Vivi stood at the edge of the sand bar, tugging at her hair and shrieking:
“MAMA! MAMA! PLEEEEEEASE COME BACK! MOMMY! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”
I, already knee-deep in the low tide channel between the sand bar and the beach, turned back and watched her hysteria with my mouth hanging open.
“Baby! What are you talking about? This is the same water we walked across to get out there. You’ve been swimming in it all week. Come ON.”
A dad in a red UGA cap waded between us and asked me out the side of his mouth, “Is she alright?” I mouthed back, “D-R-A-M-A.” He chuckled and kept on going.
My daughter was beside herself with fear about stepping into the ocean water. Why? Jellyfish.
She wailed and howled and begged me to come back. She ran towards the King and Prince in hopes that the land bridge was solid. Nope.
I hollered across the 20 yards that separated us: “Honey, it’s the TIDE–I can’t do anything about it. Even if I walk back that way, we’ve got to get back to the beach through this water. There’s no other solution. I hear you, but you’re going to have to get in the water. It’s only going to get deeper the longer you wait.” She stomped and screeched and cried.
Not sure which of those tactics convinced her, but she finally started a shaky walk to me. I took her hand and we made it to the beach together…ALIVE.
What. The. Hell. This kid as grown up on that beach and in that water. Why now?
An hour earlier, we had left our stuff in the sand and waded over to the giant sand bar on East Beach at St Simons Island. We walked to the farthest tip of the sand bar, right out into the Atlantic. She found a hermit crab and named her Crustina. We put her in a shallow tide pool and watched how quickly she could scuttle around. Vivi dug a channel between two pools so Crustina could spread out. We came up with names for her crabby friends. We reminisced about a few years back when Vivi found her friends, Conchy and Nyquisha.
Then I looked down into the clear water of the tide pool and spotted a jellyfish, about 5 inches long. I showed Vivi how to see the clear jellyfish by looking for its shadow on the sand. We found another one in the same pool. As the tide waters rose around the edges of Crustina’s pool, we watched how the jellyfish moved and ate and even shook off some sand that one of us accidentally dropped on them.
But time and tide wait for no one, so with pink shoulders and wind-tangled hair, we scooted Crustina to the seaward edge of her pools and waved goodbye to the jellies. As we walked along the beach side of the sand bar in search of the easiest crossing point, I saw a REAL jellyfish in the shallows–one about a foot long, pinkish, with feathery tentacles fluttering behind it.
“Now this is the kind you don’t want to touch, even if you see them washed up on the beach. I once fell off of a jet ski in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and got one of these wrapped around my leg.”
“Did you have to go to the hospital???’
“No, Aunt Beth rubbed Adolph’s seasoning salt on it and made some pina coladas. It quit stinging after a while.”
And not two minutes later I started into the water to make my way back to our pile of towels and flip flops on the beach and Vivi started her meltdown.
Because of the jellyfish I had shown her. Not the goofy little cannonball jellyfish in the tide pool, but the menacing tentacled one…in the water that I then ordered her to step into.
Oh look. A very special Parenting Moment.
Vivi is at that precarious age where we are beginning to give her more freedom, but that comes along with the responsibility for taking care of yourself. I need to show her the thing to be aware of, the place to be careful, but in doing that, I tipped the balance too far and taught her what to fear.
While we held hands and made our way back to land, I talked to her about how feelings can get us all worked up and the only thing that will balance them out is facts.
“See all these parents taking their kids out to the sand bar? Do you think we would be doing that if it were dangerous? See that green flag on the lifeguard chair? That means the water’s safe. If there were a bunch of jellyfish around, we would see them washed up all over the beach–we only saw the one. And that’s the first one you’ve seen in TEN YEARS!”
She snuffled a bit and asked more questions about THE ONE JELLYFISH that was clearly plotting to take us down. I kept pointing her back to facts so that the feelings would have time to wear themselves down a little. I mean, I was annoyed as hell with all the hysterics, but Parenting Moment.
We made it to shore. Later that afternoon, we came back down to play in the big waves of high tide. She got in that water every day for a week.
I couldn’t quit thinking about it, though, how it was my pointing out the “bad” jellyfish that triggered her fear. Would it have been better not to mention the stinging tentacles? To let her learn about jellyfish the hard way some other day? Because knowing that a thing is possible invites it into her consciousness. That’s the hard balance of parenting for me–wanting her to be equipped with knowledge, but not knowing for sure if she’s ready for knowledge.
This morning, a college sister who is also a reverend, shared a passage from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that spoke to my mothering struggle:
“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and to try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
She has to live the questions now. We both do. I have to lead her into the water, dark and deep, even though I have been stung before. The world is out there on the other side of our fears.