"I can't wear that in public," my mother wails, "I don't want anyone to see me!" She sits on the edge of her bed, watching me wiggle into a new black wetsuit with yellow and purple racing stripes. An identical suit lies in a jumble in her lap. She glances down at it warily, patting it with her hand.
We're not exhibitionists in my family. When I was in high school, I ate my lunch stealthily, sitting behind a billboard in the hallway, because I couldn't stand people's eyes on me when I walked into the cafeteria and searched for a seat. And in that way among others, I am like my mother.
But now I've shown up for her 72nd birthday with the surprise of a new wetsuit for a trip she and I are taking to Hawaii. Mom's never been one to seek out wildlife adventures. On family vacations to the Caribbean when I was a teen, Dad and I spent hours snorkeling, returning with stories of moray eels, barracuda, and schools of squid. Mom stayed on shore, claiming she gets too cold, but I suspected she was grateful for the excuse to not have to meet the creatures herself.
This time will be different. I'm not leaving her on shore.
The water in Hawaii is colder than in the Caribbean, and most serious snorkelers wear wetsuits. "You'll fit right in," I tell her, "and you'll be warm enough to really enjoy yourself." We don't talk about the creatures.
"Oh dear, I hope you won't be disappointed if I decide not to snorkle," she says. "Can you return the wetsuit if I don't use it?"
Mom struggles to push her foot into the suit. "It's too small," she groans. "It will never fit."
"Mom, that's not the leg, it's the sleeve!" We dissolve into a giggle fit.
Soon, Mom's got the suit on and I've pulled up the long back zipper. Standing side by side looking in the mirror, I admire the curve of her hips, the trim appearance of her upper arms and shoulders. She seems pleased with the overall effect.
"Do you think we'll see moray eels?" she asks, her nose crinkling.
"Maybe. But they'll be hiding in the coral, and they won't hurt you."
"I don't think I want to see one," she says with finality.
On our first day in Hawaii, Mom is self-conscious walking to the beach, past sun-worshippers. But she makes a good show of pretending she's been doing this all her life - snorkle, mask, and fins in one hand, wetsuit draped casually over her shoulder. "What a ridiculous thing for an old lady to be doing!" she whispers conspiritorially. Her eyes shine with excitement.
We pull on our wetsuits, with no blunders this time. We wade in. The water is cool and colorless. The tiniest of ripples lap softly against the beach. We don Lycra swim caps, to keep our hair from floating into our eyes, and fit our masks onto our faces. I check hers to make sure the strap is tight, and then show her how to float face down in the water to put on her fins.
"The coral reef is over there, Mom," I say, gesturing, "and the best reef is out where you see those big rocks sticking up."
She looks at the rocks, several hundred feet away. "Oh, that looks too far," she says. I may want to stay closer to the beach."
We float out, and in a few minutes, I pop up to look around. Mom's headed for the rocks. Her fins churn steadily, like the paddles of a steamboat, and little "oohs" echo out of her snorkle. I swim after her.
"Did you see that black and purple fish?" she sputters when I catch up with her at the rocks. "It was so beautiful. I tried to follow it, but it swam away!"
For the next hour we float, surveying the landscape below us. Canyons and mountains of coral fill our view. Big green and lavender parrotfish attack the coral with their beaks, occasionally discharging fine sand as they swim. I show Mom the surgeonfish, black with bright orange scalpel-like blades protruding near their tails. An octopus skulks along the bottom, trying to camouflage himself among the corals. Mom recoils from the sight.
AFTER an hour, I'm ready to head back, cold even in my wetsuit. I notice a big green sea turtle hovering behind Mom. She is oblivious to the turtle, intently studying something I can't see. I stop and watch, worried that she'll panic when she notices the turtle so close. Instead, her eyes grow wide, and she doggedly follows the turtle toward the shore.
Back in the shallows after the turtle has swum off, we sit on the sandy bottom, Mom bursting with stories. "I like to pick one fish and follow it," she says, "to see what it does, how it lives. I followed a big flounder that buried himself in the sand and disappeared! And I think I saw a moray eel," she adds. "But I wasn't scared."
I smile at the mask casually pushed up on her head, the snorkle dangling by her face. "You look like Lloyd Bridges," I say.
"Oh," she says distractedly, swatting the snorkle away from her chin. "Let's come back first thing tomorrow morning."