Friday, January 29, 2010

Caymans with Kate

The Caymans with Kate
an essay by Mary Morris

I remember where we were sitting when the thought came to me. It was at the dining room table during dinner. I was trying to get my eleven-year old daughter to talk about her day and eat her meal. She sat with her legs tucked under her, offering what had become her usual monosyllabic responses to our questions. If we let her, she'd have dinner with her headset on.

This was not the child I knew. My daughter used to bubble with excitement, sharing each tidbit of her day, each goofball cafeteria anecdote. But lately we'd noticed the difference. We used to share everything. Hot baths, long reading sessions in bed, walks to school. Now everything was separate. We read in our separate rooms, if she read at all. And as I'd walked her to school on her first day of sixth grade, she'd asked me to kiss her good-bye a few blocks from school and head home.

Kate was on the brink of adolescence and I starting to feel that the mothering part of my life coming to an end. Where had those years gone? And worse, a feeling of nostalgia crept over me. They would not come again.

For months now there had been no big hugs before school. No warm embraces afterwards. Our time together was doled out between phone calls and email. But I had also been extremely busy with my career and my life. It seemed hard to believe, but I saw, though I hesitated to admit it, that somehow both of us were moving on.

My daughter, after all, was entering a new phase - an age-
appropriate period of separating and beginning to lead her own life. I understood that I had to honor that; I also understood that I was losing something. My parents were quite elderly and Kate is my only child. I didn't want to cling to her, yet I wanted to keep her close. And I was looking for my own appropriate way to do so.

A friend of ours whose children were all in high school had warned me. When they turn thirteen, they're gone. And, though she sat across from me, I found myself missing my own daughter. That was when I turned to her and said, How about just you and me taking a vacation over spring break?

She peered up from the food that seemed to be circling her plate. Her tired brown eyes widening. We had always traveled well together and I saw I'd lit a spark. Sure, she said, where?

I mulled it over in my mind. London would be nice, but too civilized. A spa? Too easy. The Andes. Too rough. Let's go to the Caribbean. We can go snorkeling.
Her dad, who couldn't get away, agreed. It would be great if you girls had some time together that was all yours.

It was late, but I worked at getting reservations. Not much was available, but the Holiday Inn at Grand Cayman had space and we took it. The idea of the trip gave us something to do together, something to plan. We bought guidebooks. I picked up the Peterson guide to Caribbean fish. Another guide to shells and coral. Kate had always been a lover of the nature world and I felt this was just what we needed to rekindle her interests as well as our interests in one another.

In the weeks before our journey we made ourselves a pact. We seemed to arrive at the decision together. We would bring no electronic devices. No Discman or Gameboy for Kate. No Laptop for me. We would have books, journals, adventures and ourselves.

But even just having ourselves proved problematic as we set out on our journey. On the plane Kate wanted to play Hangman all the way to Grand Cayman. After an hour or so I was ready to read a novel set in the Caribbean. Why don’t we read or relax, I suggested.

If you'd let me bring my Discman, she complained when I suggested she do something else.

When we got there, she was reluctant to help carry luggage. I had thrown my back out ice skating just weeks before, and it ached to carry anything. I was mad at myself for not having made the purchase of suitcases on wheels (I subsequently would). She said the bags were too heavy, but I told her to pitch in. She was tired from the journey and wanted to get to the hotel, but still she didn't seem to want to help.

It turned out that our hotel which was nicely sited on the beach was going to be demolished right after spring back. Morale was low, services poor. Our room had an air conditioner that clanged like a train engine and no view of the sea. Let's see if we can't get a nicer room.

I got us a room right on the beach. It was a little more expensive, but I thought, how often do I take a trip like this with my daughter. I wanted to walk out of our room on to sand. But when I got back to the original room, Kate was flopped on the bed, complaining that she was too tired to move. Come on, pick up the luggage one more time. I'll carry what I can.

As we moved the luggage again, we were barely speaking. But Kate loved the new room, right on the beach. Once we were settled, we stepped on to the beach. Kate looked up and saw a parasailor (person riding a parachute) floating by. Hey, Mom, I want to do that.

I looked up and thought about my aching back. Well, you can go alone, I told her, That's not my cup of tea.

Already old patterns seemed to be settling in. You take yourself with you, my mother said to me, years ago, when she put me aboard the SS France. I'd somehow thought that this journey would let the barriers and obstacles that had grown up before us melt away. But it was already obvious that it hadn't.

I wanted my peace and quiet, my books and solace. Kate wanted to play in the pool and party all night long. I was up at six, ready to explore; she slept until ten. I spent my early mornings, sometimes when it was still dark, walking a lonely beach. Once she was up, she was grumpy and it took until noon before the day could begin.

I knew in my maternal gut that we had to find a compromise and I found it through the adventure tours at the hotel. They had daily snorkeling adventures to Sting Ray City and Eden Rock, to the Wreck of the Calley, and I signed us up for one. The boat left at ten am which meant Kate had to be up at nine. She was tired but soon there were baby sting rays, resting in her hands, sting rays, swimming through our legs. We visited the cavern of a spotted moray eel, named Mama, and stroked the back of a nurse shark.

That night we slept like babies. I began sleeping later and Kate got up earlier for our daily expeditions. I watched as she found the hiding place of a giant sea turtle near the Wreck of the Calley and swam with it as if out to sea. She took my hand as we explored caverns with our guide. We developed a language for being underwater together, a way of pointing and applauding, of giving a thumbs up if something had been great and calling time out if we were ready for lunch.

I had been told by a another guest in our hotel that Cemetery Reef was an easy place to go skin diving alone. That lots of people went there and it was safe. I asked Kate how she felt if we packed a picnic lunch and going on a snorkel, just the two of us. The next day I packed a lunch. We took our dive bag and hopped in a cab to Cemetery Reef.

We found ourselves on a strip of pure white sand, coconut palms. An almost deserted beach where we spread out our things and enjoyed the sea air. Then we put on our gear and headed to the reef. We kicked placidly in the warm waters, snorkeling, pointing at any fish we saw along the way. Sometimes when we snorkeled Kate took my hand, but now she swam off in directions of her own.

About a quarter mile from shore we came upon a huge, multi-faceted reef. Its orange and purple colors shimmered in the sun and together we swam across the top of it, pointing at the fish we wanted the other to see. Kate seemed happy when the school of Sergeant Majors approached us. There were hundreds of them, palm-size black and yellow fish that soon surrounded her and before I knew what was happening they began to nip and bite at her. She began flailing, fighting them away.

Reaching for me I saw that she was terrified and I swam her to shore. When she got in, she ripped off her mask. She was trembling, on the verge of tears. I'm not going back. I'm not going in that water again.

I understood her fear, but I was also trying to understand why the fish had attacked her, not me. As I was comforting her, I felt the gold chain around her neck. Honey, it's the chain. I knew this much about being in water. You aren't supposed to swim with shiny objects on your body; the fish think its smaller fish. They think its little fishes. Here, let's take it off.

Still she refused. I know enough about my daughter to know her stubborn side and er vulnerable side can become one in the same. I also know the importance of getting back on the horse when you've fallen off. I promise you, I told her, if they bother you again, we'll get right out of the water and you’ll never have to get back in.

I took her chain and put it in the dive bag. Then we put on our flippers and masks. As we were stepping into the water, Kate reached for me. Mommy, she said, hold my hand. We swam together to the reefs, hand in hand. The sergeant majors, which we later learned were called the piranha of the Caribbean, did not bother her again.

When we were done snorkeling, we hailed a cab that took us back to the hotel. The Barefoot Man Band was playing and there was a seafood buffet. We ate, danced, and headed to bed before ten. En route to our room, we paused before a man who writes your name on a grain of rice and Kate had him write her name, then seal it in a dolphin charm.

That night in her sleep, my daughter poised on the brink of adolescence, my girl who was almost gone, called out to me from her sleep. Mommy, she said, reaching for me, hold my hand.

And I reached across the pillow and held it the whole night long. The next day she was up early. When she asked what we were doing, I said we were going parasailing. I trembled as two men strapped me into the parachute and plunked Kate between my legs. I gripped my arms around her and, as we rose above the sea, I started to scream. I screamed and screamed, absolutely terrified, my back hurting, and felt Kate clutch my hands. It's all right, Mommy, she said. Look, it's beautiful.

And as we sailed in the air up and down the shore, past palm trees, along Seven Mile beach, my daughter clasped against me, it truly was.

It's become a regular thing. Maybe it's not a big trip. It might just be what we call spa day when we take hots baths and slather ourselves in mud. Or time out day when we do special things like go to Chinatown for lunch. I learned to know when Kate's asking for my help and when she can be private. I've learned to accept that private doesn't necessarily mean secret and she's learned that she can grow up and still ask for me to hold her hand.

Our next spring break is in its planning stage but already choices loom. There's that invitation to Hawaii or the trip with friends to Peru. Or we might stay home and opt for a shopping expedition and lunch; that moment when you say, I think that sweater looks nice on you... Whatever we decide, we know we can go together. That growing up doesn't have to mean growing apart and that the bonds between can be renewed whether it's on a journey or just up the street for a manicure.

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1 comment:

  1. Loved this--it made me cry. (Can you tell I have a 13-year-old of my own?)