Monday, July 23, 2012

Tobago Meltdown

My son had a meltdown on the beach. This was a few days ago before my husband arrived and before I gave in to the expense and rented a car. I’d have to say that in the history of his three-year-old life this meltdown was the worst I’d ever seen. To be fair, I decided to walk to the beach in the hot late afternoon sun on a day he didn’t nap. We tumbled in the mild surf, saw two giant stingrays, collected seashells. All going fine until time to leave. Somehow, right then, the frayed cords holding him together got tangled, pulled taut, and snapped. Mindful he hadn’t slept I knew to treat him with care, to offer no suggestions, to agree benignly to everything he said even if the action needed was the exact opposite; just to tread oh so lightly until we got back to the villa. Until of course a well-meaning Rastaman decided to intervene and ask, “Small Man, like you not ready to leave the water?”

Small Man freaked the fuck out, grinding against me like an itchy calf against a tree, bellowing as if being lead to the abattoir.

Please God, I thought, make this man go away right right now. But of course he didn’t go away. In his very weak defense, I think he thought he was trying to help; that he was somehow going to “talk” my son out of this trench. But come on. The child was almost in fits, and he starts asking if he’s growing a dread (which intensifies the paroxysms of wails – my son emphatically identifies as a Bald Head, having left the tribe of Rastafari with the haircut he gracefully submitted to six months ago. He is blithely unaware that his serious 5 inch afro matts into Marley-esque locks when wet. He thinks his hair looks like Dora’s.)

I tell the man, with a smile, my son is fine, he just needs to nap. This is already against the credo I swore to at the beginning of this vacation. Tobago is home (Trinidad is, but we’re a twin-island nation, no?). I’d decided on this trip, meant to be a time of rest and relaxation, that I was going to adopt a tourist mentality—I was going to act like a foreigner on holiday and not dredge up my Trini consciousness which usually manifests in hyper-awareness that resident Trinis watch you closely. Marking everything you do, how you talk how you dress what you eat. I’ve been touting my approaching fortieth birthday for a few years and this trip, undertaken on its actual eve, was going to cement the distance twenty-three years abroad had brought me from my upbringing.

But this dread is sweating me. My son is going ballistic and everyone on the beach is taking in our spectacular show. We are at the tap trying to wash sand off our bodies. He wants to go first, he wants to go last. He doesn’t want me to wash him. He starts pulling me back to the water. I’m trying to be patient. My six-year-old daughter tries to work her big sister mojo (which works nine times out of ten) but he is beyond reason or magic. And the fucking Dread won’t quit the “Small Man” routine. People start shouting advice from their beach chairs and spots under the coconut trees.

“The boy want to go back in the water.”

“Lift up the boy.”

“Check and see if jellyfish didn’t bite the child.”

The child breaks loose from my grip, throws himself to the ground and starts rolling in the sand. He completely covers himself, from afro to toes in beach sand. The crowd amps up its chorus. I feel as if I’m in an arena surrounded by Romans waiting to see me devoured by my own child-monster.

I bend over to get my son and my iPhone falls out of my bag, into the drain leading away from the pipe. It’s submerged for a few seconds before I swipe it out. I feel the tip, my own, from patient Park Slope mom into rabid West Indian. I am about to yank my son by the arm and end this misery, when I hear the Dread say, “Ay, you can’t see is licks this boy need some licks. You need to beat that child.”

Man that freezes me. I walk over to my son, stoop by his side and gather up his small sandy body. I hold him tight and whisper to him that Mom is here and to please just tell me what he wants. How strange to feel your child’s heartbeat pounding like a fury of hummingbirds’ wings. I feel his body slacken, but his heart is racing. I hold him tighter and try to make sense of his incoherence. He wants to go back to the ocean. He doesn’t want me to rinse him in the tap. With all eyes on us, we walk back to the water. I scoop handfuls of the warm water and wash his body as best I can. His eyes are bloodshot and his snot caked with sand but he’s no longer crying. When I’m done, I pick him up again and walk though the crowd. I think I’m expecting applause, but all I get is stared at. By the time we reach the side of the road, my son is asleep.

I tell my girl how proud I am of her patience. She grins and says without sarcasm, “Oh, mom, don’t mention it.” But I do mention it, because it’s important for her to know that her calm has helped keep me calm.

No taxis ply the route and as I’m wondering if I can make the quarter mile trek up to the villa carrying a sleeping toddler, our gear, and mind my daughter, a car with two strange men turns out of the parking lot. I thumb for a ride without second thought and the driver stops. I only want a drop to the bottom of our hill, but he laughs as he shifts into gear and takes us up to our very front door. I’m getting out of his car, thanking him profusely, smiling with pride as my daughter thanks him too. Turns out he’s just witnessed the performance on the beach. He spoils the perfect relief of the moment when he says, “Man, I don’t know what to say, but black women strong.”

The last half hour tumbles down on me in five seconds. All I can say as I barely hold on to my son, my daughter and our gear is, “No we’re not.”


  1. I just realized I hadn't heard this full story, only bits and pieces. It makes me feel so sympathetic for not only you, but Mason as well, with his heart beating so fast. When he works himself up like that it takes the patience of Buddha to bring him down. Lucky for him he has you.

  2. Situations like this are hard enough without a jury/audience. Must have felt nicely therapeutic to write about it in retrospect and to see clearly that you did the right thing for you and Mason. (And Helen -- what a gem!)
    -- jenna

  3. Yes you are strong Gracie. Big kiss.

  4. Thanks, guys. You nailed it, Jenna, only the therapy started when he fell asleep on my shoulder. I just thought, 'poor, tired baby. Imagine how you must have felt.'

    We're missing you all!

  5. Ok, forgive me but I saw a clear picture of that incident. Hmm, hate intruders on the beach. But you handled it. Be a PROUD!!!! STRONG, BLACK WOMAN.

  6. This story has given me insight as to when my noe 13 month old daughter starts her tanturms. Most look at me as "look at that black mother , she cant even control that lil baby" or they say just put her in the stroller...not knowing how strongly she refuses to get inside the dtroller or leave the park. But i follow the beat to my own drum and do what works best for me and my child and i calmly pick her up and whisper "buggers" in her ears lol i dnt why but that word calms her and makes her smile.
    all in all i really enjoyed this story....tsmith eng 101.0807