I wanted nothing to do with The Friendship Paddle when they first came calling. I was sick — real sick — and word was out. My cancer was doing exactly what you hope it never does, and my family and I were once again in the impact zone of new treatments, surgeries, and big unknowns with terrifying expiration dates. Luckily, people wanted to help. There was, however, a problem: me.
There is no right way to go about facing your own mortality. Believe me, I have been doing it for half a decade now and have yet to find an approach that seems sustainable. I suppose that’s the point — eventually you have to surrender to the huge fragility of it all. But last summer, with my cancer on the comeback and my daughter just having turned one, the notion of surrender — my surrender — was the most offensive thought conceivable. So when folks offered help, I equated saying yes with surrendering to my disease. The results weren’t pretty, and in hindsight, it was a dark and isolating and really wrong form of reasoning on my part. But the inner conflict it created was a necessary moment for me. My paddle had begun.
Started in 2003 by a bunch of friends who simply loved their buddy Doug McFadden and wanted to make a stand with him in his battle against brain cancer, The Friendship Paddle has grown into a grassroots fundraiser of life-changing proportions. Basically it works like this: Each year, a beneficiary is selected — someone who, like McFadden, has a young family and a full life but is stuck treading in the bad-news end of the cancer swimming pool. Then, after a period of alternatively casual and intense planning and fundraising throughout late summer and early fall, more than 100 paddlers (flanked by a couple dozen support boats) take to the Pacific from Santa Cruz Island (conditions permitting) at sunrise on a Saturday and paddle the 25 or so miles of open ocean back to the safety of Santa Barbara and one hell of a life-affirming beach party.
The crossing, like a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, is an experience like little else. The immensity of the physicality required in that wild natural space supercharged with the individual emotions of every single participant elevates the whole thing to something beyond description. It is a life explosion of the highest order, and its medicine simply cannot be denied. For me, to be on the receiving end of that huge love hug from my community was truly transcendent. It gave me something no doctor or hospital or healer had been able to. It gave me the strength to surrender. I have been growing life ever since.
This year, on September 23, we are paddling for Genny Maxwell and her family. I don’t know Genny (that will change this weekend), but I don’t need to have shaken hands with her to know that cancer can be wickedly isolating for both the sick and the people who love them. Everyone gets lost in their fear sometimes. Luckily, we are paddling with Genny, and Genny is paddling with us. When those first chilly strokes are taken early Saturday and those first paddlers make a break for deeper, more uncertain waters, we will be doing it together. All of us. Together.