were nice little waves to be had, and he just wanted one good ride.
He’d arrived on Tuesday, and headed straight to the surf shop to get a new wetsuit. He’d lost a lot of weight and it was important he didn’t catch a cold. That evening he went in the ocean just to get wet and test it out and float around a little. Step one, success; next he’d try swimming.
The following days he’d swim, a bit more each day. I went with him once, his brother another time, and his best friend Joe always. He and Joe had a history of madcap, often daredevil, adventures, but this was the one.
Wake-up, breakfast, a visit or two with some of the many people who wanted to see him while he was in town, a nap, a swim, lunch, maybe another visit, another nap, and sunset, dinner, and sleep. That’s how we rolled all week. It was miraculous really, because just eight weeks later he’d be gone. The cancer would have won.
The boys flanked him as they paddled out. They were playing it cool, but you could tell their eyes were more on him than on catching a wave themselves. He paddled out just like he always did. Even though once he was in the water, it was hard to follow him, I could feel his smile and I knew it was him when the board turned around in position to paddle and catch the incoming wave. Paddle, paddle, nah, turn around. That happened a few times and it was clear he wasn’t wasting any precious energy on a wave that might not pay it back. He took one or two little starts, and soaked in the simple pleasure of being out there in the lineup with old friends. He sat perfectly on that board and if the light hit right I could catch a flash of color in the backlit, silhouetted scene.
You hear stories about people and their make-a-wish dream, their bucket lists, the once in a lifetime things they do when facing end of days. But then there’s this, the desire to have a day like any other, the most splendidly ordinary day imaginable, with sights and people you know well. And a small wave, like the ones you’ve caught countless times before, but totally different, as days and waves always are.
I missed seeing him get into position for that last ride. I was trying to focus the camera and lost sight of him until he was up and on it. He did a few steps forward and back, and the wave curled and pushed, the water sparkled and sprayed, and took him where he was most happy, to freedom.