Shocking pain sears its way through the depths of sleep jolting me awake. No time to utter a word of protest before the ear ripping claw turns into the newly familiar gentle slapping against my cheek. A sweeter song than the Red Breasted Thrush outside my window commences in tempo to the face patting, “Da Da” is repeated over and over for me to wake up. I close my eyes pretending to sleep in order to savor the moment that will too soon be a memory. Not to be fooled, my 9 month old little girl resorts to the less than pleasant nose twist. My queue to acknowledge her has been made. Giggles erupt and smiles grow wide as I cover her face and neck with good morning kisses. I imagine that this is the extent of her young plans for the day and she considered them a success. Mine are a little more detailed. I can smell the spring freshness of the grass warming in the sun and know that it is the perfect day to begin my daughter’s first adventure.
“One more big push!” The doctor encourages. “You did this to me!” My wife yells turning her head towards me. What a cliché. I think to myself. I let her squeeze my hand as hard as she likes. I am torn with guilt. Oh how I wish I were cruising the Florida backwaters catching Snook. Shouldn’t a good father and husband want to be here? Not me. And I feel bad about it. This is not my comfort zone. “Imagine you are out on the boat with the cool breeze blowing.” I say calmingly. “Shut your big mouth! I could care less about your stupid boat!” Yeah….I’m so not in my comfort zone right now. I am trying to help but only making matters worse. Guilt. Shame. I feel like I’m inside an episode of Sesame Street with Cookie Monster singing “One of these things doesn’t belong here. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” I think I am getting a little sea sick. One last other worldly sound escapes my beautiful wife and another person enters the room, a brand new person. It hits me all at once. For nine months this tiny little person seemed like a condition, a symptom of an illness called pregnancy. My God she is beautiful, and real, very very real. My wife is laughing and crying, smiling and blubbering. I thing I am too. “We did it.” She says to me. We? I think. What the hell did I do? Suddenly there is no place on earth I would rather be. No other place on earth at all. My amazing wife and beautiful daughter are the very definition of my comfort zone.
Squirming protests make the slathering of SPF 90 sunscreen coat the mahogany changing table spindles in such a fashion that only a father could do. It is not for lack of trying that diaper changing, powdering and dressing is left best in the hands of Mommy, who somehow had been born with a natural ability I would never master. This is daddy daughter adventure day and I will not be deterred. From start to finish, I want the whole package. What I lack in dressing finesse, I make up for with fatherly ingenuity.
The sun is warm but the laser beams shooting from Mommy’s eye are scorching. I lose count of how many times she asks “Are you sure this is safe?”. I assure her repeatedly until her voice transforms into Charlie Brown’s teacher. I apply salve to my injured pride with flair as I demonstrate my ingenious skills at rigging a booster seat to the helmsman’s chair of the 19′ Wellcraft open fisherman. The foot tapping on the dock signals another round of reassurance. “We are only going in the canals. No open sea. No speed over 10 knots.” Reluctantly she hands me the baby as if I were King Solomon about to make a judgment. Strapping in the baby I begin the arduous task of loading supplies.
I wonder if it were my wife that did the packing for the passengers aboard the S.S. Minnow. Outfitted with enough supplies for a relatively comfortable life on a deserted island we shove off for a three hour tour of the beautiful South West Florida waterways.
If I closed my eyes I am pretty sure that I could traverse the waterways with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Seeing the reflection of the rippling wake in my daughter’s bright blue eyes I realize that for too long I had been doing just that. Colorful plastic toys, fluffy stuffed animals, and chewy objects found throughout the house had become as familiar to her as the waterway had become to me. This was a new and curious experience filled with sights, sounds, and smells that had no reference of comparison. I open my eyes and mind to these senses. I begin to see the deep hues of the water. Mangrove trees with their spidery roots host Great White Herons. I feel myself slipping into the innocence of my daughter’s point of view. No metaphors or similes in my mind. I accept what I am seeing as fresh and new; nature in its own splendor, worthy of its own definition. Over the years I have taken the simplest of things for granted hoping for something greater and more impressive.
A dolphin blows a misty spray 20 feet off the bow. Quickly I try in vain to divert my daughter’s attention to the dolphin. She has no interest in my excited pointing and gesturing. There is plenty of wonder in the pelican feather, spinning like an out of control raft on the Colorado River, drifting in the boats wake. I power back the engine and begin a wide port turn to circle back to the pelican feather. I stretch hard and get a little wetter than I would have liked but it is worth it when I see I have become a hero in my little girl’s eyes as I hand her the plume. She looks upon the billowy object with curiosity until it ultimately goes straight in her mouth. I suppose that tasting is as normal as looking, touching, and smelling when it comes to pre-toddler investigation techniques. Who is to say what tastes good or bad when there is nothing to compare it to?
Hunger begins to navigate. There is a waterway that is so well hidden from the main channel that even the most curious of kayakers often pass it by. Gaining entrance to this passage takes some tricky maneuvering but well worth the effort. Once through the entrance twists and turns bring me to a land of make believe where I am Ponce De Leon exploring the Florida coast in search of the Fountain of Youth. The water is shallow, 2 or 3 feet at most, enough that I feel comfortable anchoring for lunch. No boats would be through here on a Monday morning. With no sudden wakes to contend with it is a safe place to bring my little girl up to the front of the boat to play while I prepare our picnic brunch. Bite size pasta squares for her, left over conch fritters and fried oysters for me and apple juice for us both. We eat and play. Point and make noises at each other that only the two of us could comprehend. Dropping food over the side opens a whole new world. Black and gold Sergeant Major fish peck at the bits of pasta in a fury. This prompts a level of giggling second only to morning neck kisses.
Lunch cleared away I accept my daughter’s implied suggestion of fishing. She plays with her hat while I bring the bait bucket and spinning rod to the bow of the boat. She peers into the white plastic bucket at the swimming shrimp while I swirl the water with my hand in pursuit of the fattest fish teaser. Catching a nice one I thread it on the hook and cast smoothly out over the still water. This warrants only the briefest of glances. Her concentration is on the translucent crustaceans jetting about in the bucket. Almost instantly I get a bite. “Daddy got a big one sweetie!” I proclaim. I fight the Mangrove snapper with excitement. Landing the fish warrants another brief glance. The real action is in the bucket. Deflated I release the fish back into the water. Only seconds pass before I realize that today’s adventure is about her. I follow her cue and catch another shrimp. This time it is spared from certain death by Snapper. I place the hopping shrimp on the deck of the boat for her to examine. She touches it and it jumps. She looks at me curiously and I long to know what is in her mind. My imagination could never match the innocent wonder she must be feeling, how the thoughts are forming in her mind. Almost prophetically I notice the time is passing quickly. Soon she would be sleepy and ready for a nap.
My promise to Mommy that we would only be gone two hours comes to mind. Sleepy eyes tell me that it is time for rest. I decide on a quick phone call to hold back the fury and inform the nail biting Mommy that we are safe and that I am going to let the sleepy girl nap on a towel for an hour before we head back. This allows me time to reflect on the lessons learned today. I think back on all the adventures I have had in my travels. The future is more exciting than ever as the knowledge that I will be able to relive all of them through the eyes of my little girl. Everything seems new and fresh again. I may once again sail the Caribbean, hike through rain forests, or explore the great cathedrals of Europe. I will not take them for granted.
We pull into the dock behind the house with Mommy waiting, hands clapping and a big smile. “Did you have a great adventure today? Did you learn lots of new things?” She says in a sing song voice. Yes I did, I think to myself. Yes I did.