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Lessons From Hawaii: Fear(less)

April 19, 2016

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When my oldest was a toddler, he loved the water.

At every opportunity, he’d run full-tilt toward any available body of water – pool, puddle or lake. He didn’t care that he’d sink like a stone, unable yet to swim, shoving me away with a “No, Mama! Let go!” Fearless and unafraid. I, on the other hand, lived in mortal terror until he learned to swim around the age of 5. Waterproof, finally, for the most part.

My youngest, however, was not born of the same bent. He was not the daredevil his brother had been. He tried new things carefully, often reluctantly.

Many times I questioned whether I was empowering him by forcing him into the new, or scarring him for life.

He was happiest to play on the steps of the pool, bundled into floating devices, ever unwilling to move into deeper water. Swim lessons were a chore, often ending with my cherub-cheeked toddler stubbornly sitting on the sidelines, refusing to get his feet wet.

Eventually, the boy did swim, but it was a slow process. As we booked our first trip to Hawaii, I prepped him that he’d have to work hard all summer to be ready for the water adventures awaiting us in the islands over winter break.

Deep inside, I was worried.

I booked our family on a snorkeling boat out of Maalaea Harbor, but anxiously questioned the crew should he be too fearful to spend much time in the water. In front of the boys, I was all bravado and excitement about our trip, but in my heart, I was worried.

The ocean is a big and scary place. Jumping off a boat into open water, the bottom of the sea visible, yet still 40 feet away, was daunting for me the first time. How would he respond? My baby, the fearful one…

As we suited up for our first plunge, we laughed and joked and prepared ourselves with fins and gear. But deep inside, I was worried. He, arms and legs poking from his wet suit, the snug fabric a counterpoint for scrawny limbs, goggles large upon his little face.

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Upon our turn to enter the water, he took his giant step  without hesitation. But then, turning back toward me on the ladder, huffing in panic through his snorkel, refusing to look down.

I slipped into the morning-chilly waters and pulled him away from the boat. His eyes were wide, his breathing rapid, white-knuckles gripping my hands as I tread water in front of him.

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It is impossible not to feel small in this vast blue expanse. Just tiny creatures ourselves, bobbing like corks, unmoored, untethered to anything but each other.

I drew him close to my face, blocking his view of the enormous crater rising from the sea behind us, and spoke quietly: “Just look down, baby. Just look down.”

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One’s first look at a coral reef through the clarity of a mask is an astonishing thing. Finding Nemo, just below the surface, glorious color and fish everywhere.

He shook his head, gasping through the tube, eyes frantic behind his mask.

I pulled him to my face, nose to mask:

“Put your face in the water, baby. Just look down.”

He hesitated a moment more, and then…

He plunged his face into the water.

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A split second later, he looked back up at me, pulling aside snorkel so he could speak, shouting one word before returning his face to the water.

“WOW!”

His delight lit him from within like a Christmas tree. He immediately fitted his snorkel back into his mouth, and kicked away from me, swimming horizontally above the coral, a yellow floaty belt all that differentiated him from the other swimmers around us.

That was the end of it. I chased him around awhile, grabbing the strap of his belt, just to hold him near me in the great blue sea around us.

At that point, the only fear left between us was my own.  My youngest child grew older in an instant, falling in love with the ocean and all that is within it, as I had done in the same blue waters many years ago.

The rest of the day we spent in the reef. We swam in Maui’s chilly spring water until we were blue in the lips, going down for a 20’ dive on regulators and air tanks suspended on the surface. He darted among the coral crags like a fish, still small, but fearless and splendid.

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I followed along behind, astonished at the experience of this blue sea and my entire family among amazing and wondrous sights hidden below the waves.

From time to time, we swam hand in hand, not because he needed me to, but because I needed him to.

His fears dissolved into the beauty surrounding us.

And mine? Well, I swallowed it along with a bit of saltwater. I could have kept him on the boat. I could have kept us all safely on the sand. But that extraordinary experience we shared together under the sea would never have been.

As usual, what scared me the most was the most worth doing.

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