Saturday, August 20, 2011

Love, Limits, and the Swirly Vortex of Terror

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him!
Dory: That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

--Finding Nemo

This week, we are enjoying our yearly trip to the Outer Banks with our extended family. There are 17 of us in all: seven Scolaros, three spouses, and seven children. This is a trip I have taken every summer of my life. Before I married my husband in 2001, I made sure he understood that he was expected to make this annual pilgrimage, not merely without complaint, but with an unbridled enthusiasm to match my own. All other Scolaro family events might be negotiable (emphasis on might), but the beach trip is not.

I have so long associated this place with peaceful retreat, that when I cross the Wright Memorial Bridge, there is no need to remind myself to shift into vacation mode.  Muscle memory kicks in: My body relaxes and tension wicks away from it. My mind stops its frenetic ticking off of mental checklists, task lists, and guilt lists. The less stress I feel, the funnier my husband's jokes are, so that by the time we've reached milepost 4, he has reclaimed his status as the funniest person I know. Though I worried about it for weeks leading up to this trip, I suddenly couldn't care less how I look in my bathing suit, or if my kids eat Pixie Sticks and waffles for dinner and stay up watching movies till 10 for the next week (though the edict to read every day remains in effect, another non-negotiable).

There are few things as quieting to my heart as watching my children play on the beach, each distinct, complex little personality thrown into high relief by these beautiful, but elemental surroundings. Carys endlessly skips and twirls in ankle deep surf, singing to herself or shrieking with excitement and running away if the water rises to her calves. Chloe is also mostly content to enjoy the beach by herself. She is still happy to play in the sand and will wade slightly further into the water than her little sister, though she is even more cautious: She approaches the ocean with a mixture of longing and wariness. 

Bronte, however, is not satisfied with playing on the beach. She is the sociable and fearless one. She begs her dad, cousins, or aunts and uncles to come in the water with her and like them, she rushes in headlong, endlessly diving under wave after wave, only emerging when my wave from the shore motions her to come out and rest.

My own relationship with the ocean is complicated. On the beach is fine. In the water is not. I am like Chloe or, more accurately, she is like me: I want to love the ocean, to love being in it, to splash around and swim like Bronte, to feel as free and unencumbered near it as Carys. But, I just can't.

When I consider the beauty and the danger of the ocean, danger always wins the day. When I was a kid, I was scared of the hugeness of it. The power of the waves. I wasn't the greatest swimmer and never really felt confident that, if push came to shove, I was strong enough to save my own life. Eventually, I was less worried about drowning and more worried about what lurked beneath the green-gray churning water.  For years, I have stood at the water's edge, watching my fearless family, wanting to join them, but unable to make my legs carry me out to them. I would blame all this on Shark Week, but I've been terrified far longer than the Discovery Channel has existed.

For the most part, I have tried not to pass my fear on to my girls. I haven't directly said "Don't go in there! Something will eat you!" When they were younger and used to ask why I wouldn't get in, I would tell them I just didn't want to or that I had to stay and take care of their baby sister, who was too small to go past the sea foam. When I no longer had that excuse, I told them plainly: I'm afraid to. That's not deliberately transmitting fear, right? That's just being honest! I admit, I do let them watch Shark Week, but in my defense, they suggest it first. I merely consent. And when I see that Chloe is worried about going in the water, I know it's not a fear of sharks that holds her back, but the memory of an unfortunate boogie board mishap in 2009:

Rather than take advantage of Chloe's hesitance to go back in the water, I encourage her to let Daddy take her back in. It has to be Daddy, though. When they started to go into the water with my brother-in-law and nieces the other day, my conversation with Anthony went something like this:

Me: You have to go in with them.
Anthony:  Why?
Me: So you can punch a shark in the nose if it tries to get one of the girls! Did you learn nothing from Shark Week?! 
Anthony: Well, Kenny's going to be out there.
Me: So what! He's going to save his own kids first!

Off came the flip flops, the sunglasses, the baseball cap, and the shirt, and away went Anthony, knowing that unless he complied with my neurotic demands, the girls would be the ones who lost out, forced to sit on the sand and watch their cousins have all the fun.

When my girls are out past the breakers, I sit in my chair and watch. And I don't mean that I casually take in the scene with pleasure, as I do when they are playing in the surf. I don't take advantage of the quiet and read my book, glancing up from time to time to see them doing handstands in the ocean while Anthony keeps an eye out for oncoming waves.

I mean my eyes are fixed. Trained. I watch the glassy curl of each wave, half-convinced I am going to see something terrible in it. I try to estimate the distance between Anthony and each of the girls, willing him to pull them closer to him. I watch each of them disappear under a swell and do a quick headcount as they bob, two, three...

Yesterday was spent in just this way. I did, for once, let Bronte go in the water with my sisters and Kenny, while Anthony sat under the umbrella with me. I forced down the anxiety that kept trying to rise up in my chest. I fought back the urge to wave her in on the pretense that she looked tired. I saw several dolphins swimming around a couple hundred yards beyond where my family was playing, remembered something about them being "the angels of the sea," and began to relax my white-knuckled grip on the arms of my beach chair. I even tried, for about 30 seconds, to read my book.

At that moment, Kenny started waving his arms and yelling from the water, pointing to something behind us. Anthony and I stood up, and started walking towards them, confused. We couldn't make out what he was shouting--it sounded like "sister"--but as he kept emphatically pointing southwest, I turned around towards Pamlico Sound.

Kenny wasn't yelling "sister."  He was yelling "twister."

There, beyond the houses on the Sound side, was a heavy, dark sky and two funnel clouds stretching down from it like gray, bony fingers swirling a drink. 

This will ruin a day at the beach!

My legs went cold and wobbly and I stood, transfixed, for a few seconds, watching the fingers grope for the ground.  Behind me, Bronte came running up from the water sobbing. Chloe and Carys started crying, wide-eyed with horror, quietly pleading, "Mommy. Mommy. Mommy."  I looked at the twisters. Our beach house stood between us and them. If they were moving towards us, could I outrun them with the girls and make it to our house in time? I was going to try. I couldn't have my children trapped and exposed on the beach if the storm was heading our way.

Other people on the beach had spotted the storm and other mothers were screaming for their families to get out of the water. I threw our beach bag over my shoulder, set Carys on my hip, grabbed Chloe's hand and told her to hold Bronte's. I turned back around to Anthony who was still watching the sky and said, "Let's go. I'm going. Now." I turned and took off with the girls.

I tried to come off as reasonably calm as I hurried the girls across the hot sand and didn't realize we had forgotten our shoes until we reached the even hotter pavement. I had Bronte and Chloe walk in the drainage ditch that ran alongside the road and had a few inches of water in it so their feet wouldn't burn. "It's okay, girls. Let's just get to the house. I'm sure they are moving away from us." They cried and scurried and cried some more until, finally, we were all safely inside.

They were moving away from us. And they weren't tornadoes, they were water spouts. From the safety of the house, they seemed much farther away, smaller, and decidedly less threatening than they had from the beach. They stayed on the sound and caused no damage. The girls calmed down after thirty minutes. I stopped shaking after ninety. By dinnertime, the jokes had started, mostly centered on the fact that no one actually saw the girls and me leave. They just saw the four abandoned pairs of flip flops left in the sand and a rolling cloud of sand we kicked up in our wake.

I was happy to laugh off what was now revealed to be a total over-reaction. But my mind also kept returning to that moment where, for the first time since I became a mother, I sensed danger, real danger as far as I knew at the time, and the instinct to protect my children took over until my brain was only capable of processing this one thought: Move your girls to safety. Something warm kindled in my chest, like I had passed a test I didn't know I was taking.

Anthony, who hadn't rushed off the beach, but came back 15 minutes later weighed down with all the gear I had left in my dust, brushed off my apologies for being silly and defended me against the teasing. While I was relieved that I had not been too frozen with fear to act, at the same time I was struck by my inadequacies. I had been so focused on what I thought the risks were to my girls that day, so sure that I could keep them safe if I kept a close enough eye on them. And yet, while I stared down the long tunnel of a lifetime of fears that includes much more than sharks, I was totally unaware of what was coming up behind us.

As I sat down to write this I thought of Finding Nemo, one of our family's favorite movies.  Oh, how I can relate to Nemo's ever-worrying father, Marlin!  Marlin's problem, like mine, is a lot bigger than a fear of the ocean. He's afraid of anything happening to his son and foolishly thinks he can protect him from every danger. 

I reviewed Finding Nemo for in 2003. Bronte was a year old and I was pregnant with Chloe.  I re-read the article this morning. As I got to the part comparing the parenting styles of Marlin and the 150 year old sea-turtle, Crush, it was as if I had been writing a letter to myself, eight years in the future:

The moment marks the difference between seeing the world, regardless of its condition, as a necessary and useful arena for experience and growth, and seeing it the way Marlin sees the current, as a “swirly vortex of terror.” It may be just that, but it’s where we live and we have to teach our kids how to negotiate those dangers without filling them with fear. 

We are headed back down to the beach this morning, our last day of vacation.  I can't promise I will get in the water. But, I will encourage the girls to, especially Chloe. 

I may even read a whole chapter of my book.

My girls and their cousins, at the water's edge.

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