My newly licensed daughter maneuvered through Austin’s choke-hold traffic on her final practice drive to the dance studio before I left town for my road trip with my mother.
“What’s the plan for Florida?” My daughter asked, cheerfully unaware of my hyper-vigilant state.
I rattled off the itinerary while scanning for road hazards.
“We’re in Jacksonville for the first three days with my brother, then Miami for one night, Key West for two days, one day in Sanibel Island with a stop in the Everglades, then to Crystal River and back to Jacksonville for the last two days.”
My daughter grimaced like someone just pinched her hard.
“Does your mom know that you’re the Travelnator?”
That’s the name she gave me one afternoon on our trip around Iceland as she begged for permission to nap.
“Yes, I made her sign the waiver,” I answered with the appropriate Travelnator edge.
Movement is my medicine, a panacea to the worry and anxiety to which I’m prone. I respect life’s relentless forward momentum. It begs me to be resilient.
I had concocted the Florida trip as a prescription for my mother. Surely my remedy, an epic action-packed adventure, would provide the cure to heal her too.
During the decade that my dad angrily flailed further into dementia my mother increasingly became confined in their home like prisoner. Her life paused as his faded.
In the end, Alzheimer’s is truly a disease with two victims.
My brother and I live too far away, with busy families, to have been able to give her any meaningful relief during the worst of it.
She said that she felt like Rip Van Winkle after my dad died. In the year and a half since his death, my mother has worked mightily to reestablish herself but the scars from those barren years are still tender.
The trip started with a bang, literally. My brother works for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department. He took my mom and me, along with my nieces, 15 and 10, to the indoor shooting range to learn how to fire a handgun. It was a first for both of us as well as for my youngest niece.
Everyone in the front office knew my bother so we were led into the private shooting range for our initiation. I had not seen my brother and his family for four years. The intensity and power of this new experience was galvanizing and softened the awkwardness of getting reacquainted.
This was the beginning of a parade of firsts for my mom. She took Ubers and stayed in Airbnbs, walked among the pulsating Miami crowds, sped through the Everglades in an airboat, and snorkeled with manatees in the Crystal River.
It was a list of activities that I carefully arranged months prior. Everything went like clockwork except for the one thing that didn’t.
Dry Tortugas National Park is located 68 miles west off the Florida Keys, in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and an undisturbed tropical ecosystem with some of the best, and most beginner friendly, snorkeling.
The park is accessible only by seaplane or boat. On the recommendation from my son, who turned green on the boat, I booked the seaplane. My mother had never been snorkeling. I thought that Dry Tortugas would be the perfect place to teach her before we went to Crystal River to swim with manatees.
In my mind this was going to be the crescendo of our road trip.
I felt a pang when I watched a fickle cell of clouds form in the morning and then a gut punch when the former Alaskan bush pilot cancelled the only afternoon flight. The last ferry had already left.
I panicked. I wanted this experience for my mother. It was a crucial element of the road trip cure.
I walked over to the little office that served the compound of historic cottages where we were staying. The three staff people listened to the condensed backstory of our road trip and then sprung into action to find an alternative adventure.
The weather passed and in the span of thirty minutes my mom and I found ourselves running to the schooner that would take us kayaking in mangrove islands and snorkeling over sponge gardens.
The earlier storm scared off the other tourists so there were only eight people on a boat that usually brings out twenty. There was an off-duty crew member along with his visiting mom and niece which seemed to help make the group take shape faster and soon it felt like we were sailing with friends.
The road trip was back on track. Forward momentum.
We sailed for about an hour and then anchored off the mangrove islands. The crew put the kayaks in the water and we loaded up. The afternoon sky was beginning to pink up and was reflected on the still water. We followed the guide around the mangroves as she gave us a history of the area, picked up huge horseshoe crabs, and pointed out hidden birds.
We paddled back and prepared to snorkel. We lined up as they passed out flippers, masks and kids’ swim noodles so we would float and not disturb the bottom.
I could sense my mom’s nervousness. I went over the instructions again and told her that I would go first and wait for her in the water. I scooted off the platform on the side the boat and swam out a bit to test my mask.
I turned around to see my mother with her head up. Her mask was half full of water and her snorkel dangled to the side. She was propped up by the bright orange noodle under her armpits.
As I got closer I could see the fear in her eyes.
I swam up to her with a smile and asked her to hold still as I made the adjustments needed. I rearranged my noodle so I could use my legs to help support her body. I looked directly in her eyes and reminded her that she would be able to get the hang of it and that we had plenty of time.
Calmly, I lifted her mask to let the water drain. I placed it back on her face and told her to take a small breath in through her nose to create the suction needed. I reached around to either side of her face to tighten the straps to make the mask fit her head better.
Her eyes continued to tell me she couldn’t do this. I smiled again and said she could.
I emptied out her snorkel and asked her to open her mouth and bite down. I carefully pulled her lips over the edges. I reminded her to keep the seal tight.
“Try again,” I said.
She tentatively put her face in the water and nothing leaked.
She swam ahead of me, her flippers rhythmically moving up and down. She stopped, lifted her head and nodded back that everything was working.
I watched my seventy-five year old mother snorkel for first time in her life.
We sailed back to the dock through a brilliant rainbow and a postcard sunset; my mother laughing, silhouetted by syrupy golden light. This is my favorite and most lasting image of our trip together.
Carl Jung says, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically … on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
I sense this angst in my children when they randomly ask me about my regrets. They are searching for the affirmation that I’m at peace.
With that same childlike desire, I hoped that the Florida trip would be big and bright enough to blot out my mother’s unlived years with my father and release me from the helplessness I feel in the face of her frustration and sorrow.
We expect life to follow our plan but it seldom does. I’m not one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. I think it’s a dangerous lie that we tell ourselves and others.
The only thing for certain is life’s relentless forward momentum. We cannot outrun the unexpected any more than we can erase the past.
The best we can do, is to try again.