My son is not a fearless risk taker the way other children his age seem to be. Oliver is very cautious, always has been. It may stem from his perinatal stroke...his lack of confidence in his body's ability to do what he asks it to do. Or maybe it is just his personality and he would have been this way anyway. I will never know. In some ways I am thankful he has this trait. I really never have to worry about him doing something crazy and getting hurt. But I sometimes worry that it will hinder him, that he will be too scared to try anything his whole life and miss out.
A week ago we went on our first family vacation. My mom and stepdad took us to Florida for a week. We stayed in a vacation house in central Florida and used it as our base for several planned trips around the state. We went to SeaWorld, because Oliver is obsessed with sharks and stingrays. We went to Bok Tower, because it was on my bucket list. We went to Busch Gardens, because roller coasters. We wanted to show Oliver the ocean, so we went to the beach on the Atlantic side, then decided to also go to a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. We packed a lot into one week, including Oliver's first airplane ride. Every single day that we were there, my son did something brave. Every single day of our vacation, Oliver stepped outside his comfort zone and surprised us. With all the amazing things we saw and did, those small actions were without doubt the best part of our vacation.
I was more nervous about Oliver's first plane ride than he was. We explained everything that was going to happen, which is a method for introducing new experiences that we learned from Daniel Tiger, of course. Oliver loved the busy airport, except for when they talked over the loud speaker. He loved looking at the airplanes. He showed an amount of patience I didn't think was possible in a three year old. When we boarded the plane, he handed the attendant his boarding pass. He never once got scared, even when there was turbulence. He thought is was great that clouds can be bumpy. And he was super excited when we landed and he felt how fast the plane was going before we slowed down.
The house we stayed in was beautiful. When we arrived, it was very (very) late at night and Oliver was already asleep. He woke up the next morning and exclaimed, "I'm in someone else's room!"
We showed him the house and the pool out back. He actually wanted to go in the pool! I have to explain why that is a big deal. Oliver has always been wary, even afraid of pools and large bodies of water. When he was a baby, we tried swim lessons at the YMCA and he used to shake when we brought him in the pool. When he was around 18 months old he used to cry when his dad swam and went under water. He refused to let us bring him in the pool. When we were able to get him to go in, he would cling to us with a death grip. This past summer, he loosened up a tiny bit, but it was still a fight to get him into the water. So just the fact that he wanted to go in the pool was amazing.
It became a rule that Oliver and Dad had to swim before breakfast every day. He started out just standing on the platform that served as the first step into the pool and by the end of the week we had bought him arm floaties and he was swimming from one end of the pool to the other on his own. I have photos and videos and I'm still not sure I believe it.
We spent a day and a half at SeaWorld. We walked the entire park, saw the orca show, and ate with the sharks at the restaurant inside the shark tunnel. Oliver refused to try to pet a stingray and no amount of encouraging or reassuring could change his mind. So it was a huge surprise to all of us when he wanted to pet a bamboo shark!
Dad lifted him up the first time and Oliver was a little nervous about being over the tank. He wanted Dad to help him so they touched the shark together. After a round of applause and praise from all of us, he asked to do it again. We had him stand on the stroller so he could reach in by himself the second time. We were just about bursting with pride. There were a lot of high fives and hugs.
Oliver's first day at the ocean was on the Atlantic side. We went to a nature preserve near Cape Canaveral to avoid a crowded tourist beach. It was extremely windy and the waves just off shore were at least five feet high. Oliver settled in with his sand toys as we explored the beach a little. He didn't want to go anywhere near the water at first, but slowly made his way closer and closer with the help of his grandmother.
Between the cold water, the noise of the waves crashing, the unpredictable nature of the surf, the movement of the sand under his feet and the foam that tickled his toes, he decided pretty quickly that he was never going to do that again. It took a little coaxing, but Dad finally convinced him to play a game of run away from the waves. Oliver tried it once and ran right back to his toys farther up the beach. It took a while to convince him to come back down to the water, and then he had to have Dad and Atta hold his hands.
Oliver's final judgement on the ocean..."It's too soapy."
We spent one day at Busch Gardens. We walked the park and looked at the animals and took the train ride around the "plain" where the rhinos, zebras and giraffes lived (Oliver was too young to do the safari ride into the area). Jim and Kyle left to ride the roller coasters so my mom and I took Oliver over to the Sesame Street themed kids area. None of us thought Oliver would consent to going on any of the kiddie rides. As we passed them, I pointed them out and told Oliver what they were. He immediately asked to go on the car ride. Of course I said yes! We got over there and I realized that it was too small for an adult to accompany him, so I knelt down and explained to him that he would have to do it alone, that Atta and I were too big. I fully expected him to change his mind, but to my amazement he said it was ok! We helped him climb into a car and he did the short ride with a huge smile on his face!
When he got off, he asked to do it again! We showed him a couple of the other rides and asked if he wanted to do them and he actually said, "I want to go up high." What?! Who is this child and what did you do with my son?! Kyle and Jim came over as he was on his second ride to cheer and high five him before returning to their coasters. We ended up going on four more rides before returning for a second go at the cars.
As we left the park, we were all still in awe of the courage he had shown. Choosing, without persuasion, to go on those rides was so out of character for our cautious little boy. It took a lot out of him, and he had a small meltdown as we made our way to the car, where he promptly fell asleep.
The last day of our vacation we decided to try going to a beach on the Gulf side. We picked Honeymoon Island State Park. We were not disappointed. The difference between this beach and the one we visited on the Atlantic was considerable. Oliver was still very reluctant to go in the water, even though there were almost no waves. As the day progressed, he moved closer and closer, digging a channel in the sand with Jim and scooping up water to pour on Atta's feet.
He didn't go in very deep, but he allowed the small waves to wash up over his feet without needing someone to hold his hand.
As the sun started to sink into the horizon, he allowed his dad to carry him through the water to the break wall to watch the sunset.
During the plane trip home, Kyle used the camera feature on his phone to make it easier for Oliver to see out the window. Being so high in the clouds didn't phase him one bit and he slept soundly for most of the flight.
Every time I think about our first family vacation, these will be the moments I remember most. The excitement as the airplane sped up to take off, watching him try to beat his dad to the end of the pool while hanging on to nothing but a pool float, reaching into the water to touch a shark, the smile on his face as he rode around the track on his first amusement park ride, hearing him say, "let's never do that again" as the surf washed up over his feet (right before he did it again). I'll never understand why he found such bravery during those few days, but I plan to remind him every chance I get that he CAN do new things, and even if he doesn't like it (like the soapy ocean), it's worth trying. I want him to remember his own courage, so that maybe he will be able to find it just a little more often.
Cassandra Zingaro - photographer, mom, wife, owner of HeartStrings Photography and first time blogger