We took our mother snorkeling in the Florida Keys, that string of pearls nurtured by emerald waves and breezes that waft you to the southernmost tip of the continental United States as they draw you on and on over bridges and highways saluted by palm trees and pastel cabanas and mansions.
The trip was a birthday present from my sisters Rebecca and Kathleen and me, deferred from January to Mother's Day weekend, long anticipated and too soon over.
A good vacation lets you remember who you were before you became what you do. It's a rule of thumb for me. Youthful wonder is too soon lost amid the rigors of making a living, so it's worth the effort to try and see life in a fresh way from time to time. South Florida is as good a place for such encounters as most.
Flying into Miami at night is like that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the astronaut soars through a tunnel of light to confront himself as a re-born cosmic baby. Seen from the air, the city is an infinite maze of golden light, so that you feel as if you're soaring along a giant luminous wall when the plane tilts to approach the airport as if seeking the doorway to some heavenly kingdom.
I felt an awe akin to the awe I experienced the first time I ever went to Florida 43 years or so ago. And if the past is always with us, as William Faulkner suggests, that episode is still unfolding in some space-time continuum. Come see.
My handsome, dark-haired daddy is driving a late-fifties Cadillac--complete with space-age Flash Gordon fins--into Daytona or New Smyrna, and my young, brunette mother is peering out the window, then suddenly she's rousting us kids from our highway stupor in that musical alto that echoes in the minds of all who know her:
"Oh look, look! It's the ocean. It's the OCEAN! We're at the beach, children. Oh, pull over, honey, let's get our feet wet. Find a place, find a place, oh look!"
And there you stand, stair-step children gazing for the first time upon an ocean awesome beyond all expectations, because it's vast and emerald and glistening afar with waves that repeat the same refrain for a billion years in a voice you'll hear always ever after, so that you wonder, like Dennis Saleh, the poet, "How long can anything say and, and, and and."
And how many times as we were growing up---bear witness brothers Rodney and Tim--did we hear Mother's voice stir us to wonder, even to the point of alarm at times by crying out, "Oh children! Come look. Hurry, hurry, come look, it's a rainbow! Oh, look, it's a DOUBLE-rainbow!"
And how many times have we heard her fiercely whispered expressions of awe at a deer peering from the edge of the woods or the song she would croon over a nest of just-hatched birds or lush unfurling ferns or a bouquet of butterfly weed or rambling roses along some lane or the distant call of a whippoorwill.
And it might be the sight of abalone or mother-of-pearl or something skittering along the beach, or a seahorse or thousands of neon fish turning on a dime to dazzle us before winking from view, which evokes her song of awe as soon as she finds air.
Last month there was no end to such sights as a fishing boat ferried us six miles out to sea to anchor before a delicate coral reef. Looking around we saw only a few boats and tiny heads and life jackets bobbing along in the waves. Then, plunging into the water, we encountered an infinite and ageless place....
It's unsettling to see your 72-year-old mother bobbing along in the ocean, but that's where the reef is, and any place where the infinite runs up against the mortal is the domain of wonder, our mother's natural realm. She took to it, as we knew she would, once she overcame her initial fear.
She knows such fear even now as she experiences a different sort of encounter with the infinite. Last week her doctor delivered the unsettling news that she must go under a surgeon's scalpel--in a matter of hours as this is written--to rid her of an invasive growth. It is hazardous surgery for a condition filled with unknowns, and it could be weeks, months or years before we know how it all works out.
Whatever the future holds, those who know our mother understand one thing certain. That voice of wonder that sings in the minds of her children, grandchildren and all her relations will continue to roll through the generations, music to God's own ear, "Oh, children, come see, come see, come see, come see."