Waves of Change

The eldest is flying the nest and youngest refuses to leave the coop. Change is a comin’ so I cling to the nostalgia of beach days………

We’ve been expecting the eldest to fly the nest for some time now. However, the USA borders have been closed for months, so our expectation was that she would leave in January. As is of our time, things change, and they change fast. The borders are now open to international students and the USA Embassy has re-opened. We have suddenly been flung into a mad panic of appointments, interviews, flight booking, insurance investigations and packing. The youngest, who has felt the C19 changes the most, has lost his school structure, friendships and soon to be his elder sister. His wing man and his confidant. So he and I are heading for the Island.

I do lots of things with Libby, my eldest daughter. She is easy going and easy company. We have things we like doing together. I don’t do much with Archie, the youngest. I can’t kick a football for toffee. I fall over just looking at a skateboard. I hate the Xbox vehemently, and in particular the child he becomes when he’s been left to play on it for hours. But he is soon to become an only child, my only child at home. As if our world hadn’t changed enough over the last few months, the biggest change of all is yet to come.

Although I don’t spend much time with Archie, he and I are very alike. Highly strung, overtly and overly sensitive. At our worst we clash and at our best we understand each other intrinsically. Lockdown has been hard on everyone and our household is no different from the next. But Archie and I have felt the changes most intensely. We both need time alone to process and re-charge our batteries. Hard to find in a crowded house. After a particular trying day of friendship fallouts (him) and family frustrations (me) we met in the kitchen before bed. Our trip to the Isle of Wight hung in the balance as the eldest now had an emergency visa appointment. Archie could see this was upsetting me greatly. He understands my need for the beach, the sea and nostalgic family tradition. So he said “let’s still go mum, just you and me, because it will make you happy.” Never has a greater gift been bestowed upon a mother than a teenage child willing and wanting to spend time with her. I reacted as any mother would. I gave him a hug so long and hard he squirmed and almost suffocated.

Archie is tricky character, but then so was I at 15. He feels hard and reacts ardently. Over the last few months he’s had the rug pulled from under his feet. He finds managing relationships difficult, has a black and white view of the world and I pity the person who dares go against his moral compass. So when you are prevented from seeing your peers, had your daily structure removed and your body decides now is the time to go through puberty, your world kinda falls apart. Small disagreements on the Xbox or group chat are magnified by the circumstances of meeting only one mate, having mates that are shielding and having concentrated long on-line battles. He has been ghosted by his lifelong friends -he will be by no means blameless – but it’s a pretty piss poor place to be in. So although she said “let’s go to the Island” to make me happy, I think he knew the break would make him happy too.

Getting ready to leave started subtly a few days before. You have to warm Archie up before leaving the house. Lots of gentle reminders of our plans. On the day of departure you have to ramp up the reminders but not so much that he shuts down. You are teetering on a cliff edge. I was reassured all mornings that he would be ready to leave at 3pm. I say all morning when in reality he didn’t stir until midday. At 2pm he finally got in the shower. Like a hawk, I swooped into his bedroom, curtains pulled, bed made, rucksack found, clean undies located, swim trunks packed and out again before he returned to drop a sodden towel on the floor. It was inevitably after 3pm when, despite his reassurances, we were still looking for his headphones and chargers, Rushing him would be counter-productive and cause more delays and door slamming but we had a ferry to catch. A ferry on a reduced service and a car with no fuel. Finally a few hours later we were sat on the sun deck crossing the Solent. Him without any type of jumper on his body or in his bag. “You told me it would be hot mum”. At least there was no turning back now.

As we disembarked the boat grandma was there to greet us. Archie accepted the obligatory embarrassing hug and kiss. He does this sort of sideways smile when he is clearly doing things out of duty. The smile is preferable to the sullen sulk I’d be treated to for the whole car and ferry crossing. And frankly any type of smile is way better than the alternative. We headed straight to the beach for a dinner of beer and chips (coke for him). He indulged my parents with whole sentence answers and we watched the sunset over the bay. We were off to a good start.

The next morning he surfaced before noon and set about cooking us all breakfast in the garden on the BBQ. We packed a swim bag and headed to the beach hut for the day. The forecast was for glorious sunshine all day. We set up camp and he then came with me on a walk along the foreshore looking for sea glass and shells. It was everything I hoped it would be. Me and him, together, relaxing by the sea. He then took a nap on the shingle while I explored a bit more, then back to the beach hut for a lunch fit for kings, cheesy chips and ice cream. With the ice cream first. But by teatime it had all gone to pot. The swim shorts I’d packed were the wrong ones. He didn’t want me to buy a new pair from the shop. He was hot and uncomfortable with no means to cool down. We bumped into old friends with their two teenage girls, yes that’s girls, cue hiding behind fringe and back to monosyllabic answers. And the cherry on the top was he’d got sunburn. I hadn’t nagged him to reapply cream because I didn’t want to take off my rose tinted glasses. The result was burnt feet, shins and nose. The salt in the wound was we still had to walk, in ‘rubbing on sunburn’ sliders, round to the next bay where we had a table booked for dinner before departure. The walk is along the sea wall, the water is an incredible turquoise colour and the bay is full of beautiful bobbing sailing ships. Yet this was the most arduous and unpleasant walk ever. He sighed and huffed the whole way, sweat dripping off him, while my mum tried to placate him. I love my mum but she is shit at reading when people need to be left alone but she eventually looked up to see me frantically making cut throat signs. Finally seated at our table, in searing heat but at least shade he began to come back to us. Food for a growing 15 year old can work wonders. Dad and I walked back to collect the car so we would not have to suffer another sunburn on sliders walk home, and when we returned he was smiling, sort of.

We got the last ferry home. I hadn’t refuelled the car in the rush to get there the previous day. My dream day shattered. It would be midnight before I saw my front door. This was not the mum and son wistful trip over the water I had wanted. On the way home, Archie navigated us to a service station to refuel, mars bar for him, diesel for the car. And when the A27 was shut at Arundel, because it couldn’t get any worse could it, he stepped up and became navigator once more. Finally home he had a cold shower and went to bed with flannels on his feet.

The next day, when asked how it had been, he told his dad “Really good apart from the obvious”. We still don’t know what the obvious is. Was it spending time away from the Xbox? Getting sunburnt? Seeing teenage girls? And then I realised I need to the focus on the ‘REALLY GOOD’ and not the ‘obvious’. He tells me he no longer likes the beach and that he is not like me and doesn’t want to go in the sea. But that is just not true. He, like me, truly relaxes there, was happy foraging in the foreshore, snoozing on the shingle and yes he was pissed off that I’d packed the wrong shorts, but that is because he wanted to get in the sea. A lot is changing but a lot stays the same. Buried beneath teenage sullen sulks that kid is still there. The one that would dig trenches in the sand, be the first on the SUP or foamie, draws on pebbles and jump off cliffs into the water with the dog. And as long as I can still drag him to the beach I’ll get glimpses of my boy back. The really good! And that’s as timeless as the tides.

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Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan

Swimming with my Sister

My love of swimming in the sea was cultivated from a young age. I spent every school holiday, even the cold winter ones, in a converted railway carriage on Selsey’s East Beach. It was the stuff of Enid Blyton books. Sea swimming numerous times a day, camping out in haystacks, racing the Lifeboat maroon onto the beach and cycling on an array of Rand Hand Gang bikes for miles on the flat reclaimed land. All of this I shared with my brother, foster siblings, cousins, new friends (now firmly established as old friends) and my little sister. With only 2 years between us in age no matter how much I tried to shake her, there was always my younger sister! In her orange towelling bathing suit.

She was ever present in the sea with me. If there was a summer thunder storm at night we would be allowed to get out of bed to jump into the sea to watch the fork lightning display floating on our backs. (It was the 1970s there was no H&S). We perfected our jumping and diving at high tide off the breakwaters into the depths that the long shore drift had created. We created flotillas of rubber dinghies, washed up crabbing pots and floats and old rowing boats and set sail into low tide lagoons.

With exactly the same upbringing and childhood experiences it has always fascinated me how we grew into such different adults. She is always well turned out and I look like something the cat dragged in. She has incredible patience with people, probably due to working as a nurse for 25 years, and I, diplomatically put, do not. She is able to cope with blood and gore while I am firmly hidden behind the cushion. I get in the sea all year round and she, even on on a summers day does not. But she did. She just doesn’t anymore.

The family holidays of the 1970s and 80s on the Sussex coast have been replaced with annual family celebration holidays. If there is an 0 or a 5 at the end of your birthday year you are expected to find a big house, by the sea, and invite siblings, parents, children, aunts, cousins and dogs to join you. This year it was Dad’s 75th and we headed off to Bude at Easter. I packed my swim suit, my sister did not.

What is not outwardly apparent is that behind my sisters immaculate appearance and organised life she has more than most to deal with. Her youngest daughter Emily has been refusing to go to school for most of her time at senior school. She is now in year 10 and they have lived with school refusal for 3 years. My sister works for the NHS and is like a blood hound when it comes to getting answers but even with that on her side she is no closer to a resolution. I could go on and on about the lack of services available, scarce school funding, female autism going un-diagnosed, acute anxiety, daily melt downs but you get the picture. Life is incredibly hard for my sister and my niece. With that in mind I planned to get Emily in the sea. This I knew would be relatively easy as she loves the sea. It calms her and gives her overworked brain a rest. She swims with me at Grandma Seaside’s on the Isle of Wight and this time in Cornwall her cousin and uncle were going to teach her how to surf. We bought spare wet suits, gloves, boots, robes with us and Emily packed her swimsuit.

So during the holiday, Emily headed into the sea at Widemouth bay and had some foamie fun in the white water. My sister watched from the beach, every present, ever anxious. She doesn’t like the cold water and the waves fill her with dread. Yet here she was watching her daughter, entrusting her to her cousin, having fun. Knowing she had to sideline her own anxiety to allow Emily some respite. Later I went in for a skin swim with my sister-in-law, in the waves, to the amazement of neoprene clad on lookers and again my sister looked on. Same seventies upbringing in the sea but she couldn’t bring herself to get in. To be honest it didn’t even cross my mind to ask her if she wanted to join us as I assumed the answer would be a firm no. And she hadn’t packed her swimsuit.

The holiday house was full, all week, with wet-suits, towels, swimsuits drying on every available radiator and hook. Talk was invariably about swimming, surf spots and surf reports. Post sea highs where shared around the fire with steaming mugs of post sea tea. The highlight of the week was that my husband and niece were going to join me for a swim in the iconic Bude Tide Pool. The surprise of the week was when my sister announced she’d like to join us too! Now to find her a swimsuit.

I often wonder what made her decide to come for a cold water skin swim that day. I think it was because she could see how much it does for my mental health and for her daughters. Perhaps she was curious about the post swim happiness high and whether it too would be some respite for her. Maybe it was good old fashioned sibling rivalry. The Tide pool has sides and a way to get in safely with no crashing waves. It also has changing rooms so that you don’t have to struggle on the sand to get your knickers on. For her the perfect conditions. So she borrowed by daughters swimsuit, refused neoprene but donned various rash-vests, gloves and boots. She questioned why she was doing it over and over again on the way there but didn’t turn back.

We talked a lot about cold water shock and what she should expect when she got in the water. It was March when the sea is at it coldest. I got in first and showed her how I floated on my back and controlled by breathing. She attempted to get in a few times and needed a bit of coaxing but eventually she took the plunge. You could see by her face she was trying really hard to control her breath so we sang. We swam and and we sang and slowly she was able to talk and regulate her breathing and we took a gentle breast stroke turn around the pool. And we were transported back to the 1970s when we regularly swam in the sea together. She was able to forget about life’s daily challenges for a few precious minutes and was so chuffed with herself that she had done it her happiness was infectious. For those few precious minutes she was back in her orange towelling swimsuit with no inhibitions, self consciousness or anxieties.

As a regular outdoor swimmer I am asked all the time if I have a favourite swim. Well this was it. It was the best swim ever. I have swum in the beautiful Glens of Scotland, Tarns in the Lake District, Rivers in the Somerset levels but I never thought I’d see the day when I would share the sea with my sister again. There was no thunder storm, breakwater jumping or dinghies but I did share the sea with my sister again. And it was the best! And now when she holidays in the UK she packs her swimsuit. My sister is a Seabird.

Author: Kath Seabird