Transcript

765: Off Course

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

When Yibin describes what it was like to grow up in a town in the Gobi Desert, just first the simple physical hardship of it. Harsh winters. Summers so hot the asphalt on the road would melt and get on her white school uniform, she says. This is China in the 1970s. Her town, Jiuquan, had a big factory that made products out of metal and steel. There were some really poor farms. Yibin's dad had a job that was better than most, Yibin says. He led the musicians for the local song and dance ensemble, making shows for the government, basically propaganda. They would tour to smaller towns. When she turned four and a half, her dad told her, you're going to want to play an instrument. And she started on the violin. It wasn't until she got older that he explained why.

Yibin Li

He doesn't want me to have a job that has to be under the sun, in the factory with my hands, with heavy labor.

Ira Glass

And then would your dad tell you you have to do this because this is your future?

Yibin Li

Yes.

Ira Glass

He would.

Yibin Li

He would.

Ira Glass

What would he say?

Yibin Li

I remember one time when he took me to the market. There are people selling garments on the street. It was really hot. And he says, look, if you don't practice, you going to work here. Did you see that girl? She was trying to help her dad to sell a pair of pants. Do you want to be here? I thought, oh, so hot. I can't stay there.

Ira Glass

And did that motivate you? Would you think about that, and it would keep you practicing?

Yibin Li

No.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

She was a kid. She hated practicing. And dad had her doing like two hours a day and four or five hours on days there wasn't school. Sometimes while she practice, she'd put rubber bands around the chair legs and do Chinese jump rope. Other times--

Yibin Li

I was just playing the comic books I put on a music stand.

Ira Glass

You were playing the comic books? What do you mean?

Yibin Li

No, I was flipping comic books. I would just play, and I would flip the comic book on my music stand. And I set the alarm maybe half an hour before Mom comes home and then squeeze my skin to make it very red. So when she comes in, I said, look, I practice two hours.

Ira Glass

You mean you squeeze the skin on your neck.

Yibin Li

Yeah. So it--

Ira Glass

Where the violin rests.

Yibin Li

--looks red, I said.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Fortunately, she had a good ear and natural skill. And her dad, she says, was a patient and kind teacher. But to turn her into a musician, she and her dad faced some pretty daunting and extraordinary challenges. All this was happening during a very particular moment in China, during the Cultural Revolution.

Starting in the 1960s, Western classical music was banned in the country. It couldn't be performed or played on the radio. Violins and pianos were smashed or burned. Her dad, who loved Western classical music, would stay up late at night to hear it on Russian radio stations. He knew Yibin wouldn't be allowed to play this kind of music in public, but violins were permitted in China if you were playing revolutionary music. Now, from the beginning, to send her down this road of becoming a musician, he had to be incredibly resourceful. He just had to jump into battle just to get her violins to play. He found one in a school warehouse in a nearby town where old instruments were locked up. Another he secretly saved from a fire where it was going to be burned. And then he had his next obstacle.

Ira Glass

If it's so hard to get a violin, where do you get the music?

Yibin Li

He hand-copied music he borrowed from his friends. In his organization, there were violinists. They were all some sort of self-taught.

Ira Glass

They had these books of etudes for beginners that they'd hand-copied from someone else, who'd hand-copied them from someone else, each book 80 or 90 pages long. Neighbors hearing this stuff didn't recognize it as Western music. Just sounded like exercises.

Yibin Li

Yeah. He borrowed from everybody. Do you have a book five? Do you have book four? He would just spending time at night just hand copy.

Ira Glass

Your father would.

Yibin Li

Yeah. I saw him copying. I was fascinated. He would cut the pen diagonal, and then he put the ink in. And the thick edge, if you put it down, would be already a note.

Ira Glass

Oh, because it would make a black dot.

Yibin Li

Yeah. He'd just go like that. He said, look, this is very fast. This is a flat. This is a sharp. And then quickly, if you go quick, the lines are very straight. You can't be slow. You can't shake your hand.

Ira Glass

Then, in 1977, Yibin's seven years old. She gets home from school, and her dad is all excited.

Yibin Li

He says, come, come. I have something to tell you. I thought I was in trouble. He says, no, no, no. We're going to audition for Xi'an Conservatory.

Ira Glass

A year after Chairman Mao's death, China's music conservatories were open again and holding auditions. Suddenly, playing the violin could open up a whole world to Yibin, a world far from their town in the Gobi.

Yibin Li

He says, if you get in, then that would be great. You have your future.

Ira Glass

Did he want you to get out of the Gobi Desert area, though?

Yibin Li

Yes.

Ira Glass

So was his goal you'll play the violin, and then you'll end up in some big city somewhere?

Yibin Li

Yes. Then I'm on my way. In a big city, it's class up.

Ira Glass

If she aces this audition, she'll be in Xi'an, one of the largest cities in the country. It could get her into a big city orchestra or get her into university, which would be nearly impossible otherwise, coming from where she came from. And so this became their single-minded goal.

And I'm telling you this story because this is This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, and our whole show today is about people who set out on some path, and they are ripped off that path by bad luck, by fate, by mistakes they made that they didn't even know they were making, and then they have to fight and claw their way back. The biggest thing to throw Yibin off course is still to come and is one where her father is really left with no options, where he has to try and invent something out of absolutely nothing to fix things and get back on course. Stay with us.

Act One: The Audition

Ira Glass

OK. So Yibin's dad tells her about these auditions when she's seven years old. But the conservatory in Xi'an, it's a middle school, and so she can't actually audition till she's old enough for middle school. That day finally comes. She's 11 and 1/2 years old. It's 1981 when she finally gets her chance to grab at this special future that her dad has been preparing her for for years, though before they can do that, they have one rather serious obstacle to overcome first. They don't have enough money for train tickets to get to Xi'an for the audition or for a hotel.

So Dad gets relatives to donate some money, he sells off stuff from their house, and there was some money from when his dad died that had never been distributed. Getting some of that money led to a squabble with his older brother that lasted for years. But at the end of all that, money in hand, one spring day, Yibin and her dad headed off on the train. The ride to Xi'an took 36 hours, a trip unlike anything she'd ever taken in her life. First time leaving her part of China. First time visiting a big city. And what does she remember? The thing she brings up right off the bat when we talk about it--

Yibin Li

I was very excited because my dad would give me steamed cake. Each bag has 12. It was very brown.

Ira Glass

What is steamed cake? I don't know what that is.

Yibin Li

Steamed cake, basically, made of egg and flour, sugar. And they're very fluffy, and has the smell of eggs.

Ira Glass

And you never had this back home.

Yibin Li

I saw it in the store, but we don't buy very often. But there, that's all for me. [LAUGHS] Each morning breakfast, I get to eat two.

Ira Glass

And then you had never been away from the Gobi Desert, right?

Yibin Li

No.

Ira Glass

So what was it like? What were your impressions of the city?

Yibin Li

My god. By the last, I think, last six hours, we enter Xi'an. Everything was green, and we open the window. The air was moist. I remember our heads were sticking out of the window. I said, wow, can you breathe this? And the mountain, the hills, were all covered with green. We were both thinking, wow, so many trees.

Ira Glass

In the train station, they were selling fresh fruit she'd never seen. Pomegranate. Persimmon.

Yibin Li

And we stayed in the hotel. I'd never been to a hotel. And then I got very excited. I thought, this is a great life if I live here.

Ira Glass

The hotel was close to the conservatory and noisy, she says, with the sounds of kids' instruments, filled with parents and kids who were also auditioning. She and her dad started to get nervous.

Yibin Li

And then he went to our neighbor next door and the girl from just bigger town next to Xi'an. But her father played in the orchestra. And she had nice clothes, and her father knows all the repertoire. And then they had a book.

Ira Glass

Like a printed book.

Yibin Li

Printed book. And the first time, my dad says, can I see your book? And he took the books and said, oh, I have never seen the book.

Ira Glass

He had never seen printed music in a book?

Yibin Li

Yeah. Western composers book.

Ira Glass

That music had been banned. He'd seen books of Chinese music, which uses a different notation. Yibin made it through the first round of auditions, and the second round. After that, not many kids were left in the hotel.

Yibin Li

The hotel was very quiet, I remember, at the breakfast.

Ira Glass

15 violinists were left. Yibin was the very last one to play for the judges.

Yibin Li

I remember I walked into the room. It was a big room. There were six people on the panel. I was very confident because I get to play with the pianist the conservatory provided. I remember I really enjoyed having the piano to play. I thought, wow, listen to that sound. I sound so good with piano.

Ira Glass

Because you never heard yourself do that.

Yibin Li

No. I never played with a pianist. And we were very confident. I thought the concerto was so well prepared. I also like the concerto because it has a melody. There's a technical part. You can show off.

[MUSIC - "VIOLIN CONCERTO IN A MINOR" BY JB ACCOLAY]

Ira Glass

This is Yibin basically sight reading for me the concerto that she played that day by JB Accolay. She's also played the other solo violin pieces we've heard in this story. Anyway, so at the audition, she's playing, feeling great. Barely a page in--

Yibin Li

Someone in the panel clap their hand and says, OK, that's it. Thank you. You can go. I was shocked because the best part, I haven't reached there yet. I look at them. I saw them talking. One teacher, I remember, he had a double chin. He was shaking his head. I saw the chin was moving. And I heard he says, no, no, no. It's just impossible. We don't need to hear more.

Ira Glass

And then what?

Yibin Li

I walked out of the room. I remember I was terrified. I thought, my dad's dream is over.

Ira Glass

She says she also thought, I'm 11 and 1/2. No more green city. No more hotel. No more excitement. Her dad was waiting for her in the hallway.

Yibin Li

He was like, so how did it go? I said, Dad, I think-- I think I did very bad. They asked me to leave. He says, but maybe you were good enough. They don't need to hear more. I said, no, no, no. One man was shaking his head. He says, no, it's not possible. My dad was so-- he held his fist, hammering under the edge of the window. The sound was behind him.

He says, there got to be a way. Got to be a way. Then in Chinese he says, [SPEAKING CHINESE]. What's the solution? What's the solution now? Got to be a way. I looked at him. I felt terrified. I thought, I disappointed him. He says, have to find a way. You wait here, he said. I said, don't go.

Ira Glass

Why did you try to talk him out of whatever this is?

Yibin Li

Because I was embarrassed. I don't want to be more embarrassed when people tell him how terrible I was. I said, I-- I really didn't do well. It's my fault. I'm very, very sorry. He said, did you make a mistake? I said, I don't know. He said, just wait here.

Ira Glass

Let me just remind you. Most people, you fail your audition, it's over. Not her dad. He went into the classroom where the auditions were, and outside the room a college student was packing up papers because Yibin was the last audition. She follows, violin in hand.

Yibin Li

I heard my dad. He says, could she play again? If she was so terrible, can you talk to them? The guy says, no, I don't think so. It's over. And my dad says, but what happened? Can you find out? The guy says, I can't go in to talk. I'm a student. I only work here. Then my dad says, you know, we took train 36 hours. You know where I'm from?

The guy didn't answer. He said, I'm from Jiuquan. The guy says, oh. You know, my uncle lived in town nearby. I know Jiuquan. My dad says, so you know. You know how hard this is. And I think the guy, young guy, had a little soft spot for that.

Ira Glass

Her dad says, can you just ask them to give her another chance? At least let her play to the end of the concerto. The guy says, I don't think I can do that. But I have to turn in these papers. I'll find out what happened with her.

Yibin Li

So we waited outside. I don't know how long. I just thought it was so hopeless, why my dad is embarrassing me. The guy came out, told my dad, they told me that she has good posture. She has good intonation. But she played many wrong notes. That's not acceptable. My dad says, what do you mean, wrong notes? I'm a musician. I correct every note. I played it with her, practice with her. I know every note.

The guy says, but maybe you don't read music well. Maybe you were wrong. He said, wait, I can show you the score. Every note is correct. So he run back to his bag, then took the music, the hand-copied sheet music, came over. He was basically begging. He says, please, please. I can't go back home like this. This is my only chance, our only chance.

Ira Glass

He says this to him? It's our only hope?

Yibin Li

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You, you are lucky. You study in the conservatory. But do you know how many people study in the conservatory from our hometown? None. Violinist? None. Please, just help me.

Ira Glass

Her dad hands the student the score, and he looks at it.

Yibin Li

He was surprised. He saw the score was all hand-copied. He says, did you copy this? Who wrote this? He says, me. But who you copied from? He says, my friend. But where the score came from? He said, I don't know.

Ira Glass

The student says, wait a minute, and goes back into the audition room. This time he's gone for longer.

Yibin Li

I remember my dad was not looking at me. He would just swallow. And then this time, one violin teacher came out. It was not the one with double chin. He says, come over here. Did you play from this copy? I said, yes. And he asked my dad, that's your hand copy? My dad said, yes. You know there are many wrong notes, right?

My dad says, no. I don't know. I copied right. I correct-- checked many times. I don't think it's wrong. But the teacher said, but she played many wrong notes. It's from this score. This is the wrong key. There's no F sharp. But here, you are missing a flat, and there's many mistakes. My dad says, but that's all we had. My dad says, can you let her play-- finish-- if she didn't play well?

He says, no, no, no. It's not about that. There's no second chance. We don't give a second chance. There's no second audition. It's not fair to other people. My dad was so hopeless. He says, OK. I will talk to my colleague. My dad says, will you give her a chance? He says, no, don't ask question like that. I'm not going to say anything. Dad says, but how many you will keep out of 15? He says, nine.

Ira Glass

Six will get in, he says, and then three backups.

Yibin Li

That's all I can say. Now you have to go.

Ira Glass

What happened then?

Yibin Li

We went back home. There was two weeks of wait.

Ira Glass

Did you think you had any chance at all?

Yibin Li

I was completely hopeless. One day he got a telegraph from the post office.

Ira Glass

Telegram, yeah.

Yibin Li

Oh, telegram. One sentence. Yibin Li is selected, congratulations. He had that telegram in his hand. He read it many, many times. Read to my mom. Read to me. He was shaking. He says, I can't-- unbelievable.

Ira Glass

He couldn't help himself, had to reach out to the school. Wrote a letter to the admissions office thanking them, saying how grateful and overjoyed they were.

Yibin Li

And he asked, how come you picked her? The guy working at admissions was a very nice man. He was about retiring. For some reason, he took moment to wrote letter to my dad. He says, I had sympathy. I heard your story. We were shocked about hand-copied each note, and I'm very touched. By the way, she got in because three other kids did not pass Chinese and math exams. She's on the bottom, but she's in. Congratulations.

Ira Glass

In other words, she was on the waitlist, number nine of nine kids. Then three kids didn't have the academic qualifications to enter the school, so she got in.

Yibin Li

That's how I got in. I was lucky.

Ira Glass

I mean, it's interesting. Your dad puts you on a path starting when you're like 11 and 1/2, and everything is going perfectly. And you're at the audition, and then everything gets thrown off course. And then your dad just fights and fights and fights, grabs at any straw, and he just wills you back on course. Have you thought about that moment very much in the years since?

Yibin Li

I always think my dad made me. Without him, I wouldn't be me. I don't know what the other life could be. I don't know. But I love what I have. I mean, I'm so lucky, doing what I love to do. It's all because of my father.

Ira Glass

From the conservatory in Xi'an, she graduated and went to an even better conservatory for college in Shanghai. She graduated there and joined the faculty there, came to America, studied at Juilliard, now is in New York. When she first came to America, her father cried on the bus to the airport, thinking he'd never see her again. The way he saw it, she was in a dream job in Shanghai. Why would she ever leave it? But then, her parents moved here in 2016. Her dad died two years ago. Today, Yibin performs and records and teaches and has a 15-year-old daughter of her own.

Ira Glass

Have you had moments with your daughter where you felt like, OK, you need to jump in the way your dad did with you to save the day, to make her future?

Yibin Li

No.

Ira Glass

No.

Yibin Li

No.

Ira Glass

Why?

Yibin Li

She grew up in New York City. She can have any cake she wants.

Ira Glass

Her daughter plays the violin, but if she wants she can sign up for flute. If that doesn't work out, she can do martial arts. If that's not right for her, she can try something else, whatever she wants. That's the life Yibin wants for her, one where everything doesn't ride on a single audition, make or break, your whole future, with six strangers in a room on some random spring morning and your dad there to protect you.

Coming up, a 17-year-old girl starts swimming into the open ocean and ends up somewhere so different from what she'd planned on. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Off Course," stories of people-- and as you'll hear, not just people-- who get thrown off the very clear course that their lives were on and then have to invent what they're going to do next. We've arrived at Act Two of our program.

Act Two: The Synchronized Swimmers

Ira Glass

Act Two, Synchronized Swimmers. So in the ocean, when you get off course, there are all kinds of dangers that you face that just are not there when you're on dry land. Phoebe Judge has a story where you see some of that. She's the host of the This Is Love podcast, where a version of this story first ran.

Phoebe Judge

When Lynne Cox was a teenager, she was a competitive long-distance ocean swimmer. Six days a week, she'd wake up early to swim at a beach near her house in Southern California. Typically, she'd swim back and forth in the deep water between a really long pier and a stone jetty. She was training for a 21-mile swim.

Lynne Cox

It was March, and I was 17 years old, and I was going for a morning swim. It was before the sun had risen, and the water was pitch black. I started swimming between the Seal Beach Pier and the jetty. And so my plan was just to go in and stretch out and swim for an hour and be done and then go hang out with my high school friends. But I started swimming, and as I got closer to the pier, I felt the water hollowing out around me, meaning that I could feel something underneath pulling me forward.

It felt like something really big was swimming below. And so in my mind, I'm thinking, oh my gosh. Is it a seal? And I'm like, no, it's too big for a seal. And it's like, OK, is it a dolphin? No, it's not a dolphin. And then I thought, oh my god. Could it be a shark? What is this below me?

Phoebe Judge

I mean, this is most people's biggest nightmare on Earth, that they would be swimming in the water, and that they would feel something large underneath them.

Lynne Cox

And I think that that's normal, to be scared. I mean, when you can't see anything below, but you can feel something, and you can also not just feel the motion but the presence of something. But when you do these long swims, you have to keep your mind under control because if you freak out, then you're out of a swim. So I kept talking to myself and saying, OK, you're not sure what it is. Just move closer to shore. So I swam closer to shore, but this thing kept swimming around near me. The water kept getting hollowed out.

And I realized that whatever was there was still there, and it had not gone away. And I was just ready to turn and race out of the water. But there was an old man named Steve who worked in the bait shop on the pier, and he sort of watched over me and watched what was going on with the water. And I could see him standing under a light on the pier, waving toward me to come, to swim out to him. And he yelled at me and said, Lynne, come here. There's a baby whale swimming with you.

Phoebe Judge

So you stick your head out of the water, and he's waving, and he says, there's a baby whale?

Lynne Cox

Yeah. He said a baby whale, and I'm like, really? I have never seen a baby whale in the wild before. So he told me that the baby whale had lost his mother, and I needed to stay with the baby whale.

Phoebe Judge

Why did you need to stay with the baby whale? Why couldn't you get out?

Lynne Cox

He was afraid that if I turned to go to shore that the baby whale would follow me and possibly could run aground, but he also thought that maybe the baby whale will just swim off and be totally lost. So his idea was that you just need to stay with the baby whale.

Phoebe Judge

It can be dangerous for baby whales to be separated from their mothers. There are predators around, like sharks, and also, young whales are totally dependent on their mother's milk to survive. A while back, there was a story about a baby whale getting so lost it tried to suckle on a yacht.

Lynne Cox

That sense of being lost was something I related to with the baby whale.

Phoebe Judge

Is it easy as a swimmer to get off course?

Lynne Cox

Yeah. And I think the thing that most people don't know about when you're in the ocean-- if you get lost, and you try to continue going, you start swimming in a huge circle. And that makes it more difficult for anyone to find you. And so the mother may not find the baby ever.

Phoebe Judge

At this point, Lynne still couldn't see the baby whale beneath her in the water. She only saw bits and pieces of it swimming.

Lynne Cox

You could only see part of him. I mean, you couldn't see his whole head or face. You just saw his back. And the baby gray whale then surfaced, and he swam over toward me. It was scary. It was scary because he was so big, and I was not sure how to deal with him. I mean, how do I interact with a whale?

Steve, though, was so calm and assured that it was just fine to be in the water with a baby that I thought, well, he knows. He's this old guy that's been out here forever, and so he knows everything about the ocean. So I will do what he told me to do is, and then I'll just stay out here with this whale until we find his mother.

Phoebe Judge

Steve got on the radio to all the fishing boat captains and lifeguards along the coast and told them to keep their eyes out for a large gray whale traveling north. He told Lynne to swim back towards the jetty. Once she got to the jetty, she turned around and swam back to the pier again. The baby stayed with her.

Lynne Cox

We were sort of side by side, or he was right underneath me or very, very close. And at one point, he just rolled over and looked right at me. And it was just the most amazing thing in the world because I felt like he sees me and I see him, and we're together.

Phoebe Judge

How big is a baby gray whale's eye?

Lynne Cox

It was sort of the size, I'd say, of a plum or a orange. It's large. And it was dark, dark, dark brown, almost black.

Phoebe Judge

Did you try to talk to him? Were you talking to him?

Lynne Cox

Yes. [LAUGHS] Yes, yes. I mean, I was like-- as if he would understand-- but I told him he'd be OK and that things will work out, and we'll find his mother. And I'm thinking, oh my gosh. He can't understand my words, but maybe he'll understand the feeling or the intention.

Phoebe Judge

They swam for an hour, then another hour. Lynne started to wonder if it was even possible for the mother to find the baby. How do you find something in the ocean? She got scared that the mother might never be coming. She got scared that the mother could be dead. Maybe the mother was dead.

Some people had gathered on the pier with Steve to watch what was going on, and the fishermen out in boats were all talking to each other on the radio. One of them reported seeing a large gray whale swimming near an oil rig about a mile and a half offshore. And then, as though the baby whale was listening to the radio, it abruptly turned and started swimming in the direction of the oil rig. Normally, Lynne wouldn't swim out into the open ocean without a boat or somebody near her, but she decided to follow.

Lynne Cox

He made a point of swimming right in front of me and a little bit below so I could swim in his slipstream. And I thought, wow, I bet he learned that from his mother. I bet when they were migrating north, he was in her slipstream, and it enabled him to swim much easier than against the strong currents. And it was just so cool. I mean, because I was hardly moving at all, my arms, and I was just flying through the water.

And I just thought, wow, can he-- you know, at times, I tried to think about, how does he see me? And he must have thought, horrible swimmer, she is. [LAUGHS] He's just so beautiful, elegant, graceful in the water and just moves so effortlessly. Just one big kick of his fin, his tail fin, his fluke, and he would just move, and here I was struggling with my arms. He probably thought I needed help.

Phoebe Judge

By this time, Lynne had been in the water with the whale for almost four hours. As strong a swimmer as Lynne was, she didn't know how much longer she could be in that cold water. They swam towards the oil rig for a while but didn't see the other whale, and Lynne realized she'd have to make a decision soon.

Lynne Cox

I was used to swimming very long distances. But there were points along the way where I was getting tired and cold because I was not swimming at my normal speed. I was treading water. I was wondering where the whale was going because he was suddenly diving down deep into the water. And I think it was about four and a half hours or five hours into this time out there in the water I was getting really cold, and I realized that I was putting myself in danger now, that I could go into hypothermia. And if I got hypothermia, then I could become really disoriented, and I could also pass out in the water. It was five hours of swimming around and not really going anywhere. So I decided that I really needed to start getting back toward the pier.

Phoebe Judge

She turned around and swam back toward the pier. The whale stayed with her. Then Lynne saw a Long Beach lifeguard boat coming towards her at full speed. And when it reached her, a lifeguard told her she was out too far, but then he told her something else. A commercial fishing boat had spotted a solo whale only a half mile from the pier, where Lynne usually swam, and that the whale was now swimming in their direction.

Lynne Cox

I kept thinking, oh my god, please let him somehow hear her. Hopefully she's making some kind of noise so that he can understand that she's approaching, or maybe he's doing something that she's hearing, the cry of the baby to come and find him.

Phoebe Judge

Even though this is what she'd been hoping for, Lynne didn't quite know what to do. Full-size gray whales can be 50 feet long and weigh 90,000 pounds.

Phoebe Judge

Oh, I would have gotten so-- I would have been-- I would have gotten so-- did you get nervous about this mother coming?

Lynne Cox

I was really nervous because, again, it was like, do I stay in the water? Do I get out of the water? Do I stay with the baby? What do I do? And so I thought, well, my intention all along has been good, and the baby recognizes that. And so hopefully they're communicating, and she will understand that this has been a good thing.

Phoebe Judge

And what happened?

Lynne Cox

When she actually swam over to us, she came over very, very slowly and didn't come really close to me initially. But a few minutes later, she came right next to me. And when a mother whale comes next to you, it's like a bus pulling up beside you. And I backed away some because I was afraid. I mean, the animal is 40 feet long, 45 feet long, and to be in the water with something so huge is frightening.

I mean, because just one push of her fin or anything, I could be hurt. So I tried to tell myself, just be calm. Just float on the water, and if she doesn't want you around, you will know that very quickly. So I saw them together, and it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life, to see the mother and baby reunited. I mean, for five hours, we'd been out there swimming together.

And she came over. She approached me. And so she was so close that I thought, I'm going to touch her. I'm just going to do it because I feel like a part of this whole thing. And I touched her, and I could feel that she felt my hand on her. And it was amazing because she was so big. And then a few minutes later, they swam off.

Phoebe Judge

While Lynne swam back to the shore, the lifeguard made sure that the cargo ships around Los Angeles Harbor knew where the mother and baby were swimming. Later, boats reported seeing the two join a group of whales on their way north. When she got back to the beach, Lynne asked a lifeguard if she could use the phone to call her parents to let them know that her workout had gone longer than she expected. Then she was on her way home.

Lynne Cox

And it was so weird, though, to go from-- that's always so weird, to be in this amazing environment, the ocean, to then leave it and then go back to, OK, now what am I doing the rest of the day? It's just so strange. But I didn't tell my parents what had happened because I knew I would have been in so much trouble, because it was so irresponsible for me to swim offshore without support, without people watching the water. But I told myself it was really OK because Steve was out there watching, and the lifeguards were out there watching, and they knew what was going on. But it was still a stretch. I think now that what I did was pretty dumb, but if I was to do it again, I'd still do it because I felt like it was something I could do.

Phoebe Judge

A few weeks later, Lynne found herself off course in the ocean. She was trying to set a record, become the fastest person to swim the Catalina Channel, that 21-mile stretch off the coast of California. Lynne set out at midnight with a support boat-- a dory-- and a coach on a paddle board beside her.

Lynne Cox

On that attempt from Catalina Island, the fog came in at midnight. I got separated from my support boat, the dory, and I just had a coach on a paddle board, so we were lost in the middle of the channel at midnight. And there were ships surrounding us, and we were feeling the bow waves breaking. To be lost in the fog where you can't see more than 10 meters in front of you in the pitch blackness, and to feel and to hear ships moving around you, is absolutely terrifying. And my coach, who had had no experience in the open water, had told me to just keep swimming because eventually the crew would find us.

Phoebe Judge

But then Lynne thought of the baby whale. The way the whale, even though it lived in the water, had lost its way and ended up further and further from its mother. Lynne didn't want this to happen to her, so she stopped swimming and gave up her attempt at the record. She says she and her coach just stayed put, bobbing up and down in the water until eventually her crew picked them up.

Ira Glass

Phoebe Judge. A version of this story was on her podcast, This Is Love, from Criminal and Vox Media. Lynne Cox, who she interviewed, twice won the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel. She was also the very first person to swim across the Bering Strait from the United States to the Soviet Union. Just for the record, by the way, it can be illegal to touch a whale. So, you know, don't try this at home.

Act Three: The Year of Manic-al Thinking

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Year of Manic-al Thinking. So we now turn to another father and daughter who get abruptly thrown off the path they thought they were on, shoved off course. And in this case, we see the strange places that takes them to. Casey Wilson is a comedian. She tells the story. It begins when she's 24 years old, and her mom dies suddenly.

Casey Wilson

It happened on a family trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. My parents got there a day before my brother and me and had a nice married couple's evening. Bought a Tom Clancy novel for my dad, took a walk on the beach holding hands, fell asleep watching Sex and the City. The next morning, my dad got up earlier than my mom.

Paul Wilson

And so I went to breakfast and gathered up all the papers for her, and then I came back to the room. And lo and behold, I got just the shock of a lifetime as I realized that she wasn't doing very well at all. I mean, that's to say the least. She had turned black and blue in the two hours I had gone and left, and she had clearly died in that period of time from a heart attack.

Casey Wilson

My dad, Paul, can be a little detached when he talks about this. And it's not just that it's a tough thing for anyone to talk about. He has a really hard time talking about his feelings. But he's expressive in so many other ways. To be clear, he's a great dad. When I was eight, he built this stage for me in the backyard to put on plays and during the finale set off fireworks in the garden. He was my Girl Scout leader till I was 17. He's got a big personality. He's happy-go-lucky, generous. Makes political ads for a living, so he has friends all over the country. People call him the unofficial mayor of our neighborhood.

And my mom, Kathy, was an equally big personality. She fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, was the youngest chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus. She was an incredibly passionate person, the type who could go from anger to laughter in the same sentence, extremely funny, and, really, just fun. But the thing she'd say before anything we did was, let's have a big old time. And so for her to just be gone so suddenly-- she was only 54-- even my dad, who has a hard time expressing feelings, the word he uses is brutal.

Paul Wilson

It was absolutely, instantly paralyzing, instantly frightening, and disorienting.

Casey Wilson

In a state of shock, my dad did something really strange, something I've never heard of anyone doing.

Paul Wilson

Well, I remember that back in the day, we had film. And so I noticed that I had a few images left on the roll.

Casey Wilson

This was 2005.

Paul Wilson

And I was alone with your mom, and I decided to capture the moment with a few stills. What I didn't realize is how gruesome it really did look, that when? Life is gone, it is gone.

Casey Wilson

And, Dad, why was your instinct in that moment to take photos of Mom?

Paul Wilson

Well, I just felt like we might want this. Now, it turned out we didn't want it, but we went ahead and have it.

Casey Wilson

I found these photos by accident. I was home about a year after she died and flipping through rolls and rolls of photos my dad took, and intermingled between pictures of his softball team were about a dozen photos of my mom, dead. And one was a selfie. I threw them on the ground and just remember screaming and crying and my dad saying, oops. Forgot those were on that roll. I thought, who would do this? Take a selfie with a dead body?

And then how do you forget you have these photos and just leave them out for your kids to find? I mean, I was equally unmoored by my mom's death. I moved a mattress into my closet. I set up a shrine to my mom around me and spent hours crying in the darkness of that strange cave. But my dad dealt with it very differently. He made choices I've never understood, and we've never spoken about it. Talking for this story is the first conversation we've ever had about that time.

Let's start with the funeral. My dad became obsessed with the idea that we were not only going to want it filmed, but filmed right. So he hired a crew to do it as a three-camera shoot, like a TV sitcom, to make into a DVD that he'd give out as stocking stuffers. Just what everyone wants for Christmas. To give you a sense of how hardcore my dad was about all this, when I gave my eulogy, the sound cut out during the last five minutes. So he insisted on bringing me into the sound booth at his office to do ADR, which in TV and film is when you rerecord any dialogue that got messed up. I work as an actress, and I've done this many times. But to be directed by my father saying goodbye to my mom was surreal.

Paul Wilson

And so I had you rerecord. And so I pushed you a little bit, and you weren't into it. It was very low energy. And I said, come on, Casey. You've got to do this with a little more enthusiasm, a little more oomph.

Casey Wilson

A little more oomph. You wanted me to be-- you wanted me to feel it more.

Paul Wilson

Yeah.

Casey Wilson

And, quote, "really go there."

Paul Wilson

And to cry.

Casey Wilson

And to cry, yeah.

Paul Wilson

So I had you do it with a little more oomph, and we finally got a good take.

Casey Wilson

But why did it feel so important to you at the time?

Paul Wilson

That's a good question. It just felt like that was an act of completion, and we needed it. We needed it done.

Casey Wilson

The final product did drop by Christmas. It was a three-and-a-half-hour two-parter that, I'm guessing, not one person watched. Next, my dad decided to, quote, "take the funeral on the road," meaning he set up six additional funerals in different cities across the country for his friends. If the funeral in our hometown was the Broadway show, my dad embarked on the national tour. He booked hotel conference rooms, brought along a life-size photo of my mom, and redelivered his own eulogy. At some of these, there were 60 or 70 people.

At the time, I could not understand why he would put himself through this again and again. The way I saw it back then, based on his daily updates, these felt less like funerals and more like huge parties for him. I mean, a lot of these people never even met my mom, which left me wondering, what was the point?

Paul Wilson

I wanted her, meaning your mom, I wanted her to feel like we had really loved her and really cherished her.

Casey Wilson

Yeah. Did you think at the time you felt more like, I'm doing this as sort something to keep busy or drive towards or do instead of maybe, like, feeling?

Paul Wilson

To me, this was healing. This was how I healed.

Casey Wilson

Weeks after my dad got back from the funeral tour, just three months after my mom died, I got a phone call from him I never would have imagined I'd get so soon. I was driving in LA, where I live, and he told me he was going to start dating again. Then he amended that and said he had actually already started dating again. I found it unthinkable. How could he possibly be ready to date? It felt so dishonoring of my mom. I've never understood it and never asked why he started dating so soon till we had this conversation. The way he tells it, it's like it happened to him. This was not what I expected.

Paul Wilson

So I'm at the bar, and I had my back to the windows. And all of a sudden, I hear pounding on the window. And I turn around, and it's somebody I don't know, and they are motioning for me to go outside. I go outside, and they instantly start kissing me. Don't ask me why.

Casey Wilson

What?

Paul Wilson

Yeah. Maybe they had had a little too much to drink.

Casey Wilson

Wait. Wait a minute. This is harassment.

Paul Wilson

Yes. Just out of the blue. And I go, whoa--

Casey Wilson

You're telling me a woman kissed you from seeing you in a window?

Paul Wilson

Yeah, through the window. Yes.

Casey Wilson

This woman was a complete stranger and, to my eye, a predator. But to my dad, this felt like a meet-cute in When Harry Met Sally. And not long after that, the floodgates opened. He started dating everyone. My mom's good friends, Mom's first cousin, a C-SPAN anchor, everyone. He literally-- he asked a woman out he met in a crosswalk. When I think of my dad at this time, it's like he was a blurry image. He just never stopped moving.

Some people say that the first year after a loved one dies is the worst, but for him, as he entered year two, things ramped up even more. He was acting manic. He'd call every day with these new, grandiose ideas and big plans that no one could talk him out of. At one point, he attempted to wallpaper our living room with wrapping paper because, as he told me, why pay all that money for wallpaper when wrapping paper at the Paper Source is just as nice? He bought a woman in our church new teeth. And then there was his hair.

Paul Wilson

So I walked into the woman who'd been cutting my hair, and she was a senior expert. And I walked in, and I said, I want to do something different, and I pulled out a $20 bill. And I held it up to her, and I said, I want to look like this. And it's Andrew Jackson, and he has long waves of hair that go back across his ear and to the back of his head. And I go, that's how I want to look.

Casey Wilson

This senior expert gave him a large barrel perm. He texted me a picture of himself in curlers. It is a shock I have never gotten over and one I hope no one else has to go through. Then, he had a run-in with the law. One night at a restaurant, he picked a fight with a maitre d' on behalf of an older woman who was not being seated, and the cops were called. And as they were dragging him out, my dad, who hadn't eaten yet, managed to rally the whole bar into throwing nuts into his mouth, shouting, "Nut me!" as he passed.

He called me later that night laughing, just thinking I would get such a kick out of the story and his great comedic exit line. And he was shocked by how concerned I was. Now, just to say, my dad was seeing a grief therapist at the time. And, unbeknownst to me, she helped explain what was happening to him. The sudden loss of his wife had triggered some manic behavior. It was a reaction to grief she'd seen before. There's actually a term for this, "bereavement mania," manic behavior caused by the stress of losing a loved one.

And this kind of mania can happen in people with no other history of mood disorders, and it can happen just once and not recur. But at the time, I didn't know any of that. And so I was just horrified by the things he was doing and the places he was showing up. Our neighbors across the street told him, Paul, come by any time, whatever you need, the way people do when someone dies. And he sure did. He showed up unannounced in their hot tub more than once. I told him, Dad, no one wants you in their hot tub every night. These are hard words you're making me say to you, but you're giving me no choice.

Or there was the time someone stole his car, and he tried to set up a sting to get it back. I was so worried about him, I tried to get him to come stay with me so I could keep an eye on him. And when these tactics failed, I threw fits, and I cried. And he would actually yell, stop trying to control me! I'm fine! He kept trying to explain he was OK and that, in fact, he was having fun. Sometimes I'd felt like I'd lost my mom and my dad. And then, it all came to a head at a wedding.

Casey Wilson

Can we talk about Amanda's wedding?

Paul Wilson

Yeah, but I don't think it's really relevant here. Do you?

Casey Wilson

You don't think Amanda's wedding is relevant to the story of your manic phase after mom died?

Paul Wilson

Well, I mean, all right. You start it off.

Casey Wilson

I understand why he's hesitant. It's the only thing he did during that period that still embarrasses him. My dad loves weddings. They're his Super Bowl. It was for my best friend, Amanda, and my dad was the unofficial father of the bride. He was also, as always, filming the wedding. Those three cameras were back, baby. So we were all on the dance floor outside, and he was in his element, the life of the party. And then, suddenly, I couldn't find him.

To my horror, I looked up and found he'd made his way into the house, where no one was allowed, and was standing in this room that overlooked the dance floor. He was framed by huge floor-to-ceiling windows, like a fishbowl, and my dad had turned this living room into his own personal stage. He was hoisting up what looked like a dead body, but it turned out to be a bridesmaid he'd rolled up in an area rug so that just her head was popping out. Thankfully, she was in on the bit.

He proceeded to bob her back and forth between his arms, like the way you see guys on the boardwalk try to juggle a stick between two other sticks. And then, unfortunately, he stuck an empty beer bottle through the zipper of his pants and pretended to pee. Everyone was laughing, but it wasn't funny. It felt scary to see him like that. My brother, my friend's uncle, and I raced into the house, and we dragged him out across the giant lawn. And he started putting on this baby voice, saying, me no want to stop having fun, just begging us to go back to the party.

We finally got him to agree to go home. And as he was getting on the bus, he turned to us and asked if we would hold his camera equipment for a second so he could tie his shoe. The moment our hands were full, he did a fake out, and he took off running back across the lawn, jumping over hedges to get to the party, yelling, I'm free! I'm free! Turned out the hedges were filled with poison ivy, which landed him in the hospital the next day. I didn't know until we talked that this moment changed something for my dad. He realized--

Paul Wilson

What am I doing here? Maybe I'm a little out of control. And I started to say, I better bring it down a couple of notches.

Casey Wilson

So that night really was kind of this turning point for you, huh? That's so interesting.

Paul Wilson

I think so. That was certainly one that slowed me down, and which I needed at that point. Yep.

Casey Wilson

I really do think that was also a big moment for me because it was just the moment that I really gave up. I was just like, I can't control this man anymore. It doesn't feel good to do that to you, and I also simply can't. I don't think anyone can. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you-- because I think when mom died we just grieved her very differently. I really was hell bent that you were grieving wrong and I was grieving right, and I'm kind of laying in bed and feeling, and you're not feeling, to my eye, how I was.

Paul Wilson

Well, I think it was just a different process for me. And I felt-- I felt the grief, but I also felt this compulsion, almost, to be the funny man, to live a little bit. And at the same time that there is this tremendous sadness, there is the beginning of a little freedom. It just felt different, kind of pleasant, to be free of shackles.

Casey Wilson

I guess I sort of-- the reason I thought it felt wrong to me was even when you say you wanted to feel free of shackles, it sort of implies that mom was your shackles as opposed to grieving mom, in a way.

Paul Wilson

Yeah, and I don't mean it to be your mom. But it was just the notion that there were constraints on how all of us live our life, and the constraints were off.

Casey Wilson

What he means is that when the stable, suburban life he'd built for himself suddenly shattered, he thought, if I have to start over, then I'm just going to do me. He got this idea, I was surprised to learn, from someone at my mom's wake.

Paul Wilson

A woman who had lost her husband not that long ago, about 14, 15 months earlier, she came up to hug me. And I remember asking her, when does it get easier? And she just said, it doesn't. And that said it all.

Casey Wilson

So he decided, why not enjoy life? In all those times I thought I was being helpful and protecting him, I was actually making things worse.

Paul Wilson

I think what made me a little angry at times was how you wanted to control me and control my emotions, and they weren't controllable.

Casey Wilson

Yeah. Would you say I treated you kind of like a child?

Paul Wilson

No. Maybe just a little bit. But you were trying to kind of keep me on the rails, keep me in a straight and narrow. And I felt like you were trying to say, no, no. This is how you have to feel. You have to be very sad.

Casey Wilson

Yeah. And what did you feel about me and how I kind of handled it and did it? Did grief, if you will.

Paul Wilson

You were pretty consistent in not liking anything.

Casey Wilson

Were you worried about me?

Paul Wilson

Very much so. Yeah. When someone's sleeping in their closet, I think that's cause for concern.

Casey Wilson

From your perspective, from where you were at, did you feel like I was grieving wrong?

Paul Wilson

Yeah, I guess I did. I mean, I didn't feel like it was the most noble thing to be sleeping in your closet for over a year.

Casey Wilson

You were very disturbed by that. As were--

Paul Wilson

Yeah, I thought it was--

Casey Wilson

--friends.

Paul Wilson

--thought it was disturbing

Casey Wilson

I know. But isn't it funny, at the time, I thought, there's nothing weird about this at all. It's not weird at all that I found a twin-sized mattress in the garage of my building, and I have it sticking half in the closet, half out. And before I would go to bed, I would just take a swig of this NyQuil every night, and then I would go through her datebook just to see her handwriting and to see all the upcoming events. It's almost like a mystery you want to put together, and I'd think, oh-- you know, it would say, Fletcher's graduation and doctor's appointments. And you're just kind of like, wow, to not, not that this is such an original thought, but to have no notion or knowledge or something sad about someone planning out a future that's just never to be.

While you can put a label on my dad's route of mania, you can also put a label on mine. Depression. In a way, they are two sides of the same coin. For my dad to have fun, go out on dates, I don't know. Maybe it was healthier.

Paul Wilson

Why did it upset you so that you thought somebody was replacing your mom? Why did it bother you so that, you know--

Casey Wilson

Oh, it was horrible. It was horrible. Horrible to think of. Unfathomable. I really had it in my head that to move on was like an insult to mom, as opposed to you moving forward because you had to. It was excruciating.

Paul Wilson

Well, I can appreciate what you're saying. Yeah. Yeah.

Casey Wilson

But I do feel I was too hard on you now that I'm married. And I really am of the mind now, God, however anybody has to get through this is the right way.

Paul Wilson

Yeah, that's right.

Casey Wilson

And just, you know, there is no way.

Paul Wilson

Yeah. There is no way.

Casey Wilson

It wasn't until eight years after my mom's death that our grief lifted a little. Not all of it. It will always be there. But I remember the moment that it lifted enough to finally feel like it wasn't crushing us. It happened on a trip my brother Fletcher, my dad, and I took to the beach. It was just the three of us, our family now, missing a limb. On the plane, my dad told us that he had met someone, a woman named Marjorie, a speechwriter and professor. And we could tell in his voice that this woman was different.

He was in love. And for the first time, I was flooded with happiness for my dad that he was moving on. By this point, I was also dating my now-husband, David, and my brother shared that when he got home from this trip, he was going to propose to his now-wife, Kathleen. And so I remember on this trip, there was a feeling in the air that this would be the last trip just the three of us. We didn't talk about it, but we knew. We all scuba dive, and I remember the dive we went on. There we were, 100 feet below the surface.

It was very calm. But I turned and looked to my right and was shocked to see a literal abyss, just a cliff and darkness below. It was eerie. But we drifted away from it and kept swimming, alternating who was ahead and who was behind. And that's how I like to think of us, swimming together towards the surface.

Ira Glass

Casey Wilson is the author of the memoir The Wreckage of My Presence. You can also see her in The Shrink Next Door on Apple TV.

[MUSIC - "LOST MY WAY" BY BONNY DOON]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's program was produced by Elna Baker with help from Chris Benderev. The people who put together today's program include Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Michal Comite, Rebecca Davis, Aviva DeKornfeld, Kyla Jones, Tobin Low, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alix Spiegel, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Ari Saperstein, George Green, Steve Callahan, Nadia Wilson, Lauren Spohrer, Nick Pyenson, Laela Sayigh, Mark Elliott, and Madeleine Dong.

Yibin Li, who you heard at the beginning of our show, runs the OneMusic Project, which is musicians from around the world trying to bring chamber music to a bigger audience. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 programs for absolutely free. Also, there's videos, there's lists of favorite shows if you're looking for something to listen to, tons of other stuff there. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who has a foolproof strategy for playing Marco Polo.

Lynne Cox

You start swimming in a huge circle, and that makes it more difficult for anyone to find you.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "LOST MY WAY" BY BONNY DOON]