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The art of remembrance: How one man’s surfboard became a touching tribute to the lives of thousands of people

By Lydia Armstrong, CNN

A funeral oration or an obituary is traditionally how we honor those who have died. But the way we remember loved ones is changing, as thousands of families turn to one project using TikTok and a surfboard.

Since the death of his father, Tony Mendioroz dreamed of reuniting him with the place that he loved the most — the ocean.

Randy Mendioroz’s life revolved around water. He was a specialist in building water parks, wave machines and swimming pools. The Mendioroz family were also regulars at the coast, growing up five minutes from some of San Diego’s best beaches.

“My dad was my hero,” Mendioroz told CNN Sport. “He worked hard his whole life to give me and my family a great life.”

Randy passed away from liver cancer in 2013. Feeling lost, Mendioroz began to search for ways to feel a connection with his dad again. He found solace in the sea and surfing, but always felt it was an experience he should have shared with his father.

“We did a lot together, I even worked for him for a while — but we never experienced surfing together,” says Mendioroz.

So, when Mendioroz stumbled across a video of a man offering to grant Randy “one last wave,” he jumped at the chance.

The healing power of the ocean

The man behind the video was Rhode Island surfer, Dan Fischer. He too had lost his father, Karl Fischer, to cancer and had turned to the ocean to feel closer with him.

After one unforgettable trip into the waves off the coast of Newport, with his father’s name etched onto his surfboard, Fisher realized the potential healing power this simple activity could have when dealing with loss.

“Through surfing … I took him out there because he always loved the ocean and him and I were adventure buddies,” Fischer told CNN Sport.

“It was a sort of a prophetic moment I guess, I felt connected to him.”

When he got back to the shore, Fischer posted a TikTok video, encouraging others dealing with grief to reach out and have the names of their lost loved ones written on his surfboard.

The Mendioroz family were one of thousands of others who got in touch from around the world, sparking the beginning of the “One Last Wave Project.

The project prompted Fischer to document each of his trips to the beach as names continued to cover his board.

Mendioroz wrote in, knowing this was the perfect chance to grant his father something he would have loved and believed in.

“He loved water, he loved the ocean and he loved selfless acts of kindness,” he said. “Having worked a lot with surfers, and wave pools, I believe he would think that the project was awesome. He would jump all over it.

“I love that his name is on that board, and he can be in the ocean again and feel it in a way.”

Comforting image

For Louise Bennett from Rugby, England, the project was an opportunity to remember her son Fred as the adventurous and fearless child that he was.

“He was always on the go, he always wanted to do things that were dangerous, that were too fast, that were too high,” Bennett told CNN Sport.

Fred had wanted to learn to surf and planned on going to a surf school in North Shields, in the north east of England. “We would sort of joke because Fred never felt cold,” said Bennett. “He was probably the only child who would want to do surf school in the North Sea.”

Due to Fred’s energy, it came as a shock when Fred was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 13 years old. He underwent several treatments, but Fred’s cancer was too aggressive and he passed away just after his 14th birthday.

Bennett has found comfort in envisaging him exploring the world and within the nature.

“I think I always take comfort from the fact that he is elsewhere,” she said. “The ‘One Last Wave’ project is so beautiful because it’s such a comforting image. There is that movement to them and there is that kind of adventure.”

United through loss

The project has been a powerful force in creating a global community and support network for those going through loss.

This was the case for the mothers of Ruby Fuller and Isabel McEgan from Crystal Palace in London and Liverpool in the north west of England.

Both young girls lost their lives to cancer in 2020. Ruby was just 18 years old and Isabel died seven days before her 20th birthday.

Although Ruby and Isabel did not know each other at the time, their mother’s Emma Jones and Amanda McEgan found friendship, united through the painful experience of losing a child.

To each other’s surprise, they had both written in to be involved in the project.

“We were both thrilled to know the girls would be able to ride ‘One Last Wave’ together,” said McEgan. “Knowing the kind of girls they were, it seems so appropriate thinking about them together, in perpetuity, on Dan’s board.”

Ruby and Isabel had both been adventurous, avid swimmers and lovers of the sea. Knowing this, Emma and Amanda have found a sense of peace in knowing that their daughters had been reunited with the waves.

“There is something so magical and mysterious about the ocean — sitting on a shore and staring at the sea can be incredibly soothing to a grief-stricken heart,” said Jones.

“I think to know that her name [Ruby’s] has been handwritten on a surfboard, by someone who never knew her, alongside the names of so many others, would be incredibly comforting to her.”

The global community has also been a huge driving force in helping the project grow. Having resonated deeply with the project, the Mendioroz family offered to help in any way they could with design services, funds and connections with a surfboard shaper to create future boards.

A new outlook

The project has also made a lasting impact on Fischer too, allowing him to reflect on his own journey of overcoming loss.

“It has allowed me to realize again that you aren’t alone in your grief. You’re better able to cope with it when you do it in a shared way and you share your experience and you’re vulnerable with it,” he said.

“I used to be out there alone on the waves in my own self trying to heal and now I look down at the names and they’re spread up and down the board.

“It’s not just names on the board, its people that I feel like I know now that are out there with me.”

For the Mendioroz family, the experience has allowed them to help spread the joy of water just like Randy did and inspired them to include him in all the things they love going forward.

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