I am sitting outside our room on Maui, on vacation in the blue and bright beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Yellow, pink and red hibiscus surround me and the birds sing from the palms nearby. The white noise of the ocean echoes in the distance. The fountain in the koi pond splashes.
An idyllic setting, perhaps, but don’t be fooled by the scenery. This story is about travel to unfamiliar places, but it is no travelogue.
Two days ago, we left behind a cool blue sky at home to fly west, cramped in one of the winged cattle cars that now pass for an airplane. Today, we walked the sunny beach, going north in the morning and south after lunch, all the while dodging or being drenched by waves. Our two children spent an hour this morning just jumping those waves. They figured out the art of it, how far out to go, or not go, so as not to be bowled over, to stay where the drenching was fun, with just a hint of the danger in the incoming swells. Farther out, humpback whales jumped, their spumes shooting upward at intervals, giving away their direction during this migration season.
As each wave rolled in, my son stayed higher up the beach than his sister, his narrow frame — barely 60 pounds — not yet as strong as her solid body, further in the ocean. They both had learned to widen their stance against the water’s force, to jump just after the wave breaks, into the foam, not the swell – he, chattering and exclaiming, a verbal instant replay of his every reaction to every wave, she grinning gleefully, laughing heartily after the especially big jumps. In their bright bathing suits, they crouched and shouted to each other, calling out preparations for the next swell.
Further up the beach, I was far enough not to have to brace against the waves, but still low enough to get the occasional splash in the face. I stood sentry over them, watching my son’s slender shoulders over his scrawny body. His shape reflects mine, while his sister inherited her father’s broad shoulders. A teen now, she weighs more than either of her parents. (We’re small, slight people, but only in physical dimension, not spirit.)
While I supervised them, fully in parent mode, the dormant youth in me wanted to be out from shore, among the surfers riding the swells, awaiting their chance to break from the pack and challenge the curling waves. I worried my son would go out too far and be dragged under, or that some young man strolling the beach would notice my daughter’s swim shirt riding up too high with the pull of the water. The children were, of course, oblivious to my wary eye.
As I watched my children jump the waves, I remembered doing the same with my father and sister in Mexico some 25 years ago. The beach there on the eastern Yucatan peninsula curved along the surfline, one end sheltered by high rocks. The sparkling Caribbean sent high foaming waves up the sand. The three of us waded out knee-deep and, like my children today, steadied our stances to meet the incoming rush of water, grinning and laughing as it soaked us. It wasn’t often that my serious Midwestern father followed a whim like this. I was a young woman at the time, Dad just past 60.
As I write this story, my father is in a hospital back in icy, frigid Cleveland, going through physical and occupational therapy a week after having emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma – -bleeding on the surface of the brain. The neurosurgeons call this a minor surgery. But my father, mother and siblings consider it a terrifying experience, the very thing we’ve all been dreading with my parents’ advancing age. My mother’s vision, hearing, and cognition have been declining and Dad had finally retired from his business, at age 86, to look after her and manage the house they’ve lived in for nearly 50 years. As Mom has grown more fragile, his greatest fear has been that something would happen to him and he wouldn’t be able to take care of her.
Last week, when mom called from the emergency room in my hometown, 2000 miles from where I now live, both she and Dad were agitated and frightened. Dad had not been feeling well for a couple of days and had become confused that morning. When the CT scans showed bleeding on the brain, Mom called me in hopes that my husband, a physician, could tell them what was happening. Luckily, he was home and, within minutes, was exchanging jargon with the emergency room doctor who had reviewed the scans. They laid the plan to fly Dad to Cleveland, 60 miles away, where the surgeons opened Dad’s skull and removed the blood that was compressing his brain on the left side. My four siblings have gathered to support him and look after my mother, while I watch my children jump waves on the west coast of Maui.
At this point, perhaps you’re thinking I should feel guilty. Here I am, sitting on a tropical beach while the rest of the family fights the demons of fear and worry back east.
In my own defense, let me fully admit that those demons haunt you no matter how great the distance between you and trouble. Palm trees and waves distract for a short while, but they do not obliterate the fear. After all, I am writing this even while surrounded by hibiscus. The modern, but decidedly unnatural wonders of technology let me stay in contact so I can take part in the discussions with doctors, social workers, and family, even from this distance. But the primary reason I don’t feel guilt (yet another demon) is because of the waves. We had planned this vacation months ago, when my husband was between jobs. The literal waves we jumped on the beach this morning reflect the figurative waves my own little family has jumped in the past 2 years.
When we face the water to jump a wave, the first thing we have to admit is that the vast ocean has greater size, power and mystery than we can ever comprehend, and by contrast, our own lives are small. The ocean spans great lengths of time, distance and energy. Our own life, well, not so much. Even with our wonders of technology, we will never conquer a natural force like this ocean, with its deceptively calm, blue expanse. The surfers know this. They know that the best they can do is try to master a single wave, and maybe another, and perhaps one more, by gauging the curve and speed of each swell, paddling furiously to match the precise moment to the water’s force, when they rise and, for a few brief moments, stand balanced on the board, the only thing that separates them from the tumultuous force and maybe even their own destruction.
When you jump a wave on the beach, like the surfers, you have to monitor and scrutinize the swells, adjusting your distance up or down the sand, changing your stance to meet, maybe even challenge, the force of the water without its destroying you. Therein lies both the risk and the thrill. Go in too far and you’re thrown under and dragged into the coral. Too far up the beach, and all you get are wet toes – not at all satisfying if what you really want is to feel engaged, alive. But even when you think you’ve got it right – not too close, not too far – a swell looms and drags you into the surf.
And so it’s been for my family these past 2 years, since the last time we were on this island. A few months after our last visit, I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent the terrifying triple-play of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Just when the undertow of that wave seemed to be receding, my husband was forced out of his job by corporate bullies.
And now comes the third wave of my father’s illness.
Walking the beach again this afternoon, I watched how my son had, in the span of one day, learned to jump the waves, to keep the thrill but avoid the danger. He figured out which waves to ignore and which ones to engage. When a large swell caught him off guard, because of the slant of the beach or some rocks hidden in the surf, he turned his body sideways, widened his stance, and twisted his feet into the sand, hunkering down against the spray of ocean, waiting out the undertow that threatened to pull him down.
And so we do as adults with the waves that roll into our lives. Some of us, hankering for the thrill, go too far out and are drowned. Others fear the risk and never go near the water at all. But eventually, the waves come and catch us. So we learn how to meet them. We delight in those we can jump, steady ourselves and hunker down for those we cannot, until the last wave comes.