By Adelle Purdham
We are standing on a beach somewhere along the infamous North Shore of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. I have my toes tucked beneath the sand and I’m feeling nervous. One hand rests on my hip while the other cups my forehead, shielding my eyes from the blinding sun that bleaches everything white. I’m scanning the waves, sizing them up; the waves are what the beach is famous for. These are the ocean waves we will be riding.
Standing nearby is my husband, Dan, and our three young girls, Ariel, Elyse and Penelope. We are on a forty-five-day family trip around the world, taking us from Toronto, ON to San Francisco, CA and the Hawaiian Islands, then onward to Japan, Thailand, and finally a week in Portugal to complete the trip before heading back home.
Surfing in Hawaii is one of a handful of experiences we have been looking forward to for years. The waves are intimidating, but there’s no backing out now.
Our eldest daughter, Ariel, is eight years old. She took skateboarding lessons and was the most enthusiastic about surfing beforehand; now, taking in the dramatic scene of the surf, she’s less sure. Penelope is three years old and our youngest child. I didn’t think it was possible to take a three-year-old surfing, but with the help of expert surfers and a tandem method, Penelope will also be out catching waves – she just doesn’t know it yet. I later learn from our photographer that even babies surf in Hawaii: he took his firstborn out at six months old, which he admits may have been “pushing it,” but I digress.
Then there’s Elyse, our middle daughter, who is on the cusp of seven years old and has Down syndrome. There was a time before she was born when I questioned what she would be able to do. Know your child. Elyse is not the wild, adventurous type. She is not the steadiest on her feet at the best of times. She does not particularly enjoy standing on top of moving objects, is often resistant to change, and takes a while to adjust to new experiences. To say surfing on the North Shore would be pushing Elyse’s boundaries is an understatement.
Oh, and neither Elyse nor Penelope can swim. When I wrote to the surfing company we eventually hired to inquire, I expressed my concerns about our younger two. In response, the owner – a veteran surf goddess – assuaged my doubts about safety and sealed the deal with her final comment. “I think it’s going to be super fun.”
So here we are, practising our surf moves atop surf boards on the sand. We are wearing long-sleeved rash guards with bathing suits underneath. Elyse is really enjoying the warm-up. She is laying down atop her board on her stomach, imitating the cupped hands, arm swinging movement we will need to use to propel ourselves forward through the water. Now she’s crouched down low, arms out for balance, feet apart, knees bent, standing sideways, looking like a real surfer chick. I feel a degree of anxiety lift as I see her attempting each movement on dry land. We look the part, but I can’t help but wonder what is going to happen when we actually get out on the water.
The moment of truth. The time has come to get our feet wet, and all three kids look like they want to bolt. Penelope and Elyse do actively run away. With a big crew of helpful adults, our convoy convenes toward the water and what happens next is hard to explain. Like a car accident, everything happens fast. The next thing I know, all five members of my family have been towed out and we’re bobbing in the ocean. Dan and Ariel, each on their own board, are being led away to be pushed into their first wave. I’m craning my neck to try and keep my eyes on them, but with the distraction of my youngest two and the rise and fall of the waves, it’s near impossible. I just have to trust and keep my fingers crossed that our instructors know what they’re doing and that everyone is going to be okay.
Elyse, Penelope and I are in the holding area, a safe place to wait until it’s our turn to surf. Penelope has been moved onto my surfboard for safe keeping and she’s clinging hard to my neck. Elyse is lying flat out on her surfboard and it’s pretty clear that she’s terrified and wants her daddy. Both of them are wailing. I see Ariel in the distance; she makes it to her knees then crashes hard from the force of the wave. I can’t see her resurface.
In moments like these, you start questioning the parenting decisions that have led you to this point. Why did I think it was a good idea to take our kids surfing in the Pacific Ocean? What if something bad happens? Why am I putting them through this?
Eventually, as the calm of our instructors rubs off on them and they habituate themselves to the movement of the waves, the younger two settle down. The owner surf goddess scoops Elyse up onto her board and away they go, off to catch her first wave. Surf goddess even gets Elyse to stand up on her first attempt.
I wish I could say Elyse loved surfing, but truthfully, she didn’t. She found the experience to be scary and overwhelming. But would I change what we put her through? Absolutely not. Elyse hung in there for a second surf attempt, this time on her stomach facing the shore, and there’s an incredible shot of her crashing through a wave, face first, eyes wide open with a hint of realization of what she has achieved. She did it. She conquered that wave. And if she can conquer her fears and a wave off the North Shore of Hawaii, what else can she do?
While surfing wasn’t Elyse’s first choice, we planned other excursions we hoped would be more her speed. True to character, in new situation after new situation, Elyse struggled to a degree, at least initially.
At the start of our rainforest hike through the jungle in Thailand, Elyse refused to budge. Arms crossed, she stood firmly in place. “I want food.” Know your child. Luckily, I came prepared with snacks and so did our guide who not only provided fresh coconuts from his family’s farm, but he also packed some of Elyse’s favourites: chips and Oreo cookies.
Elyse found the several kilometres walk in the blanket of heat to be challenging, as we all did, so Dan carried her most of the way. When we chanced upon gibbons, tree dwellers for life that live in the rainforest cover, I encouraged her to crane her neck to look up and see them, but she wasn’t interested – not in that moment. Near the end of our hike, Ariel spotted a vine in our path, and that caught Elyse’s attention. She monkeyed around with her sisters and was compelled to hang around, just like those gibbons she supposedly wasn’t paying attention to.
In Japan, we stayed in a traditional Japanese Inn, a ryokan, where it was customary to wear a robe called a yukata and slippers for the duration of your stay. Unlike her sisters, Elyse initially refused the yukata, which was fine. When she attempted to wear the slippers, our flat-footed girl whose feet turn outwards sent them flying off with each step.
Then there was the food. Elyse, typically a hearty eater, was beside herself. On the eve of our first dining experience, tired and jet lagged from travel, decadent course after course was delivered to our table, a gastronomic feast and pleasure for the senses – but completely foreign and mostly unidentifiable to our Canadian eyes. Elyse was having none of it. “Pizza,” she moaned, “I want pizza.” Penelope, for her part, curled up in a ball and fell asleep on the floor while Ariel poked questioningly at her plate. Elyse did eventually find her staple food in Japan. Rice and fried chicken is a common dish and Elyse had her fill.
In Northern Thailand, I organized an excursion to an elephant nature reserve. I didn’t realize we would be face-to-face and without enclosures amid the giant beasts, but was delighted to discover this would be the case.
Animal encounters for Elyse are hit or miss; sometimes she coos, other times… she screams. One day she might purr at a cow and get dangerously close, the next she might wail at the sight of a kitten. It just depends on the day.
I was nervous about how our morning with elephants would play out, but having already survived surfing in Hawaii and eating in Japan, Elyse seemed to draw some confidence from her newfound worldliness. She was enthralled by the educational video that played in the car ride on the way to the reserve, and helpfully repeated every line.
Elyse isn’t quiet about her fears, but she’s honest about them, and the people we’ve traveled with seem to appreciate that about her. She clung to her dad when we first saw the elephants, but eventually became relaxed and comfortable enough to rest her hand atop of an 86-year-old gentle giant. She pet that grandma elephant and told her she was a good boy.
Our elephant encounter taught our girls about real, unrehearsed danger. When the elephants back up, you get out of the way – quickly! When her sisters fearlessly leaned in to feed the elephants pumpkins with their bare hands, Elyse eventually got in there too, choosing instead to toss the food in the elephant’s direction. Those morsels did not go unappreciated.
The focal point of our six-week trip was a lantern festival in Thailand called Loy Krathong. We signed up for a boat ride that departed from our riverside hotel and carried us into the heart of the festival in the old downtown of Chiang Mai. In retrospect, this is the only way our family could have safely enjoyed the experience, as we could see the crowded streets and packed bridges from our boat ride and our little family would have been engulfed by the masses.
Knowing my middle daughter, I knew the evening of the festival would be particularly challenging for Elyse for several reasons: the late night, the bright sights, the loud and unexpected sounds, the shiftiness of the boat moving through the water, and the novelty of the situation all spelled potential disaster. I cringed at the thought of the stress I would be putting Elyse through. But when weighing the pros and cons, I decided the experience of thousands of floating lanterns in the water and sky would be worth it.
To mitigate the overwhelming sensory experience, we did something we never wanted to do – we brought earphones and an iPad. While I could have allowed myself to feel shameful about this parenting move, instead I felt relief. After showing signs of distress, we gave Elyse the device and she was then able to experience the festival at her own level.
Our boat reached its destination and we were thoroughly enchanted by the experience of thousands of glowing lights rising in unison. At the height of the beauty and chaos, Elyse chose to take off her earphones and she came to join me, putting her little hand on my shoulder. Together, we released a krathong, a candle-lit banana boat, into the water on behalf of our family. It was a beautiful moment, and if I had insisted Elyse do things my way, it would never have happened.
Now we’re on the shores of Koh Samui, a tiny island surrounded by jellyfish-infested waters. Elyse and I are sitting just the two of us, reading books in sling back chairs facing the ocean. Elyse loves looking at books.
I have asked nothing challenging of my family at this stop. No ocean surfing or strenuous hikes. We are purely on a beach vacation.
A lone tropical bird flutters in and settles itself close by on the chair in front of Elyse and me. The bird’s startling tune, both haunting and lovely, catches my attention, and when I look over at Elyse, I see she’s also watching the bird with interest. I’m watching the little bird closely now, drawn in by its song, which once upon a time I may have been too busy or too distracted to hear. I am enjoying the bird’s song immensely; its melody is intermingling with the soothing sound of the breaking waves and sweet blowing wind. While travel is about going places and doing things, it’s also about being in the moment with the people you love.
Now that our trip is over, I look at each of my children differently. I am in awe of their accomplishments; in the face of hardships and obstacles to overcome, they persevered. I’m more ready to let them be the ones to show me what they can and cannot do because out in the real world, unrehearsed, that’s how it all played out.
There was a time before she was born when I questioned what Elyse would be able to do. Perhaps a better question to consider these days is what won’t she be able to do?
But why ask that? The possibilities span the globe. I cannot wait for our next family adventure, wherever it may be. I know it’s going to be super fun.