Before moving to Columbia, Missouri, spring break meant a week off of school to hang around the house and catch up on projects. I soon learned this is not the case in the Midwest. In CoMo, it’s ‘hasta la vista, baby,’ and everybody heads to prime vacation destinations like Florida, California and Mexico. With their kids.
An Arizona girl transplanted to Texas, I didn’t get it. Migrating to warmer climates in search of sun after an interminable winter apocalypse complete with frozen, icy winds, subzero temps and snow day after snow day after snow day wasn’t on my radar. However, I get it now.
“I’m so cold! I haven’t been warm in months,” I say to my friend, Jane in Phoenix, who at this very moment sits on her patio shaded by palm trees, enjoying a perfect 75 degrees. “I can’t wait to feel the sun on my face again.” I close my eyes and imagine lying on the beach, lifelessly baking like a reptile on a rock.
“You’re going for how long?” she asks.
“Nine days! Granted, that’s four long days of driving, but it’s so worth it. Five days of camping right across from the beach. We can literally walk. We need a break so badly and this will be perfect.”
Life is busy everywhere. Raising a family is tough enough without things like cancer thrown in the mix. But this year, we lost my mother-in-law to leukemia and we’re all still reeling. This trip is South Padre Island, Texas is just what the doctor ordered. A little strip of heaven off the Gulf of Mexico, SPI welcomes vacationers year-round and promises something for everyone. While making plans, I can’t help but fantasize. I see us kicking back in our 5th wheel at the KOA. Music resonates from outdoor speakers, our girls ride their bikes, my husband sears steaks at the grill while I recline in my comfy camping chaise lounge, feet up, wine glass in hand. I’m like a kid at Christmas with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.
My husband, Steven, brings the RV out of hibernation and ensures his 4WD Ford F-250 is tow-worthy. An über boy scout, my mate is a thorough list-maker. His organization includes prep for saltwater fishing, something he can’t do from landlocked Missourah. The kayak rides atop his Super Duty, the front end protruding over the hood and forming a visor that frames our view as we head south on a 1,200-mile trek in search of the sun.
“All I’m going to do is re-lax.” I say to Jane, sighing luxuriously with anticipation.
Setting out with excitement and buckled securely in place, we enjoy long stretches of companionable silence as the girls watch movies, listen to music, or read. I inevitably doze, the rhythm of the road lulling me to sleep. And my sweet husband shoulders the burden of towing 11,000 lbs. and delivering us safely to our destination.
After twenty-two hours of driving, over two long days, we arrive in Texas. Just in time for a tropical storm. We spend our first night hunkered down, listening to a hammering torrent of rain and gale force winds whip through the campground. The next morning, it stops long enough to let us out, though warm temperatures are nowhere to be found. We dig through the shorts, tank tops and flip flops we packed to find the single pair of jeans I always insist on—just in case. We buy graphic sweatshirts at a touristy gift shop but still shiver. The overcast sky lightens and we try to grab some outdoor time before another downpour. Setting up camp, Steven unfurls the awning and hangs a string of little Japanese lanterns. He rolls out the outdoor rug and sets up our chairs. He lights the BBQ, but the wind keeps extinguishing the flame. Suddenly dark, ominous clouds gather. Another storm threatens. We retract the awning, fold up the chairs and run inside just as the pelting hail unleashes. The last one in, my husband loses his grip on the door and the wind slams it against the side of the RV. Wrestling it back, he steps inside, breathing heavily and dripping water on the floor. For the rest of the day, thunderstorms shake the trailer while we stay in, watching the lightening flash across the water.
The second night, every blanket is put to use, but the chill causes us to break down and turn on the heat. The next day, though it’s not pouring, the sun hides, obliterated by cloud-cover, casting a gloomy pall. There is no laying out in the sand, no playing in the sun, no saltwater fishing, no kayaking, no building of sand castles and body surfing, no bike riding or steak grilling or book reading. We have come over 1,000 miles to sit on top of one another in a little tin box.
We are not happy campers.
On the fourth morning of this nonsense, I lay in bed, miserably listening to the rain dancing with tap shoes on the roof of the trailer. With a deep sigh, I attempt a conversation with the petulant teenager who lives inside me.
Grown-up Me: “Let it go, Lisa. So, it’s not what you expected. You’re ruining your own vacation.”
Adolescent Me: “But, this is not the vacation I ordered. This is not the vacation I needed! It would have been so perfect.”
GM: “The girls are handling this better than you."
AM: “I know. It’s true.”
And they are. Such little troopers. My daughter, Sydney’s ability to go with the flow has always amazed me. This child with Down syndrome takes everything in stride and maintains an inner peace that’s nothing short of enviable. Even Haley, my kiddo with ADHD, in need of constant stimulation, isn’t complaining.
AM: “But hanging out inside the RV wasn’t what we planned. This weather sucks. This totally SUCKS!”
GM: “You’re still spending time together as a family.”
AM: “Yeah, right. We’re three miles shy of Mexico, for the love of Mike! We came all the way to Texas to get out of the cold, to find some sun, and this is what we get, I can’t …… ?”
GM: “Shhhhhhhh, Lisa. Shhhh. Let it go.”
Suddenly, the infamous melody from the movie Frozen rings through my brain. “Let it go! Let IT go!” Arguably, the words are intended in a different context, but given my circumstances, the insistent reminder fits. Tenacity and perseverance have gotten me a long way in my life, but this time, a white-knuckled grip on my expectations is not serving me well.
Grudgingly leaving my pity party behind, I rise from my bed and join my little family passing the time browsing a few deserted gift shops with their shelves of souvenir shot glasses and cheap jewelry, bins of shells and painted starfish, and rows of campy graphic T-shirts. We take turns trying on goofy hats and modeling for each other.
Haley hollers at me a few aisles over, “Mom, look!”
Rounding the corner, she holds up a shirt, excited to show me the writing on the front.
“Read it!” she insists, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” I recite.
I’m not kidding. This is what it says.
My youngest daughter, wise for her years, beams at me as if she’s discovered the meaning of life (and maybe she has).
“I’ve never seen this on a shirt before!” she exclaims incredulously. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Pretty cool,” I agree.
GM: “Um, hello, Lisa? Recognize a personal message from the universe when it’s put in your face?”
AM: “You think so? Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s time to let it go.”
Once I release my fantasies and look at the past few days through a new lens, I see what a success the trip has actually been. No, I didn’t lounge lazily in a hammock like I wanted, but I did cuddle up with my girls and watch movies. I didn’t play catch with Sydney, but we did play Candy Land and Go Fish. Steven and Haley didn’t take their father-daughter fishing excursion—indeed, Dad’s kayak never even touched the water, but, on a nature walk they did find a fantastic creature called a sea hare. As a family, we ate delicious local seafood while wearing paper pirate hats at a whimsical restaurant on the pier. And we visited the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center where we met Allison, the sea turtle with just one flipper who could only swim in circles until she was fitted with a prosthesis that allowed her full functioning for the rest of her 150 years on the planet.
Ironically, on the fifth, and final day of our trip, the clouds evaporate and the winds calm. At long last, the glorious sun shines blindingly bright, heating the air. The paradise we’d been longing for suddenly materializes. Gathering our gear post-haste, we scramble to the beach. Lying supine in the sun, eyes closed, I drink in the radiant heat, reptilian instincts satisfied. Haley surfs on her boogie board, Sydney digs in the sand, and Steven combs the beach for shells. Bittersweet, we finally get a taste of what we came for. And tomorrow we leave.
“Mom, I don’t want to go!” Haley laments. “The sun just came out.”
“Yeah, but I miss my friends,” Sydney says. “I wanna go back to school.”
I echo the sentiments of both my girls. Wishing it were more, still, I’m grateful for one gorgeous day. And I’m ready to go home.
I return from vacation not only with great stories of salvaging a thwarted spring break, but with hard-earned life lessons as well. I learned first hand it is the discrepancy between what I envision and what actually happens that causes my suffering. Staring down my resistance to (okay, my utter rejection of) such a wide chasm of discrepancy, I’m forced to acknowledge the part I play in my own distress. If I’m accountable for that choice, I’m also liberated to choose differently, which is where the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer comes in. By accepting what I cannot change, I’m free to courageously change the things I can, namely my expectations. When I shift my perspective about spring break and everything else, I can love the imperfectly perfect life that’s right in front of me.