Almost two and a half years ago now, Mike and I were driving towards Akaroa in New Zealand. It was the second last day of our honeymoon. We were on our way to swim with dolphins, and I was grumpy.
I’m not sure when the grumpy started. Possibly when I woke up and it was rainy and cold. Possibly when Mike asked me in the car what I was particularly looking forward to about swimming with the dolphins – something I’d wanted to do for at least a decade.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to see them up close, and swim with an animal that’s as big as me, and pet them.”
“OK,” Mike said. “Wait just one minute. For starters, I don’t think we’ll be able to touch them. You might want to recalibrate your expectations a little.”
I stared out the window of the car at the fine misty rain that was drifting across the road and sulked. I had already recalibrated my expectations once that morning with regards to this adventure. In my decade-old vision of swimming with dolphins it was always warm and sunny. The water was always a clear azure and calm. The dolphins always swam right up to me with friendly clickings and basically begged me to hug them, or even ride them. This adventure – the adventure that my brand-new spouse had gone to a lot of trouble to research and book as a special treat for me – was not looking like it was going to live up to that vision.
Things did not improve when we reached the dock. Assuming any of them actually showed up, our tour operator informed us, we’d be swimming with the world’s smallest dolphins. They were about the size of a hefty Labrador retriever. Their skin was so delicate we could damage it just by brushing up against them, and under no circumstances were we to try to touch them. The temperature was about 12 degrees Celsius (53F). We were going to have to wiggle our way into 5cm thick wetsuits. The water in the bay was clouded chalky white that cut visibility to almost nil. The swell was 3m high and I suddenly realized that I was in dire danger of becoming violently seasick unless I downed some anti-nausea medication, and fast. I really want to like boats, but the truth of the matter is they don’t usually like me.
Luckily there was a pharmacy located at the far end of the dock, and with half an hour to spare before sailing, Mike and I headed down there to look for some anti-seasickness medication.
On our way back towards the boat that was going to take us out to look for these small-ass, fragile dolphins in the middle of a freezing rainstorm, Mike tentatively offered the following observation.
“I don’t have many data points yet on what you’re like on a day when you get to do something you’ve wanted to do most of your life,” he said. “But so far experience suggests that you’re a little… difficult.”
“Well, you keep telling people that I’ve wanted to do this for years,” I said.
“Well, haven’t you?” Mike asked.
Yes, I wanted to say. But, but, but… But not like this. It’s numbingly cold. And what if we can’t find these teensy little dolphins? What if we find them, but it’s too dangerous to get off the boat and swim with them? What if I get seasick and spend the entire time throwing up?
Faced with the sudden reality of a “swimming with dolphins” experience that promised to diverge sharply from a romantic daydream I hadn’t even fully realized I held, I did not deal with my fears and frustrations with rational grace. I doubt I explained this tangle of disappointed anxiety very well in the moment. Probably the only thing I did do well in that moment was scowl.
I found myself thinking about swimming with these dolphins very early this morning. I had just stumbled back to bed after being up for the fourth time and I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a comfortable position to lie in.
My visions of having children have never been as clearly defined as my tropical dreams of swimming with friendly dolphins, but as I get closer and closer to delivering this baby I’ve been finding myself increasingly surprised by fears that surface at odd moments and longings related to a rooted, domestic vision that I have never lived.
Sometimes when I’m alone and awake in the silent void of 3AM I let myself imagine briefly that Mike is here instead of Laos. That we live in Melbourne. That we have no plans to move anywhere else in the near future. That after the baby is born we’ll bring him back from the hospital to our house, and that Mike and I are not facing another month apart and then a long trip across the equator just weeks after the baby is born.
Then come the fears, because even in the dreamy pre-dawn I never let myself fully forget that this is not the reality that we have chosen to fashion for ourselves.
What if the baby arrives before Mike does? What is labour and delivery going to be like? What if something is wrong with the baby? And, further down the track, what will it be like to watch over a sick child out of reach of good medical care? How will this little one complicate our peripatetic lifestyle?
Swimming with dolphins that day in Akoroa turned out to be nothing like I’d imagined. On the other hand, most of my last-minute fears never materialized, either. I didn’t get seasick. We did find dolphins. And the captain gave us permission to leap overboard into the churning sea if we were game enough to brave the threatening waves.
Five of the twelve of us were.
I was first off the boat – mostly because I knew that if I let myself hesitate too long before jumping, I may never jump. The cold was breath-stealing and the grey swell picked me up and then dropped me six feet at a time. It took most of my energy to stay upright and tap the small stones that I was holding together. The dolphins, the crew had told us, would hear the clicking noise and come investigate.
They did, too. One minute there was nothing but pale freezing waves, the next there was a small fin just to my left and a silvery shadow skimming past. They circled around for more than half an hour, darting so close in between us, dipping up and down like excitable aquatic puppies. They were always in motion, impossible to see clearly, but undeniably, exhilaratingly, there.
When we finally managed to clamber back on board the boat we had blue lips and couldn’t feel our fingers or toes. It was far from the tropical azure and gentle friendliness I’d wanted but it had turned into an adventure valuable in its own right – something altogether wilder and less controllable, but thrilling.
It’s raining and cold here today, too. Mike and I have been apart more than five weeks with a month still to go and the separation is wearing thin. Part of me, I admit, wants to sit here and stare out into the wet mist and dwell on all the ways that this adventure of having our first child is not turning out exactly as I find myself wishing that it were.
But then I think of the dolphins again. I wonder whether our adventures would still feel adventurous if most of them turned out just as we envision. And I remind myself that experiences we do not expect, perhaps don’t even want, can end up being magical, too.