ENCINITAS — Christian Ziegler has good memories of rising at the crack of dawn on weekdays to surf before work.
Normally, Vaughn, his son, was already awake — both of his hands busy laying down Lego bricks. Christian would listen to his son explain plans for ambitious structures, and then go surfing. Once Christian returned home, Vaughn would always ask him if he got barreled. More often than not, Christian noted that he didn’t.
“His standard reply was ‘I can’t wait to be a big man like you so I can go out and surf with you at Swami’s,’” Christian said.
Vaughn, who passed away at the age of 6, finally got a chance to surf with his dad. This past Saturday, surfers paddled out in remembrance of Vaughn.
“I know he was out there with me in body and in spirit,” Christian said shortly after the paddle-out at Swami’s Beach.
As they bobbed up and down with each passing wave, friends and family held hands in a circle around Christian, who recalled his favorite memories of Vaughn, including their morning ritual. Then, pastor Jason Graves shared a prayer.
“I know that Vaughn is watching down on us from above,” Christian said.
Vaughn’s health issues began two years ago. After dropping Vaughn off at preschool, Christian received a phone call five hours later — Vaughn suffered an aneurysm rupture in his brain while taking a nap.
“Your whole world, in a matter of minutes, is just taken from you,” Christian said.
Doctors removed a blood clot the size of a softball, and later performed a craniectomy to reduce the swelling in Vaughn’s brain. Although given little chance, he survived the procedure, though he never regained his cognitive abilities.
Tears welling up in his eyes, Christian said it was especially hard for him and his wife, Susan, because the aneurysm came without warning. His son appeared healthy and there wasn’t a family history of blood clots.
“Every doctor we spoke to, all the experts, they all said the same thing: It was very, very rare,” Christian said. “It was just bad luck.”
“You don’t know when the last time is that you’re going to hear and speak to your kid,” Christian added. “Boy, you sure play that moment over and over in your mind.”
Christian quit his job to care of Vaughn for the next 18 months at home, which involved giving him medicine, baths, moving him every two hours and meeting an assortment of other needs.
With the sheer amount of care required, this time was very demanding for Christian and his family. And leaving the home as an entire family — Susan and Christian also have a 6-month-old son and 2-year-old daughter — was essentially impossible.
Even with the challenges, the family takes pride in that Vaughn was well cared for.
“It was an honor to be able to take care of him; it was an honor to give him the necessary treatment,” Christian said. “We wanted to make sure he was treated with respect and dignity.”
This past December, Vaughn succumbed to a respiratory infection. Christian said he’ll always remember Vaughn as a respectful, content kid who made a point to help others.
“Vaughn would have been a civil servant in some capacity; he always wanted to be a fireman, or a rescue guy as he called it,” Christian said. “He always wanted to fix things.”
He added that Vaughn loved splashing in the tide pools at Terra Mar. Vaughn also liked playing in the sand and watching his dad catch waves at Swami’s Beach — the first spot Christian surfed when the family moved to San Diego from the East Coast four years ago. Eventually, he became a board member at the Swami’s Surfing Association.
Because of Christian and Vaughn’s connection to Swami’s, Christian’s friends from the association approached him with the idea of a paddle-out at the break.
“I didn’t surf for four months,” Christian said. “I had guys from the club calling me with support and asking what I was up to. The outpouring was great. I agreed to the paddle-out, but told them I needed some time to process this.”
Gil Galoway, a member of the association, said he surfed with Christian every morning, and that attending the paddle-out was the least he could do.
“I came here to show him my moral support as a surfer and father,” Gil Galoway said. “One of my sons is a cancer survivor. I felt like I was going to lose my son. It’s not close to what he’s going through, but I feel his pain and wanted to empathize.”
“We wanted to rally around him,” said Bob Coletti, another association member.
Christian said he couldn’t thank those who took part in the paddle-out enough.
“It was truly amazing looking around that circle and seeing how many people I’ve befriended,” Christian said.
Slowly, Christian said that the Zieglers are healing thanks largely to friends and family.
“It still stings,” Christian said. “But we laugh and smile again.”