Snorkeling to Africa

March 28, 2012

Following fish, and looking for more fish

We are on vacation. Spending the whole two weeks of school vacation with our families: first with DH and his family, and a second week with my beloved sister, Auntie Gaela.  It is heaven, with a side order of coconut tart.

Here in the tropics, nothing much ever happens. The TV screen stays black, books are devoured.  The girls are relaxed, sleeping late, and spending most of every day soaking in clear blue water with snorkel masks smushing into their faces.

Abigail tends to hug the shoreline. Literally, I mean, swishing around in 6 or 8 inches of water just a yard or two from the shore, her arms stretched out in front of her to sort through the tiny pebbles. She will agree to go out further with one of us holding her hand, but she prefers to play things safe, ideally in less than a foot of water with a buoyant belt around her waist.

Grace, on the other hand, hates the belt, and will follow a fish, or a turtle, or even a barracuda, for ten or twenty minutes without ever looking up. When she snorkels the long shorelines of the bays with her Dad or with our cousin Kate, both of whom have 30 years of snorkeling experience, they can lose themselves in the turtle grass, the elk coral, and the schools of blue tang. They find cuttlefish and squid. They seek out nurse sharks. They find the biggest snappers and groupers they have ever seen.  They come back with fish tales you would not believe:  Angels and spotted eagle rays and sharp-toothed nightmare dinosaur fish four feet long.

But Kate and DH both left the island earlier than we did.  I snorkel much less adventurously than they do.  Which meant that yesterday, having promised to “stay close,” Grace put on her snorkel and fins, hopped in the ocean, and flipped away, solo.

Quite suddenly, and despite her promises, she was far, far away. She sped out over the shallows, then out 100 yards, then 200. I shouted for her to come back closer, but she never lifted her head. Other people on the beach started to look at me funny.

“She doesn’t come back,” I wanted to explain to them.  They would not have understood.

Later, she told me she had been, in her own words, “following fish, and looking for more fish.”  In Grace AquaWorld, there are never enough fish, and she is never far away.  From my view high on the beach, I could see her swimming out in the very center of the bay. She was clearly snorkeling her way straight to Africa. And she was not looking back.

Some people have said — not only in my hearing, but often to my face — that I worry too much. I don’t generally hear this about most of the things I do, but I hear this a lot in reference to Grace and her choice of adventures. (I may also hear this from DH himself, who is not an overcautious person.)

Today’s NYT Motherlode Blog told the story of a wandering boy, from the perspective of his mother, Michelle Blake.  Like my own daughter, this boy as a toddler always found the edge of any space he was, and walked straight past it. Now, as an adult, he has left home and wandered to Cambodia, and back to a dicey neighborhood in Manhattan.  And now he is telling his mother, in no uncertain terms, to back the heck off.  No, he does not want her help finding him an apartment.  He will, he says, do this on his own.  And she must accept and bear, her overwhelming fear on his behalf.

I nearly wept in recognition. Like Blake’s son, Grace has been wandering away from us since the day she learned to walk. She did not, as a toddler, ever look back to see if we were following her. She was just out there on the edge, wandering without a particular destination, perhaps following a whim or a butterfly. Following fish, looking for more fish.

I did not have my snorkel or fins with me yesterday.  And Grace was still not raising her head. She was just making a very fast beeline for the farthest buoys. My constant, harping, eternal, endless reminders aside, she was far beyond her depth, and completely alone. She was not along the shoreline, where her Dad or Kate had taken her. She was way out in the middle, over an enormous reef, close to the place where waves break.

Two voices were at war in my head.  “Oh, just relax; she’s fine,” said the voice of the people who like to say things like that.  If you yourself have never watched Grace get herself fully lost, you are probably thinking this very same thing about me:  I am that overbearing mother whom everyone hates. I know this voice, because I don’t just hear it; sometimes I think it of my own self.

However, my own hard-won wisdom told me that she was much further out than the little pairs and trios of adults at the furthest edges of what felt safe; more importantly, she had no idea where she was — not how far, and not how deep.

“She’s out too far,” I said to my sister. “I have to go out there if she’s going to hear me.” So without flippers or mask or anything but my rising panic, I set straight out.

I’m a steady swimmer, not a fast or an athletic one. I was never one of those cute lifeguard girls in the red suits at the shore. So I breast-stroked my way into the waves, stopping now and then to shout her name as loudly as I could. Once I got out a bit, I could no longer see her all that well, but when I could, I saw that she continued to pull further and further away.

“Grace!” I called, and took in a mouthful of salt water. “Grace! Grace! Grace! COME BACK NOW!”

This is, I suppose, exactly the sort of unpleasant and noisy behavior that makes other people so uncomfortable and leads to them telling me “Not to worry,” or “She’ll come back. Just wait.”  This looks grasping and awful when I do it, and I know they think I am overreacting.  She will be fine.  She will return.

Of course, if the 12 years since she learned to walk are any indication, this is simply not true.

The further I went, the hoarser I became. I kicked and suddenly felt my knee scrape hard against a rough rock. The reef that I had assumed was six feet below me was just a few inches. You might think this was good news, and made things safer rather than more dangerous, but really nobody is supposed to touch coral. It’s bad for the coral, but as I learned a few seconds later, can also be deeply unpleasant for the person who gets too close. A few strokes after the knee-scrape, I reached out and felt the spine of a sea urchin plunge into my hand.

Before I had been scared for her. Just this side of terrified really, knowing that she was on her way into the shipping lane, a wind-up toy with no off switch that I had to chase down and trap.

But once my hand began to throb and to sting, I was suddenly scared for both of us. And angry. My knee hurt bad, but my hand hurt much worse. I had been swimming at my own version of a sprint, yelling all the way, and while I was jacked up on adrenaline, I was starting to breathe too hard.

Grace suddenly tacked to the right rather than continuing out.  She was still swimming away from me, but on the perpendicular, and not any further from shore.  I was feeling too tired to wave at her, but a few seconds later my desperate words finally caught her attention.


She looked at me through her foggy goggles and seemed completely surprised.  She wasn’t particularly unhappy that I was interrupting her lovely fishy snorkel, but rather seemed baffled that I was there at all.  But as I continued to yell, I scared her too. “We have to go back right now. I am so tired, Grace! And hurt.”  I was panting a little, leaving words out of my sentences.  “Sea Urchin spine in my hand.”

This got her attention. She went a little white and suddenly seemed prepared to listen. Neither one of us was particularly sure what my brush with the urchin would mean for the future of my hand.

“I can’t see. Or tread water over these rocks. You lead us back so I don’t hit anything.”

At the very same moment, she and I both quite suddenly realized the danger I had put us in. That she had put us in. That despite all my years of chasing her, of admonishing her, of finding every way I possibly can to get her to remember where she was and where she was going, we were both in over our heads, surrounded by an enormous reef of rough edges and spines, pushed around by strange waves and unknown currents.  We were very, very far from shore, and I was more tired than I should be from chasing my wandering girl.

(A complicating fact you will want to know: she was not winded in the least.   As her parents, DH and I have often remarked that we have never actually witnessed the edge of Grace’s endurance, or her appetite for distance. She was not then, and rarely has she ever been, the slightest bit tired by steady physical activity. Sprints wind her for sure, but she is never fatigued by even the longest hike, or an entire day bobbing in the waves and swimming.  This — like the reef under us — might also at first glance seem like good news, but really her incredible engine means that she can never get far enough to learn a lesson without actually getting somewhere dangerously far away. )

You can guess from the fact that I am writing this that we got back to shore. All the way back, my heart was pounding from anger, fear, yelling, and a crazed sort of pathetic fast breast stroking. My knee was bloody and my hand throbbed when it was not stinging.

Worst, I was embarrassed that I had let her go in the first place, and that I had been so ungainly myself in retrieving her.  As my sister swam towards us in the water, looking concerned and holding out Abigail’s buoyant waistbelt, I felt like such an awful, awful fool.

I will, I am sure, do this stupid trick again and again.  Like Michelle Blake, I will probably do it longer than I need to, and get to the point where I will not even be able to know where she’s wandered to at all.  So far, we are not there yet.  She still looks happy enough to return when I go chasing off after her, frantic for her safety.  She apologizes, sincerely sorry.  And for a few days, there is a lot less wandering.  Today, when she snorkeled, she even remembered the boundaries I had set, and looked up every few minutes so we could trade a thumbs-up.

I probably always will wish things could be different. I would love to be that chilled out mom who sits on the shore, reading her book and never looking up.  I want her to know where she is so that I can forget.  I want to be the carefree mom who lets her child splash for hours without a second glance.  I would love to say, “Sure, go off to the deli, to the playground, to the movies without me.”

And then, I would love to go back to what I was doing, following my own fish, looking for more. I want the freedom to be just as absorbed in what I am doing as she is, trusting that she knows where she is headed, and how to get home.

Yet, if Michelle Blake’s essay is any indication, I will likely continue to despair that neither of us will ever be truly free of the pull of the other: she moving fast past the edge of my endurance, and me reining her in, pulling her back, shepherding her back to the shore.

Terence Gilheany March 29, 2012 at 6:39 am

Welcome back to land, Launa and Grace. How far do we let them go? It’s easy to laugh at, and to reject, the extremes. But once one rejects the outliers there remains a huge range of options, and they change with our moods and our kids’ moods. I look forward to many (more) moments of confusion about the risk-independence spectrum in the future!

Launa March 29, 2012 at 7:28 am

I wasn’t THAT far out…was I?

Launa March 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

Yeah Grace, you were.

Katie March 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

Just days ago you wrote: “find it yourself – you live here too!” G would have found the shore again herself, but letting her drift with the currents is new territory for you. The pivotal point in the story is you telling her that she would be leading you. ‘Epic’, as the kids say…

Launa March 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

Oh you brilliant girl you.

T. March 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I’m another one of those mother’s who sticks close. And, you know, I have a very strong conviction that I am not mistaken in this. Even if only because it is the only way I can do it without getting an ulcer.

I believe that there is a really important lesson we protective parents are teaching our kids which is that it’s okay to take risks, but you need to do it with the knowledge that you are never just risking yourself. We are none of us actually independent. We are linked to other people, by physical proximity and by emotional connection, and part of growing up is seeing how the risks you take can touch other people. You may believe yourself to be indestructible, but the person driving the other car may not be. You may think you are hurting no one but yourself with risky behavior, but think of all the hearts you hold in your hands. This awareness is part of the journey to adulthood.

The moments I learned the most about risk and danger, not to mention parental love, were the times I saw in my parents the fear of what I had almost done. And their fury at me for taking such a foolish risk, and their desperate relief that I was safe, were far more instructive than any amount of independence. We focus a lot on the individual in our culture, and on personal fulfillment and personal freedom. But that feels empty to me when compared to the power of connectedness.

Bottom line, you know your kids best. Your sense of how much to worry developed along with your daughter. Trust your gut, and don’t assume that people who are more hands-off are any better at this than you are. They just have different kids.

Launa March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Oh T, I love your comment. Only now I can’t decide who is right: you or Katie. It was my terror that caused any “real” danger out there in the deep. But when would she have turned? Would she ever? I have no way to know.

Katie March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Ha! Were I standing in your flip-flops, I would have gone out there too!

As a well told story, it is poignant and timely. As a real-life situation, it was truly harrowing. I don’t doubt that there was real risk she could have drifted off prior to your heading out, and that you did the right thing. So easy for me to pick out the beautiful metaphors from the safety of the shore.

T. March 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm

You’re right, you’ll never know. But something in that primitive, instinctual, hiding-from-predators-on-the-savanna maternal part of your brain said, “Go get her.” I make a point of not ignoring those messages. I don’t care how silly or over-protective I look as long as my babies are safe from the lions.

Elaine March 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm

It’s the ocean. You have no choice but to hover. That is not bad. You’re her mom. You are responsible for her. A snorkeling trip where you get to follow your own fish is one where it’s just adults.

Laura April 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Launa – that sounds harrowing! You were so brave to go after her and I hope your hand is ok.
I would have been freaking out !

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