25 Jul Lessons from Turtles
I spent the weekend with friends with an adorable baby. Little Wesley spent the weekend, when he was not charming the rest of us, following his mom around. When he looked up, the first thing he did was look for her. If she was in the room, he calmed down. If she was not, he got anxious. “Momma?” he’d ask the adult closest to him. “Momma?” he would query each of us, until Momma came back into the room.
Psychologists and child development experts tell us that babies have no sense of themselves as individuals. They cannot distinguish between themselves and their primary caregivers; they think that the two of them are one.
This summer, Hannah asked if she could attend a church summer camp in Hawaii. Many of her friends from church were planning to go to a 10-day camp run by an organization called YWAM (Youth With A Mission) on the Big Island. Life-changing and affirming, was how friends had described this camp experience. “It transformed my relationship with God,” was how one friend characterized her last summer there. With almost all of Hannah’s best friends from church going this summer, and given how amazing this experience promised to be, I wanted to give Hannah this opportunity. I wanted Hannah to have this experience.
But how would I let her go for ten days? How could I trust the world to keep her safe while she was 2,500 miles away from me, on an island? When I look up and don’t see her in the same room, is she going to be okay? Am I?
I fluctuated all Spring. While all other parents bought airplane tickets in early March, May came and went, and I still hadn’t decided if I could let her go, or how I would do it. I asked Hannah if it would be okay if I stayed at camp and chaperoned. My teenager gently informed me that this was not an acceptable option. I couldn’t figure out how to let her go. Finally, I decided that the compromise was to take Hannah to Hawaii myself. I would take her there, spend a couple days with her, get her settled into camp, and then drop her off.
So in early July, we flew to the Big Island. We rented a car, drove to our hotel, settled in for a good nights’ sleep. The next morning, we made our way to Snorkel Bob’s to rent gear for two days. There is nothing better than walking out onto a beach in Hawaii and diving into the water with your snorkel mask and fins, immediately immersing yourself in that underwater world. We saw yellow butterfly tangs, zebra angler fish, spotted pufferfish, and the wonderfully named state fish of Hawaii, humuhumunukunukuapua’a. We snorkeled and rest and snorkeled and rest for a few hours. Just as we were about to get out of the water for the last time, we spied the most magical creatures of all: a Hawaiian green sea turtle and her baby honu.
We followed the mother turtle and her little turtle at a respectable distance, observing them as they made their way around the reef. Mom would poke her nose into a bed of coral, and Baby would follow. Mom would swim through a school of fish, and Baby would follow. It was sweet and lovely, watching this duo as they swam and ate and had their coral reef outing. But at one point, Mom swam up an inlet, and instead of following, Baby kept swimming along the reef. Mom hovered in the inlet while Baby kept going, poking her nose into different clumps of coral, swimming through different schools of fish. Mom came out of the inlet and slowly swam the other way. The two separated, Mom going one way and Baby going the other. Baby swam up another inlet and was spied by kids onshore, who ran over to watch her progress. I hoped no one would poke at her. I hoped everyone would leave her alone. Was this okay, I wondered. Had they separated like this before, Mom and Baby? Would they meet up again later? Did they have a designated meeting place? I had noticed that Baby was not carrying a cell phone by which Mom could reach her later, and it seemed like a big, big ocean.
It was a wonderful snorkeling trip. It was a wonderful couple days with Hannah. And then came the day that I would have to drop her off. I drove her to camp… 5851 Kuakini Highway. I met Brooke, her counselor. I checked out her dorm room and her bunk bed and the place where she would eat and meet and do her laundry. I took photos of her and her friends. Then it came time to say goodbye to Hannah, and that’s when I abruptly broke down and cried.
I knew I had to do it. I knew I had to let Hannah have this camp experience without me. I knew I couldn’t follow her around as her personal crossing guard, holding up traffic so that she could safely cross to the other side. I knew I couldn’t wrap her up in bubble wrap and lock her in her room, though the thought had crossed my mind. I knew that even if I stayed, even if I slept in the bed next to her, even if I held her hand every minute of every day, I might not be able to protect her from harm. Hannah is fifteen. Presumably, one day not far from now, she will leave home, for college, to start her own family, to live her own life. I needed to train her to be on her own in this big world. I needed to train myself.
Like little Wesley who looks up every couple minutes to look for his momma in the crowd because he can’t conceive a world or an identity without her, I hold onto Hannah. She is now my only child. Though babies don’t distinguish between their identity and their mother’s, likewise, many parents struggle with separating from their teenagers. And as I talk to other parents, I see much of the same — many parents, moms in particular, not only struggle to let go, but struggle with forming that identity without the child. We’ve immersed ourselves so much in what we do for them, our kids, in being the mom. In late adolescence, our mother/child roles have become reversed. So now, we’re involved in a process of letting go, of letting our child become independent. That’s our job, really, to raise them up to be good people, to make good decisions, to survive emotionally, financially, physically, by themselves in this big, big world. And to recreate our identities and our worlds without them.
After I left Hannah at camp, I had an afternoon to myself before my evening flight back to Los Angeles. I drove south to visit a Kona coffee farm, then went back to my hotel to change clothes and relax before my flight. A couple hours before my departure time, I started driving to the airport. I came upon the turn in the road that I took earlier to get to camp: Kuakini Highway left, airport straight ahead. I thought about my beautiful girl, about how happy Hannah was when she saw her friends at camp. I thought about the excitement in her eyes as she checked out her dorm, when she got her welcome packet, when she picked up her camp tshirt. I thought about how much she wanted this opportunity to strengthen her relationship with God. I thought about what a young woman Hannah was becoming: smart, compassionate, sensitive, fun-loving, thoughtful, mature.
I thought about the Baby Turtle and the Mommy Turtle. I thought about the coral reef, and the schools of fish, and the inlets. I thought of Baby going left and Mommy going right. How do they do that, turtles? How do they trust their babies to be on their own in that big blue sea? Is this process of letting go as hard for mother turtles as it is for me? In the dark, I looked at the sign on the road ahead of me: Kuakini Highway left, airport straight ahead. I held the steering wheel steady and stayed the course.