Last week was the sixth year our family has participated in Surfers Healing, a traveling summer camp offering kids with disabilities an opportunity to surf with guides.
It’s said to be “one perfect day,” which is an interesting way to describe it. This is one perfectly imperfect beach day in all its uniqueness.
My favorite thing on this day is to observe. I enjoy seeing my autistic 11-year-old son, Carson, throughout the experience, including, but not limited to, surfing with one of the “healers,” a term the founder used to describe the surfers who become fast friends with these special individuals for about 20 minutes in the ocean.
I enjoy watching the expressions of my neurotypical 13-year-old, Beckett, as he notices individuals working through their struggles with anxiety in disturbing ways. I love seeing my wife tear up multiple times a day as she is often touched by what she sees. I admire the volunteers who work so hard before, during and after the event to make it happen. I marvel over the surfers smiling for pictures with the families after each “camper” completes turns in the water.
Most of all, I adore watching the families’ reactions as their loved ones enter and enjoy the ocean. Though it’s unbelievable to see the surfers gain instant trust with these socially-challenged individuals, the real magic happens on the shoreline. Turning around from the ocean and seeing these families take in the sights and sounds of their kids moves and inspires. It can overwhelm the emotions. It’s a day of tears, laughter and thought.
The late Jim Valvano said, and it was reiterated by Jack Crosby during the prayer circle to start the event, it’s best to spend each day in deep thought, laughing and moved to tears. Surfers Healing does all that for me.
It’s a day that makes me feel lucky. I, like most people, do not count my blessings enough. The rigors, complexities and worries of life often block opportunities to truly reflect and spend some time in the proper perspective. What I observe during Surfers Healing cleanses my soul. It’s a reboot as well as a gut punch. It puts me in the right place.
To be honest, not everything that happens at Surfers Healing is beautiful to witness. It’s part of the experience. After Carson had his opportunity to surf with his favorite surfer Blake, Beckett and I went for a swim just outside the designated area. We watched as Blake battled with the next surfer after Carson. This young man outweighed the surfer by at least 50 pounds and was combative, borne likely out of anxiety and fear. There was hitting and pushing, but Blake persevered, all with a smile.
Beckett and I had the best chat after we watched the disturbing scene unfold. When I said it’s important for him to witness these encounters, he knew exactly what I meant. He realized how he lucky he is. Not fortunate because he doesn’t have Autism or the same challenges these individuals must face. He knows all about this from living with his brother his whole life. It was deeper. It was about understanding our life with Carson is full of blessings. Though it’s a tough road at times, especially with his social anxiety and his inability to speak, this journey could be so much more challenging. We are fortunate in many ways.
Beckett then talked about how his life is not easy. There are times when he wishes his brother was like his friends so he could walk around town with him and play sports with him. He wishes they could be typical brothers. But nobody’s life is perfect. Lives are full of different kinds of challenges. He said he had never really thought much about it, but we are “really lucky he’s so high-functioning,” referring to his little brother. There are not many 13-year-olds with an awareness of that concept.
The conversation was one of the highlights of my day. Another would be seeing Carson surf. The waves were a little challenging on this day, but he enjoyed some fun rides. As he has in recent years, he ran out of the water in search of Beckett. This year they ungracefully tackled each other and went down to the sand. It was perfectly imperfect, which is just fine.
Carson is never one for the spotlight, but he seems to accept it on this day. The moment, captured in the black-and-white photograph by Nick Denny, sums him up. I don’t remember cupping his face. It was instinctual I guess, something I probably do a lot. I was just so proud of him for being his awesome self. Tactile displays seem to mean more than words. He smiled, lifted his shoulder against my hand and bowed his head, seemingly relieved to a degree his time had come and gone for this year.
For us, we remain simply grateful for this experience, especially after a year off.