On the rare occasion when my son calls home from Oahu, he tells stories, mostly about surfing. He’s an intern at a a humanitarian organization, feeding the homeless and mentoring at-risk children.

He tells me how hard it is to learn to surf. It’s not hard to catch a few swells on a long board, but that’s not what he’s aiming for. Time after time, he paddles into waves bigger than houses, trying to establish position among locals who don’t appreciate outsiders getting in their way.

When he first arrived, he asked a seasoned surfer how to learn to surf in just three months.

“Always surf in conditions above your level,” he was told. “No free rides.”

He’s been held down and smashed on lava and coral countless times. His feet and legs are shredded and oozing with cavernous sores. His chest and legs are raw and bleeding. He shows me his wounds on FaceTime as if they’re trophies.

Twice, rip tides have washed him out to sea. One wave literally sucked him off the shore while he watched the sunset at Waimea Bay. He had no board, and the lifeguards had just gone off duty. Sometimes the water in that bay is like glass, but it’s also where monster wave competitions are held.

He swam parallel to the shore for 30 minutes, using every trick he’d learned to escape the current. He finally broke free and headed back toward shore, hurling himself into the crashing lineup and letting the waves smash him onto shore like limp seaweed. A crowd had gathered on the beach, watching him struggle to survive. They’d pretty much given up on him. With no cell service nearby, no one could call for help. It was the closest to death he’s ever been.

I tried to think of what I’d been doing while he was fighting for his life. Grading papers? Teaching a class? Sleeping? I’ve heard that some mothers sense the moment their sons’ lives are snuffed out on the battle field.

“Did you pray?” I ask.

“Of course! I can’t believe I’m alive. I couldn’t have paddled another second.”

“Be careful.”

It’s something I say so often, it sounds like my religion—hollow, meaningless words to a boy who knows what can happen when you’re sitting in your own living room. Life can be brutal. You don’t even see the waves coming.

He surfs day after day, pounding after pounding, paddling for hours. He’s gained so much girth in his shoulders and neck that I hardly recognize him in his Instagram posts.

When he left home, he was home he was pale and thin after a month-long illness and long nights writing term papers. Now he looks like a tall, strong oak tree, and he sounds wise and calm. He’s graduated to a short board and can duck dive his way into a lineup.

“I’m going to get barreled before I leave, Mom,” he says.

The clock is ticking.

Catching a barrel is the ultimate surfing experience. It looks easy, but it’s rare and grand. I’ll probably never get to see him do it. There’s no capturing it with an iPhone.

Why is he compelled to put his life on the line for a thrill that lasts for mere seconds? What a useless question. I’m learning to ask better ones.

“I know you will.”

I open my fist and let go.