08/01/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

Happy Birthday, Boogie Boarding Mom

I waited until the day before my 50th birthday to go boogie boarding. My plunge into extreme sports was my thirteen-year-old daughter's fault. She'd abandoned her boogie board to play beach volleyball, and I was losing interest in my book on this lovely beach. Suddenly I had an epiphany: I'd never boogie boarded in my life!

Once I'd been a fearless swimmer. Growing up by the beach, I swam out like a dolphin and earned a Water Safety Instructor's Certificate. As an adult, I spent my ocean time enjoying the waves from the safety of my beach towel--apprehensive about undertows. I no longer dove off high boards, and I thought more than twice before submerging myself into any body of water where you couldn't see the bottom. Bathtubs had become my sea of choice; oceans were for the young and foolish.

Yet I'd admired my mother when she signed up for a cruise around the world at the age of 77. It was a year after my father had died, and she'd never traveled overseas. She was determined to see everything from Tahiti to China. Now I stared out at the ocean my mother had bravely sailed across, forging new adventures all by herself. I'd been sitting in the sand too long; it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone.

The boogie board called to me. My daughter's friend Nicki instructed me to attach the Velcro band around my wrist. Why? I asked.

"Because you could lose the boogie board when you crash."

What if I got lost? Was the boogie board more important than me? Breathing deeply, I stepped into the ocean, trying not to think of slimy seaweed... live mussels and crabs...sharks (sighted just two weeks ago in a neighboring beach).

A huge wave hit me hard, bringing me and my boogie board down with it.

"You have to get behind the breaking waves!" my mentor advised from the safety of shore.

I had to go chest high in ocean water? I should never have consented to see Jaws on DVD. I wondered why we get more fearful as we age. When was the last time I felt immortal?

The ocean was cold. I let out a little shiver of a scream. I bounced up and down in the waves. Hey, this felt sort of nice. I scrutinized boogie boarding techniques. Some riders lazed on top of the board, waiting for the perfect wave, while others leapt on top at the anticipated moment. The waves were tricky, ever-changing, elusive. You'd think a perfect wave was approaching, and yet it just passed you by...leaving you in the same place, yearning for success the next time.

My first wave was not the perfect one, but it gave me a short, exciting ride. The second wave was a letdown wave, right after beginner's luck. Patiently I watched, and waited, and hoped. And then--finally--I was on top of a wave, zooming in so fast I thought I'd be propelled right off the shoreline and into the waterfront houses at the top of the sand.

Everyone cheered: Nicki, her mom, even strangers who knew this type of wave came along only once in a while. I rose to my feet, my blue boogie board dangling from my wrist. My daughter came running up, a smear of chocolate ice cream on her lips.

"I got the best wave!" I bragged.

"Wow," was all she could say. She looked impressed--as impressed as a teenage girl can admit to her mother--and I felt a new bond with her. Suddenly I wasn't the mom who sat by, watching her escapades and warning her of all the dangers: don't run too fast...don't hang upside down...don't ride your bike through that stop sign without looking both ways...don't have fun. For a brief moment, we were peers. We understood each other.

"Isn't it great, Mom?" she asked. "I wish I'd seen you."

There were milestones from her life I'd missed as well, when I was at work and someone else got to witness a lot of her "firsts." I wondered if she'd boast to her friends about my boogie boarding expertise, reassured that she thought I was cool for a change, instead of my usual role of nagging mom. Just being in the same room with me can sometimes cause severe annoyance and utter humiliation.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could go boogie boarding, that I didn't have to be afraid, that I could still be young. I couldn't reconcile the number of years on my birthday cake with the way I felt inside (except for some aching knees and an occasional afternoon nap and gray hair concealed by dye). I remembered a retired physician in her early seventies, a student in one of the writing workshops I teach, confessing in her bio: "I'm getting used to being the one of the oldest ones in the room." I wasn't the oldest yet, but I wasn't the youngest anymore, and I was more acutely aware of the age differences in many rooms I entered.

Wasn't having children supposed to keep you young? When we got home from our beach weekend, I found myself humming an old Beach Boys' song: "Catch a wave...and you're sittin' on top of the world."

Was this my mid-life crisis? I didn't feel like running off with twentysomething young men, and I wasn't rushing out to buy a red sports convertible. Boogie boarding was a relatively safe and sane option.

On our next trip to the beach, I asked my daughter, "Want to go boogie boarding again?"

Amy rolled her eyes, one of her specialties. "My friends are going to be there," she said. "Please don't embarrass me."

"Last time you thought I was cool," I reminded her.

"That was last time. I think you should go back to acting like a normal mom."

"No way," I said, and started whistling "Surfer Girl." She was going to share her boogie board with me whether she liked it or not...or else I'd simply buy my own (much cheaper than a Corvette). Who knew what was next? Not hang gliding, of course, but didn't I get up on water skis once?...when I wasn't one of the older ones in the ocean?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Dr. Colvin's Advice For Staying Active After 50