Wild dolphins twice her size brushed past her legs. A school of fish bounced off her skin, and baby tiger sharks swam a couple feet away. Her heart raced as the waves pulsed, bouncing her like a tiny buoy. She ducked her head below the surface to watch the giant, beautiful creatures glide through the water, eating small fish along the way, and the only sound heard was their clicking.

She felt like she was in outer space: small and insignificant. Helpless and completely out of control. Perhaps it was exactly what caused her to leave the shore, run towards the water and swim straight towards her fear.

She felt free.

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Patricia

Hey Annie, was just thinking of you. Some days everything can feel a lot heavier, but you’ve a ton of people who believe in you. Hope the rest of your day is a little lighter xoxo

– A message received from Patricia at 7:04am

I stood in my kitchen with gym clothes still on and teared up reading the message. I never know how to eloquently explain generalized anxiety disorder, and her description summed it up perfectly:  an internal heaviness that can sometimes feel more unbearable than 165 pound deadlifts at 5:15am.

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As I tried to pick up the barbell that morning, the weight I brought with me into the gym – a mix of worries and unexplainable fears – made it feel like too much to lift. Not to mention, knowing that my lifting partner, Patricia, can regularly deadlift 300 pounds, caused me to second-guess even staying. I’ll just hold her back.

Patricia is our personal Wonder Woman at Paradiso Crossfit. She tops the leaderboard for nearly every workout, often beating 6 foot men who struggle to match her combined strength and speed and athletes 10 years younger who lack her intensity. And by the time the rest of Santa Monica is waking up, Patricia has also:

  • Completed firefighter coursework
  • Prepared Pinterest-worthy protein pancakes – with blueberry smiles and strawberry heart eyes – for her two kids
  • Conducted an arts and crafts project on the dining room table
  • Volunteered to carpool for other parents in need
  • Helped anyone else she can along the way – from picking up Bird scooters in the middle of the road to a girl named Annie having a rough start to the day…

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As I quietly crumbled that morning, she was there with a hug and encouraging words. She didn’t doubt the validity of my feelings. She didn’t say that everything was going to be okay. And she didn’t try to fix anything. She just reminded me that I’m strong, that I’m loved and that she understood.

However, I could not have imagined just how much she understood the heaviness or could have fathomed the true source of her strength. And I didn’t know that the answer to both could be found in the tattoo on her left shoulder that we saw every week.

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Peter

The hospital bag was packed, and an expectant crib sat next to Patricia’s bed, eagerly waiting to hold its new inhabitant who would be arriving in less than two weeks:  May 4, 2014, the perfect due date for a California summer baby. Kona was his middle name; he was already Patricia’s little koala bear. Everything was ready for him.

Except it was at the height of this excitement that a heaviness set in. It started with a noticeable stillness that led to a growing fear. That night Patricia’s husband came home to find her sitting on the couch sobbing. The baby had stopped moving, and there seemed to be nothing they could do to make him move.

While her husband stayed at home with their daughter, Patricia drove herself to the hospital to make sure he was okay, knowing in her heart he was gone. When she arrived at the hospital, they couldn’t locate a heartbeat. She sat alone in a small room waiting for her husband and a confirmation from the doctor. The heaviness filled the space so much that there was little room for hope, along with a darkness so deep that there was no room for light.

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“A piece of me died with him at that moment and has never come back,” Patricia said.

When her husband arrived, the doctor confirmed that the umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck, cutting off oxygen. He was really gone, and all that was left was a whirlwind of emotions.

  • First, there was anger: “How could something like this happen in a developed country? How could they not see the cord during my last check-up?”
  • Second, there was guilt: “That my own body, MY cord, took his life. That I couldn’t save him, and that I was the only one who could have. That I let my husband down.”
  • Then, there was despair: “I had planned a whole life together with him. All my hopes and dreams for him were gone.”
  • Finally, there was a feeling of defeat: “The heartbreak was so bad, I wanted to die too,” Patricia admitted. “The one person who kept me here was my daughter. She needed me… I couldn’t leave her.”

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For the next three days, Patricia laid in a hospital bed, trying but unable to give birth to her dead baby. On the third day, a good friend came to visit, and suddenly, he dropped.

“I was able to give birth to him naturally which was really hard,” Patricia said. “Because he was perfect.” They named him Peter after her husband’s older brother who had only lived one day.

“I got to hold him, and I had to say goodbye.”

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The Markers of Shittiness

Some mornings Patricia wakes up at 3am to study for her firefighter tests, other mornings it’s 4:20am for Crossfit, and on occasion she sleeps in until 5:30am. However, what she sees first thing is always the same.

On her nightstand sits two screws and two rocks, and as she looks in the mirror, she sees the tattoo on her left shoulder. Like a 300 pound deadlift, they represent a heaviness that she knows she can lift, a comparison point when life gets rough.

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Two screws – There’s a time to push

On May 29th, 2003, Patricia blew out her knee and had to have her ACL repaired. As a top college soccer player, she confidently jumped up for a header, but as she landed, her legs were tackled.

On May 29th, 2004, she suffered a career-ending injury when she went for a tackle and broke both her tibia and fibula. The two screws locked her ankle into place following surgery, and the anger felt outweighed the pain. “You’ll never play again,” the surgeon had whispered in her ear.

On May 29th, 2005, Patricia ran her first marathon: “I thought ‘I either lock myself in a padded room on that day or I control how my next May 29th goes.'”

Two rocks – There’s a time to rest

Earlier this year, amid a divorce, raising her two kids, and studying to become a firefighter, Patricia’s face swelled as her salivary glands backed up from stones due to the stress. She was hospitalized and put in the same recovery room as she was put in after delivering Peter.

“I took it as life telling me to stop, to rest,” Patricia said. “I try to have one on one time with all my kids, and it felt like I had my time with him.”

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Tattoo – There’s a time for you

“Losing my son was definitely a dark, dark time,” Patricia said. “But it also really made me re-evaluate what I want to do with my life.”

For as long as she can remember, Patricia has wanted two things: to be a mom and to help people. The loss of Peter fast-tracked Patricia into figuring out how she would help others:  pursuing her dream of becoming a firefighter. “I know I’m meant to help people,” Patricia said. “I’m strong, and I’m smart, and I feel like this is the perfect combination of my talents to do exactly what I want for my life.”

On her left shoulder is a tattoo of an abstract of Peter’s heartbeat – a reminder of him, the heartbreak and the silver lining.

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The True Source of Strength

I told Patricia that I wanted to interview her because of her physical strength. But that was a lie.

The real reason is because I could tell that she was a beautiful person almost instantly, and beautiful people are often the ones who have endured challenges, who have been humbled by life and who can see things more clearly. I saw how she built others up, and I could sense her internal strength even without knowing its source.

But now I do.

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Strength is found in leaving the shore and running towards our fear. It’s discovered by diving into the heaviness and swimming with our setbacks. It’s attained in letting pain brush against us and going torso-deep in what hurts. It’s ducking our head below the surface of suffering and opening our eyes to witness the beauty that lies beneath.

It makes things a little lighter. And can sometimes set you free.