I know where my strengths lie and they include an ability to inform and to motivate. I have recruited someone more gifted than I at the craft of writing to share her travel story. Published author Nicki Gill shares her “Great Barrier Reef with a toddler” experience in this post. Her writing also features in the anthology “Aftermath” currently being published by Main Street Rag Publishing. “Aftermath” is available here.
A picture postcard paradise. Wide blue sky and gentle, rocking ocean. And an island, green and lush on the Great Barrier Reef. Such was the scene of a recent trip with my sister, her husband, and their two little boys. Lying in bed the night before our departure, I envisioned a family paradise–of splashing water-babies, and little-ones, scampering over the sand, ice-cream dripping down happy chins. Of rum cocktails for the grown-ups, and deckchairs, and sleeping in the sun. But really, I should have known—because if I’ve learned one thing from years of travel, it’s that happy holidays require a measure of surrender—a peace with the knowledge that things may not go exactly as planned. Setting off on that glorious morning, laden with children and strollers and luggage, I had a firm grasp on this idea. Or so I thought. For my two-year-old nephew Nathaniel, it was not his first island visit. Five months earlier, his parents had taken him to another Barrier Reef island for family time, an opportunity for everyone to gird their loins in anticipation of the new baby’s arrival. There, in the middle of the night, Nathaniel’s mother, my sister, had gone into premature labour at thirty weeks. She was evacuated from the island by emergency helicopter while Nathaniel slept, and he woke in the morning to find his mummy gone. Until this event, my sister and her son had never spent a night apart. Now, it was three full days before they could be reunited. One can only imagine the anxiety this would cause a little boy already prone to worry. Thank God, they stopped the labour. Months passed, and Nathaniel’s baby brother Zachie was born in good time. Everyone assumed that Nathaniel had forgotten his misadventure on the island, his mother’s disappearance—and when I came to visit, the second trip was planned. The first hint of trouble started as we boarded the ferry that would take us from the mainland to the island. Baby Zachie was fat and happy in his father’s arms. Nathaniel, on the other hand, was not at his best, weeping, disobedient, afraid of everything—of the on-board toilet, of the rumbling of the ferry’s engine. Over the next days, things got worse. There was anger and anxiety–violent, screaming tantrums, which lasted the hour. Constant demands for treats—for lollypops and chips and ice-creams. Looking back, I wonder whether this wasn’t a kind of self-medication, the infant’s version of hitting the bottle, or popping Xanax. Nathaniel’s fearfulness from the ferry continued on the island—my sister said she’d never seen anything like it. He was terrified, amongst other things, of the band playing in the restaurant, an innocuous troupe of middle aged men strumming gentle guitars. Giving my sister and brother-in-law the space to eat lunch, I carried him around the island for an hour, rocking him, reminding him how much he was loved, that there was no need for fear, that we grownups would protect him. He clung to me like a little koala–unusual for a kid who isn’t a cuddler, who will squirm and wiggle if you hold him too long. On our third circuit of the island, he wet himself in my arms. Eventually, we figured out the source of Nathaniel’s distress. He attached a significance to the island that it didn’t have, saw it as an unsafe place, a place that threatened his family. And finally understanding, we were amazed that we hadn’t done so earlier, that we hadn’t anticipated the ways the island would challenge this dear little fellow—and sorry that we hadn’t addressed in advance how to best help him process the experience. Looking back on this time, there are happy memories amongst those of my nephew’s distress. Lovely images, printed on my mind–his little hand taking handfuls of feed, and opening over the pier-edge, sticky pellets pattering down to the water, to the fishes. On the beach, his admiration for hard white fingers of coral, sand beaten, lovely, and his carelessness of them, his willingness to cast them away and move onto the next piece, and the next, and the one after that, when I would have filled my pockets for him if he’d wanted. One night, I took the boys to give their parents a night off, a grown-up dinner for two. He woke soon after they left, and I suggested we lie down and sleep together. I remember the delight of that, of lying next to my little nephew, taking peeps at him, not being able to resist–his little hand scratching his leg, his sweet face, so like my sisters, so close to mine, his eyes smiling gently at me. As someone who is soon to be a mother, I like to think the weekend was a window into my future, a small foreshadowing of what it will mean to be a parent. Of the highs and lows of loving a child; the desire to make the world safe for them; the pain of not always being able to do so–of seeing them suffer, of seeing them afraid; and all the everyday, transcendent moments–delight in their delight, the great pleasure of being with them. I returned to shore after three days on the island, with a new understanding that travel with little ones does not always go as planned–that it’s important roll with the punches. I suspect that this may be a sound adage for parenthood in general. And even though those three days were not the paradise we’d hoped, the family time they gave us was precious. It’s my hope that my little nephew’s memories of the first island trip, of his mummy’s disappearance in the night, have been supplanted by the later images—of the silver fishes under the pier, of the funny man in the mask and flippers who swam nearby with his sons, and seemed to charm Nathaniel as much as the native fauna. In time, he’ll probably forget these too. But even when he’s grown, when he’s a man—I will have the memory of the way he was at two—of his hot, pink cheeks, flushed beneath his sun-hat; of his pleasure in the coral, and in the fishes. I’ll even remember him fretting by the pool, wailing for an ice cream, his lips a little blue and his rashy dripping water. I’ll remember all of it. And that is my privilege.
© Copyright 2012 Danielle, All rights Reserved. Written For: Bubs on the Move