Until I was sixteen, maybe even seventeen, I had every intention of being a dolphin trainer. Not a marine biologist. A dolphin trainer.
But then I took chemistry and nearly failed it in spite of a great teacher. Knowing that marine biology was going to require chemistry, I left behind the idea of becoming a dolphin trainer and pursued the dream of being a writer.
My dolphin trainer dream started in Brookfield Zoo, just outside of Chicago, Illinois. My mother’s parents and family lived in Wheaton, also just outside of Chicago. As often as possible, we would complete the odyssey across half of the United States and would descend on my grandparents’ home, my great-grandparents’ apartment and for a brief amount of time, I was suspended in childhood bliss, living as a granddaughter who was loved by generations of wonderful family.
When I was in pre-school, the family went to Brookfield Zoo where my mother bought me a postcard. I darted into the exhibition hall where park guests were able to see the dolphins. I plastered the postcard, picture side in, onto the window and a dolphin swam past. It glimpsed at my postcard, nodded its head, smiled in appreciation.
Or, at least, that is what I imagined. Note, dolphins always smile. And likely its head bobbed not because it was acknowledging me and my legendary intelligence. Its head bobbed because it was swimming and the head bob was the opposite reaction to the tail lowering.
Regardless, I felt like I had made a magical connection to the dolphin. It saw me. It knew that I was trying to make a connection with it and it wanted to make a connection with me.
I was in love and immediately started the dream process of chasing a dream towards becoming a dolphin trainer until I took chemistry and realized that my dream had found its end.
I went back to Brookfield Zoo when I was ten, when I was still dreaming about being a dolphin trainer. I was even in the show, talked with the dolphin trainers. I returned to Brookfield Zoo when I was nineteen with my brother and sister-in-law. The tank had been updated and a wall of windows gave me complete access to the dolphins. I rested my hand on the glass, pretending that the connection was still there.
The dolphin swam by. I was asked not to put my hand on the window.
Twenty five years have elapsed since the last time I was in Chicago to see my relatives. My great-grandparents and grandparents had died. I had lost touch with my mother’s sisters. I had lost touch with my family on both my mother’s and father’s sides.
Living in Germany meant living in a paradise. But the cost of plane tickets next to tiny apartments meant that it wasn’t feasible for extended family to visit. My grandparents came at least once a year (I think…I am convinced). But my aunts and uncles weren’t able to.
Which is completely understandable.
But the last twenty-five years of silence and separation have been largely my fault. I could have traveled across time zones and past geographic landmarks and found my way back to my family’s world.
I could have.
I should have.
But I didn’t.
I put first family needs which should have been put first. I put first my own agendas and my own needs. I put first different commitments which might not have needed to be there but I put them there and they are still sort of there.
But family is non-negotiable. Just as much as time is non-negotiable. Just as much as love is non-negotiable.
My dreams have changed, have grown and matured with my life and my life’s needs. I might not ever be a dolphin trainer although I still have swimming with wild dolphins as one of my bucket list items. And I still might become a marine biologist because..well…why not. I still love biology and math is finally starting to make sense to me.
A year ago, I started the process of reconnecting with my mother’s youngest sister. She sent me a lovely package filled with my antiquities from my grandparents’ home. I could see the tenuous strings that tied me to her, tied me to my past. And I could see the frayed threads that threatened the relationship that didn’t exist because I was stupid.
Note, I am pretty stupid. When I was married, I received lovely wedding gifts. And I never wrote thank you cards for them. And then I was embarrassed by my oversight. So I thought it better to hide and not make contact with people because of my shame. Which created two decades of silence. Which created two decades of memories that I could have crafted but didn’t.
A simple thank you card created distance. A simple oversight kept me from being close to my family.
My aunt sent me a package. I emailed her. I called her and asked if I could visit her. I hate the fact that I invited myself, but she accepted. And then the silence resumed and I felt the edges of my old self falling back into the discomfort of hiding when I needed to stop hiding. So I called my aunt again. And I re-asked if I could visit.
Last week, I drove thirteen hours through beautiful landscape and crossed a time zone and drove into a world that was supposed to be memory lane but had no familiar landmarks.
But on Tuesday, my aunt, her daughter, her grandsons, my daughter, and I went back to Brookfield Zoo. And I plastered my hand on the wall of windows and felt the surge of childhood memories as four dolphins swam past me, burst out of the water, and came close to the window.
I didn’t connect with the dolphins.
But I did connect with my wonderful and beautiful aunts. I did connect with my gorgeous cousin and her delightful sons. I connected with my uncles.
On Monday, I drove over the mountains and along the flat and beautiful horizon of Ohio and Indiana. But on Tuesday, I walked into my childhood. I watched a dolphin show and burst out of my discomfort and found healing. I ate pie and laughed with my family as we talked about my mother’s propensity for giving everything nicknames or euphemistic nicknames, a propensity I have happily inherited.
On Monday, I cried as I hugged and tightly clasped to me each of my relatives, some of whom were brand new to me. Most of whom were familiar strangers who shared my blood, who were part of my emotional DNA.
On Tuesday, I was a forty-five year-old child-adult. I made a Mold-O-Rama plasticy-wax dolphin. I walked my daughter into my memories. I made new memories.
I re-tied myself to my family.