It was the early 1990s, I was fresh out of the University of Wisconsin’s anthropology program and I was hungry for some adventure. I’d managed to find employment as a low-level field archaeologist and was training scuba divers on the weekends, desperately hoping that either career would lead to a life filled with the international travel, exploration, and adventure I’d been craving. In retrospect, I was a bit optimistic about the former vocation, which led to such exotic locations as Des Moines, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Sioux Falls⎯arguably not the caliber of expedition worthy of note on Edmund Hillary’s curriculum vitae. It was my involvement in scuba that ultimately proved a bit closer to what I’d been looking for. I begged my way into a position as a part-time travel guide for a local dive shop, leading groups of scuba divers to the Caribbean. I was terribly under qualified for a number of reasons (including the rather troubling fact that I’d never actually been to the Caribbean) and it didn’t pay much, but the tradeoff for the low salary was worth it: pages of colorful stamps in my passport, and a regular dose of new experiences.
My first trip was to the island of Bonaire. Located off the coast of Venezuela, the small Dutch municipality had earned the title it boasted on its license plates: Divers Paradise. Driven by a tourism economy based largely on scuba, Bonaire was custom tailored to divers. From the island’s protected nearshore reef system and calm seas to its first-rate dive facilities, Bonaire had become one of the world’s premiere destinations for scuba enthusiasts. I led a group of about twenty vacationers desperate to escape the frigid Midwest winter and dive someplace other than a local lake or murky quarry. I was billed as an experienced guide and as such, the others put far more confidence in me than I deserved. The truth was, other than a couple of jaunts to Canada I hadn’t even been out of the country. I spent a good part of that week suppressing urges to blurt out things like, “Holy shit! Look how pretty the money is!” or, “Well isn’t that interesting? They sell their gas by the liter down here.” or other touristy blather that would have surely tipped someone off to my embarrassing lack of worldliness. I frantically pored through every book and article I could find about Bonaire (a time-consuming task in the years before the internet) in the unnerving and very probable event that someone in my group actually had the gall to ask their tour guide a question about the island. Miraculously, the week passed without incident and I returned to Wisconsin deeply tanned, a bit more confident, and itching to travel again.
That visit to Bonaire was an important one for a number of reasons, but topping the list was that it marked my first trip to the Caribbean. And in more cases than not, first trips to any given destination tend to be the most memorable⎯the visit against which all subsequent travels are compared. My memories of that week in the early 90s are of an island seemingly sprinkled with fairy dust: Every facet, from first seeing the turquoise water as our plane descended on approach to Flamingo Airport to drinking beer along the moored sailboats at Karl’s Pier stirred an intense sense of excitement that has been all but impossible to recapture since.
In the following years, I was fortunate enough to lead similar trips to a number of spectacular locations: Belize’s Turneffe Atoll, Honduras, the Yucatan, and the Cayman Islands to name a few. I even managed (based far more on the people I’d befriended than my qualifications) to combine my two professions and land a job at the University of Hawaii’s underwater archaeology program where I helped map sunken World War II airplanes. There were a lot of places out there to see and I was determined to reach as many of them as possible. Still, there was a draw to Bonaire that was hard to shake and I found myself returning again and again to the island in a variety of capacities: As a guide, a sun-starved vacationer and years later as a writer and photographer. Each visit brought me a little closer to the heart of the charming island. I met a number of local characters, explored more extensively (both below and above the waterline), researched articles for the island’s tourism magazine, and became fascinated with the region’s history. A few things have changed over the years: the currency has shifted to the U.S. dollar, there are more ice cream shops, and my favorite seaside restaurant, Richards has closed. But the changes are inconsequential for most. People still flock to Bonaire for what lies beneath the water, not for the waffle cones.
A few short years ago, in my early forties with no children and seemingly none coming our way my wife Becky and I were convinced that our future would hold more intensive, adventurous travel. Conversations about the Pacific Rim, sailing, Europe and even surfing camp were occurring more regularly. And of course there was Bonaire. It had been twenty years since I’d first visited the island as a young, green tour guide and I’d been returning every year since. My affection for Bonaire had grown over the years, a sentiment shared fully by my wife, who’d logged five trips there herself. It was a relationship we planned on fostering through more extensive visits in the future, possibly even purchasing a small rental property on the island.
It was a muggy July morning following one of these very conversations when the pink line made its appearance. It wasn’t there at first but slowly it materialized, becoming darker in hue and more pronounced with each passing second. A thin magenta line was a strange, almost comically understated way to inform us that our lives were about to be turned upside down. A second pregnancy test was conducted, just in case we’d somehow misinterpreted the crystal clear results of the first. Same thing: same pink line; same need to sit down for a minute and get my bearings. While we were busy thinking about far-away adventures, one had moseyed up to our front door and rang the bell.
Suddenly, all of the other parents we knew made it their mission to point out what was coming. In the middle of a conversation, we’d get that look⎯head tilted slightly, eyes closed, subtle smile and the slow cadence of nodding. It’s the knowing look that uncontrollably seeps out of parents when talking to those expecting their first. It’s a look that says, we know something you don’t (which of course they did) and, albeit kindly, you really don’t know what the hell you’re getting yourselves into (which of course we didn’t). And the look was invariably followed by what would soon prove to be the truest of statements: “It’s all going to change.”
“So you had a good time snowboarding last weekend? Good for you…it’s all going to change.”
“The trip to the Caribbean was amazing? I’ll bet it was…it’s all going to change.”
And so on.
Things had already changed, and we were still months away from being parents. They were logistical changes at first; tactical ones: Like how the desk in the room that was once my cozy office had been replaced by a crib; or the way a station wagon and a sedan now sat in the garage where our Jeep and two-door sports coupe once resided. There were countless trips to unfamiliar stores to purchase unfamiliar things: bulbous silicone nose aspirators, bottles, pumps, strollers, car seats, and baby carriers. There were classes to take and books to read to prepare us for what was coming⎯both of which provided more than enough detailed information to scare the hell out of me. Then, as our due date crept nearer the other changes began to happen⎯the behavioral shifts: like the way I became obsessed with making sure the doors were locked, my constant worrying, and the frequency that I found myself comfortably using (and perhaps more mind-blowing, understanding) unthinkable terms like dilation, effaced, and breast milk expression.
So much for surfing camp.
There were a lot of questions and plenty of speculation. Would our lives, as parents have to replace the lives we had before or could the two coexist to some degree? One thing seemed perfectly clear: We either give up the things we love to do or we find a way to bring our child with us. People did this all the time didn’t they? We’d pack diapers in our gear bags, buy overpriced drinks for passengers on the plane irritated by the crying and ask as many questions as we could. Visions of striking off across a coral-strewn Bonarian coastline with our giggling baby in a backpack began filling my head. We could do this. We’d be the envy of all of our friends. How hard could it really be?
After our son Luc was born, this flowery idealism made it about a week before crumbling. It met its demise late one night while I was pacing around the kitchen, a sleepless, wide-eyed infant in one arm and my iPad (displaying an article I’d just Googled on “how to get babies to sleep”) in the other. I’d never experienced so much confusion, felt so helpless or been so staggeringly exhausted in my life. Travel to the Caribbean with this little guy? I was scared to even go to the grocery store with him. Stroll along a tropical shoreline with him in a backpack? I was far too tired for strolling. I now had more pressing fantasies like sleeping for more than ninety minutes at a time or eating a meal while sitting down. Our days were filled with baby monitors, coffee by the gallon, diapers, and incessant fatigue. Could our lives before Luc coexist with our lives afterwards? I was beginning to have serious doubts.
And then I felt it slipping away: the excitement of travel, the adventure I was still chasing, and the small Dutch island that I’d once assumed would be a constant facet in my life. I saw a future filled with soccer practices, potty training, strained peas, chicken pox, and teacher parent meetings. No more stepping off the plane and being met with warm equatorial trade breezes. No more late nights on the pier fueled by too much Cuban rum. No more cresting the head of the reef and gaping off through the saltwater as schools of tarpon lazily circled the iron hull of a shipwreck. There was just no way all of this could fit together. I was sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and feeling utterly unprepared. And now, just days into being a parent, I was selfishly and shallowly mourning the loss of my previous life, at times even wallowing in jealousy knowing that our childless friends would continue to travel, setting off into the world while⎯for the first time in my adult life⎯I would have to remain stationary.
But here’s the funny thing: In the broader scheme of things, none of it really mattered that much: The exhaustion, the confusion, even the petty jealousy. There were much bigger things in play now. I was simultaneously more miserable and happier than I’d ever been before. It was an utterly bizarre dichotomy that seemingly defied reason⎯a real mind-screw. It redefined love: Pure, raw, biologically hard-wired, and in its own way, simple, unquestionable. The sudden presence of such a feeling was overwhelming and more than just a little unnerving. I’d been consumed by it, unconditionally⎯almost fiercely⎯since before he was even born. I would let my passport get dusty from lack of use, pack my dive gear away in the basement and endure hours of Sesame Street videos if need be and it would all be worth it. A few months ago I would have deemed this notion ludicrous. Now, impossibly, it seemed logical.
Things had changed drastically from a year before, from a month before, from even a week before. And more was coming. It was nothing more than speculation (speculating was just about all I’d done since discovering I was going to be a parent) but if I concentrated, I could look ahead, beyond the haze of baby monitors, spit-up, fatigue and relentless worry to see a day when Luc would see fit to sleep through the night, to crawl, to smile, to talk. A day would come when I wasn’t so exhausted and confused. A day would come when Becky and I could start stitching our past lives and our lives as parents together. And if that’s true, who knows? A day may come that I’m back on Bonaire⎯not as a tour guide or a carefree vacationer, but as a father. Maybe it was just a pipe dream, something I’d forget about over time as my new life took hold and more pressing matters replaced the frivolous dreams of travel. Maybe.
But there was no harm in hoping.
To be continued...