Monday, April 23, 2012

Shifting Gears

[This entry actually precedes all the Thai essays, as it was written last summer before Casey departed for her trip...]

10 rolls of paired socks
15 pairs of undies
a fistful of thongs
3 LuluLemon tank tops
2 pairs LuluLemon cropped pants
3 pairs of shorts
4 blousy tee shirts
3 bikinis (reduced from 6)
personal care products:
4 toothbrushes
bug spray – lots of it
a Ziploc bag of OB tampons
travel toilet paper
assorted medications for an array of potential afflictions, including malaria
roll-up bag with plastic compartments for personal care products
2 dresses – 1 rainbow spaghetti strap, 1 little black dress
Luna health bars
water purification tablets and devices
2 long sleeved shirts

A moss green backpack lies open, gaping, at the foot of the guest room bed. My daughter Casey marches back and forth between her own room and the guest room, packing for a four-month trip to Asia. I follow her, hoping to seem good company as opposed to a pathetic mother who wants to drink in every last moment with her before she leaves.

“Do I need this many undies? Would I wear this white top? How do I feel about all the warnings on this DEET insect repellent?” I realize she is not asking me, merely musing aloud, but I know how I feel about the warnings: “Don’t put it on your face. And be sure to wash your hands carefully after application.” It is all I can do not to spew a stream of reminders and cautions. “Yes! Bring the white top – to wear over the LuluLemon tanks! No! You don’t need all those thongs. Do you have any long pants? Have you researched which country doesn’t allow chewing gum? Where you shouldn’t look a man in the eye? Where you need to cover your shoulders? Have you…? Remember…! Don’t…!”

I know Casey doesn’t want to be caned or kidnapped any more than I want her to be, but I eye those short dresses and cute little tank tops and I want to add a voluminous shawl or at least a few more additions to the long-sleeved shirt pile.

She’s had inoculations, perused travel books, and done a lot of Googling. We have copies of her documents, a list of the few contacts she has overseas, a loose itinerary, and a new Skype account. Her father, Dave, has written a packet of sixteen poems for her, of the “Roses are Red” variety, one to be read every Monday she’s away.

I have made sure the saints are on duty by purchasing a St. Christopher’s medal – a must for any traveler. I have silently called on deceased relatives who love my girl to ask that they keep watch. Dave bought SOS insurance so we can helicopter her out in case of an emergency. We considered buying a personal tracking device, but Casey did not want the extra weight. Besides, “I’m not trekking into any deepest, darkest jungles, Mom...”

Well, not exactly…She is going to Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. For a child of the seventies like myself, names that conjure images of dark, green, tangled danger; bloody soldiers; fear. Friends who have made this trip rave about the beauty of these countries and the kindness of the people. But still…

What more can we do to protect our child on this distant journey? At what point is our wish to protect an intrusion? How much of this is about our own fears? My own fears? A lot. I know.

Like an idiot, I’ve flipped through photo albums from the eighties when Casey and her brother were content to hold my hand, sit in my lap, or ride on my hip, close and safe. But Casey is twenty-eight and has lived in New York for the past four years. She knows how to handle herself. She’s resourceful, resilient and brave.

Still, anxiety has been a gnawing discomfort – for her as well as me. One afternoon, I peeked into her room and thought she was napping …then I noticed her shoulders shaking under her coverlet. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?”

“What am I doing, going on this trip?” she said, sobbing. “I’m so overwhelmed.”

I found myself in the unlikely role of trip champion. We discussed the reasons for this journey beyond the obvious call of adventure: broadening horizons, forging connections and immersion in different cultures. She is searching – for self-insight, for direction, for what might be her next step. We’ve talked about the clarity - the potential for sorting out her life - that four months away offers. We both know the truth of these points. And suddenly I had an image of myself, Eeyore-like: my worry as draining to my daughter as the malaria she hoped to avoid…and something within me shifted.

In the days that followed, as Casey’s to-do list bore a cheering column of check marks, excitement displaced her worry as well. While she pawed through her drawers and closet deciding what to bring, I sat on the floor in her room and read travel books. I marveled at pictures of pagodas, pandas and elephant orphanages. Of men poling low-slung boats on the Mekong River. Of narrow streets strung with scarlet paper lanterns. Of the towers and gateways of Angkor Wat twined with tree-like vines. And I could feel it – the flame, the lure, of things so foreign.

When an event is anticipated for so long, it becomes unreal. Once the backpack was zipped, passport and documents checked and counted four or five times, and her room swept visually for any errant articles, it was…time to go. Dave, Casey and I stood by the door, almost surprised. It was actually happening.

I am the mother so I had to say, as a matter of routine, “You’re sure your plane departs from JFK, right?”

“Yeah… (Pause). Yeah. But you make me nervous by asking.” She fumbled through her bag for her itinerary. Couldn’t find it. Started to boot up the computer. Took too long. Called Karis, her partner-in-travel, who was already on her way to Newark.


“Right. Okay. (Embarrassed laugh). Newark,” said Casey.

I resisted the urge to say “Aren’t you glad I asked?” more than three times during the ride to New Jersey.

Now she’s in China. She has written blogs about a jelly-kneed cable car ride to see a giant Buddha, about markets selling shark fin, turtles, bags of live frogs, jade and silk. About a scary arrival in Beijing to a haze-filled night, a half-naked man who blocked their path and vomited, dark alleys, no English in evidence, and no idea where to go. And she wrote about the kind woman who saw they were lost and stopped to help, who hailed a taxi for them, then pulled out her cell phone to call their hostel for directions to guide the cab driver. About a beautiful, ancient man playing a stringed instrument in the street. About other travelers who helped her feel she was safe.

She is fine. She is safe.

We’ve seen her on Skype once – her face blurry and pixilated, her speech delayed. We email and we’ve spoken on the phone a few times and it sounds like she’s in the other room. But she’s not; she’s thousands and thousands of miles away. And the fullness of life far beyond anything she has known is unfolding before her.


Tricia said...

Lovely. And some how even sweeter having already traveled with you and her -- the journey conjured. Keep going!!!

Laurie said...

Loved it, Lea. You're right, people of our generation grew up with frightening images of Vietnam. And yet so many people rave about its beauty.