I wrote this in October or November of 2012. I held off posting it, thinking I would refine it some more. But more than a year later, that’s clearly not happening. What a trip to revisit that very memorable afternoon with my (mouthy) two-and-a-half-year-old — I hope you enjoy it too!
“Sorry, I don’t see a ocean.”
“Yeah, I turned down the wrong street,” I explained. “Let’s try this way.”
“Nope. Sorry. I don’t see a ocean. Where’s our aventure?”
I had promised Addison an adventure to see the ocean and so far, every street was a dead end. I’m not sure why she kept apologizing; I was the one who dashed out of the house without directions, thinking that a quick glance at the map would get us there, because how hard could it be to find the beach from an unfamiliar part of L.A. You just go as far to the left as possible, right?
“I don’t see a ocean. But I DO have a plan to get us to da ocean. Let me write sumfing, with a pen. Give me dat pen.”
As entertaining as it might have been to see this “plan” to get us to the ocean, I know better than to pass a pen to the two-year-old in the back seat. Instead I kept meandering our way through construction zones in Playa Vista, as Addison barked out directions from behind: “Careful, mom! ‘Top, ‘top. Sumfing in the road. This road bumpy . . . bump, bump, bump.” I’m pretty sure I managed to hit every torn-up road within a 5-mile radius, and Addison let me know about it. Along the way, we passed a small playground and I debated whether I could make the tiny park seem sooo fun that she would forget all about our promised beach adventure. But who am I kidding?
Finally making my way out of a literal maze of closed roads, I saw a green sign: Marina del Rey. There’s water there! I remember having lunch there once! Knowing this was not exactly the ocean experience she had in mind, I set to work making it seem like exactly the adventure I’d been planning all along.
“Look, there’s boats! So many boats! You know what a lot of boats mean?”
“This is not a beach,” she said matter-of-factly, after a dismissive glance at the boats.
“A lot of boats means there’s water nearby! So exciting! We’re almost there . . . ”
“This is not a beach.”
As we drove down the street, Addison was on the lookout for a beach while I was willing to settle for a free parking space. (Why is there no free parking in the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area?) Reaching yet another dead-end, an apartment building on one side and the U.S. Coast Guard station on the other, I had to act quickly to salvage this “aventure.” Enthusiasm is the key with toddlers, right?
“Oooh, look at these fancy apartments! Aren’t they so pretty? Very contemporary.” (Very contemporary? Seriously?)
“This not a beach,” she repeated, her intensity slowly rising.
“Let’s hurry and get out! We can watch the Coast Guard boat take off! Hurry! We don’t want to miss the boat launch!!”
I tried to hurry her across the small parking lot–all the while pretending that I was in no way illegally parked and had a legitimate interest in million-dollar condos–and over to the rocky bank overlooking the inlet (which, in case you were wondering, is not a beach) as if the Coast Guard boat pushing out to sea was the most interesting thing she would ever see.
“Wow, look at the boat! They’re honking the horn! Honk-honk!”
“This NOT a beach.”
Apparently, Coast Guard boats, even honking ones, do not defuse the righteous indignation of a toddler, who, promised a beach and an expansive ocean view, is instead led to a 10-foot wide strip of gravel in a parking lot. Duly noted.
“Oh, look, there’s rocks! There’s tons of rocks,” I said, on to the next idea. “There’s rocks EVERYWHERE. Should we throw some rocks into the water?”
If I had thought this through ahead of time, I would have realized what a ridiculous idea that was. She’s two and a half years old. Her arm is about 18 inches long. And the water was at least 30 feet away, down a sloping embankment. You do the math.
But then the strangest thing happened. This three-foot-tall bundle of ferocious energy, who feels free to hiss, growl, slap, kick, and flail at the slightest provocation, like a sock getting twisted or someone sitting too close to her, turned to me and cheerfully said, “Okay!” She bent down, her saggy diaper thrust into the air, and picked up a small rock. She heaved it as far as she could, a slight grunt underscoring the effort.
“That didn’t work,” she said calmly, noticing that the rock landed just inches away from her foot.
So she picked up another rock, and threw.
“That didn’t work.”
And then another.
“That didn’t really work.” Addison crouched down this time, looking for just the right rock. She hefted one, holding it a moment. She dropped it. And picked up a larger rock. “Maybe I need a BIG rock.”
She threw the big rock, maybe three feet in front of her.
“That didn’t really work.”
I suggested maybe she needed to move closer, as if 10 steps would make a difference. She moved closer, and threw.
“That didn’t work.”
This continued for at least four minutes. She tried small, medium, and large rocks. She tried going slightly up the embankment and slightly down the embankment. She tried different arm positions, underhand, overhand. What she did not do was huff or puff, whine or cry. Her usual intensity and tenacity that hover right on the edge of frustration and meltdown were, for FOUR WHOLE minutes, replaced by a calm and methodical persistence. Finally, she turned to me.
“You try, mama.”
Thank the good Lord that my feeble arm could still manage to get a rock 30 feet down into the water. For several more minutes, Addison brought me rocks of various shapes and sizes, and we watched to see which produced the biggest splashes. About two awkward throws after I thought I might have irreparably injured my neck, I finally convinced her that it was time to go.
I wish I could explain exactly why two weeks later I am still thinking of this “adventure.” There was something so ridiculous and profound about it, simultaneously mundane and exciting. I mean, for starters, my baby girl, the one who runs in for a hug only to change directions 1.5 seconds in, the one who veers off course 90% of the time so that much-anticipated expressions of affection come out something like “I love . . . What’s dat? It’s shiny. I want dat! I LOVE it! Gimme it!”, the one who has the teeny-tiniest attention span for anything that isn’t strictly forbidden, focused on something productive for FOUR minutes. And that something was, let’s be honest, kinda boring and lame. There was no possible way she was getting a rock into that water; she was lucky to get a rock one-tenth of the way. But all her “That didn’t really work”s were so calm and focused. There was no whiny (lazy?) self-doubt like when she so often comes to us and says, “I CAN’T do it,” mostly because she is unwilling to sit down for three seconds together and try.
This is perhaps reading too much into the situation (and probably also vain), but for the first time I thought that maybe, just maybe I could see a little of my calm persistence in her. The ability to be patient and persistent, to recognize my limitations but still keep gently pushing back, has been everything to me. Trying to finish my Master’s thesis felt a little like having an 18-inch arm, while faced with a 30-foot distance. There had been neck surgeries and emergency surgery and bedrest and itching and sleepless nights and postpartum depression, and my thesis seemed a million miles away, completely out of reach. But I would not give up. I tried working in one-hour chunks, while Neal took Addison for walks. I tried working in three-hour chunks, while Neal took Addison to a babysitter. I tried working in bed on my trusty, sideways laptop. I rented a desktop and worked sitting up, with frequent breaks for amateur neck massages. All the time, I seemed no closer to finishing. There was a lot of “That didn’t work.”
I cleared out full days to devote to writing, and sat on the couch for ten hours at a time, barely attending to any bodily needs. I started working evenings at the lab when only a couple of hard-cores would be there. I started working all day Saturdays at the lab; if my car was not the last one in the parking structure, I vowed to stay later the next week. I brought snacks, meals, and pillows. I would work an hour and lay down to ease the tension in my neck and back. Another hour, and then walk a lap (okay, half a lap) around the empty second floor of the JFSB. When I needed a boost, I would persuade Neal to bring me dinner and a two-foot-tall visitor, who would do her darndest to wreak havoc on every keyboard in the room before her ten minutes expired. But no matter how many times my advisor hinted that I needed to be done, or my Grandma asked anxiously for a status report, or the university sent me certified letters warning that all my hard work expired in months, I was unruffled. I just kept plugging away. Moving up and down the bank. Trying different size rocks, different arm positions, different approaches. Vain or not, I want her to learn that from me.
There’s something I want to learn from her too. I want to learn that moment where you turn back. Back to someone bigger, taller, stronger. Someone who has been standing behind you all the time, even though you didn’t know it or believe it or want to believe it. Someone who has been observing; appreciating each of your focused, little efforts. Someone who knows the best place for that rock to land and how to get it there. Someone who is waiting, always waiting, to show you. Someone who will wait forever. I want to learn how to hand over that rock. To stop gripping it so tightly, as if everything depends on my hand, my arm, my strength. I want to learn those words, “You try.”