The wind whipped our hair as we stepped onto the sand the first day of our spring break vacation in Lido Key. The sun was bright and full, but the post-rain air held a chill. I wondered if my children would even want to dip their toes in the green and blue water beyond the row of chairs and umbrellas.
But the boys needed no prompting; they ran, full speed, toward the water. They were born without the gene for caution, and it is never more apparent than when we are at the beach. They drift out a little too far on their boogie boards, float without care in the face of the breaking waves, and pay no heed to talk of rip currents and undertows. I have spent many a morning at the beach in thigh-high water, wearing a baby strapped to my perspiring chest and my hand over my eyes to cut the glare, yelling, "Not so deep! You're out too far!" until I am hoarse, while my kids smile gleefully back at me and ride the waves closer, only to turn and dive right back out again, ignoring me the whole time. Push, pull; drift, tumble. They are not afraid of the tides, but I am.
I placed my 23-month-old, Lucy, onto the sand, and I held my breath. You never know how a child will react to all the sensory rollercoaster that is the beach, and this was our first trip to a shore in many months. I watched her as she stared down at the sand, shifting her toes slowly, contemplating, figuring it all out. She looked up and out to the water, where her three older brothers were splashing in the icy waves, and she smiled.
Almost instantly, my oldest son saw her, and he flew to her side. The boys adore their younger sister, to the point of almost being obnoxious in their relentless pursuit of her. I fear she might be doomed to a life of disappointment after her brothers inevitably grow up and leave and cease their daily worship of her. In the meantime, I watch her soak it up, and I am grateful—for her and on her behalf.
My oldest son—my gangly, awkward tween, Mason—gently took my daughter's hand and began to lead her gingerly down the slope of sand toward the waves. She lurched forward and giggled, bouncing her feet as she toddled, her sturdy thighs faithfully keeping her upright. The boys recently proudly announced to me that they had named her thighs "Thunder" and "Lightning"—not because of their (impressive) size, but because of their power. She's small but mighty.
When they reached the water's edge, though, I watched my baby girl balk. While my son kept moving into the waves, she stood back. As it swept toward her, she thrust her palm out at the waves. "NONONONONONONO!" she objected, stepping backward. The wave, apparently under her spell as much as the boys are, retreated obediently. It was back again momentarily. "NO!" she yelled, backing up again.
My daughter and the wave did this dance for several moments while my sons gathered nearby, watching and giggling. But she paid them no mind; she was focused on the water, watching it intently. Her feet moved parallel to its unpredictable reach. Finally, when my oldest son reached his hand out to her again, she took it and carefully raised one wide, pudgy foot, setting it down in the water. She gasped at the cold, but her smile was big and wide. Yes, I could see her decide. Yes, this is good.
The rest of the day was the same story. She would play merrily in the sand with her brothers, building sandcastles and digging for shells, then run down to the water's edge, where she would dance again with the waves until she would finally decide to take the plunge and step into its toe-deep embrace. Each movement was calculated, each decision monumental.
I couldn't help but compare my little girl's relationship to the waves with my own 39-year-old relationship with my life right now. Like her, I'm excited about new experiences and adventures, but hesitant. I am still, deep down, the same little girl whose teacher told her parents she was "too cautious, too afraid to make mistakes." Even when the water is shallow, I often pause before I put my toes in it. I am still afraid of tides, especially when my children are at their mercy.
Sometimes, like my daughter, I make small waves seem much bigger in my own mind. There are moments I would probably be better served by running full speed into the water, like my boys do. It almost feels like a privilege I am no longer entitled to, the ability to run into something without fear of the consequences. Do grown-ups get to do that? Can the mother of four human beings live that fearlessly ever again?
Then I watched my baby hold her brothers' hands and step into the water again, this time with deliberate purpose. The thing is, we're both careful, but we also don't let it hold us back. We both end up in the water eventually, my baby girl and I. We do things that intimidate us. That's what is important, in the end. That's what makes life both scary and wonderful, that dance at the edge of the tides that scare, and thrill, us just a little.
My little girl ran down the beach, squealing, chasing the sea birds with the wind at her back. I wandered behind her, stepping into the bracing water myself as I did, and watched her run.