When Your Kid Outgrows the Magic Kingdom

Southwest coast of Florida, just after school let out.

Airboat ride in the Everglades. Dolphins off Naples Pier. Waffle cones stuffed with chocolate peanut butter ice cream. Turtles sunning themselves in the 6-mile Cypress Slough.

More than enough wings and cold beer (for the adults); Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure (for the teenager); a 10-foot alligator. Fifteenth century treasures at the Ringling Museum. A giant banyan tree at the Edison estate. More than one picnic with watermelon and lightning.

For the week, we rented a four-bedroom house in Cape Coral on a canal, and during the days, explored the stunning settings and wildlife of the gulf coast.

My son D., who turns 16 in another month, was periodically less than enthused about a few of our expeditions.

When we arrived one day at 3:00 pm at the Bailey Tract, part of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, we were literally the only car in the parking lot. No other tourists would be silly enough to walk that desolate trail in the worst heat of the day. D., always looking for more exercise, insisted we follow the shortest trail. As we walked along the dusty path with waterways on both sides, we carefully watched for alligators that might dart up any slight slope.

It would have been the perfect setting for I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Any moment, one of us could have ended up with a missing limb, with not even a single good-intentioned ranger nearby to help. Just three bottles of warm water that we carefully rationed during our walk (except for when D. poured a third of a one on his head because he was so hot).

Okay, so it really wasn’t that dangerous. We knew from the ranger back at the visitor center that alligators don’t generally come out that time of day because it’s too hot. We saw just a marsh rabbit and some really weird birds. But it felt dangerous.

Every day was filled with such adventure, living on the edge—and D. was a good sport for most of the trip. He tolerated our educational adventures, with the promise of time in Orlando at the end of the trip. In fact, he said one of these wildlife walks was his best least favorite thing to do.

The last night in Cape Coral, as we packed our bags to head to Orlando, I realized we had not gone swimming in the pool at the house even once. I’m not generally one to dive in any pool (I’m a Leo, a fire sign—water puts me out!). But I felt it was morally irresponsible to have a pool at a vacation house and not swim in it at least once. So I begged D. to come in the water with me.  

“Nah,” he said. “If it were deeper, I’d go in it.”

“It is deep!” I insisted. “It’s at least six feet.”

“No, it’s not,” he said.

At this point, I was already in the pool, and he stood at the edge. So I moved to the deep end. “Look, I said,” and tried to stand on the bottom. It was definitely over my head. (But I am not that tall, so that didn’t say much. Maybe it was five feet deep. But it still felt deep.)

“I don’t want to,” he said. And he went back to his laptop in his room.

I swam tiny laps back and forth; it only took a few strokes to get from one end to the other. The water was blissfully warm—just like the ocean there—nothing like the frigid, uninviting waters we have up north. I watched the sun set through the screens. We picked a mango off a tree.

Later, after I was out of the pool and dressed, I went into D’s room.

“D., do you remember that time when we were in Narragansett and you wanted me to go into the ocean with you and get my head wet, and I didn’t want to go all the way in?”

“Uh, YEAH. Like all the time?”

“What are you talking about? I went in the water with you a lot,” I insisted.

“Not really,” he said.

“I remember going into a lot of swimming pools with you,” I said.

He just shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, how is it that suddenly I am the one wanting you to go in the water with me, versus the other way around?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

How did that happen? How did I not say “Yes” more often? Why didn’t I run those bases when he wanted to play imaginary baseball and I just wanted to throw the ball back and forth? What about all those times I was thinking about something else when he wanted to have a Nerf gun fight? Or when he wanted to play mini hockey on our knees? How could I not realize that the hourglass was ticking sand to the bottom?

When D. saw that I was getting a little teary, he said, “It’s not your fault, Mom. Don’t beat yourself up over it. You did what you had to do.”

“I just wish you wanted to spend more time doing stuff together,” I said.

“We’re just interested in different things,” he said. “Remember in Modern Family, when Haley was coming out of her teenage years and her mother said it was like she was coming back from the dark side of the moon?”

I laughed.

“I will come back around,” he said. “You just wait. Just wait until I come back around. It’s gonna be good.”

I am that mother manatee we saw one day off the coast of Fort Myers Beach. She was nudging her baby along, making sure he knew how to feed, carefully keeping him away from the propellers of the speeding boats. And yet he was just bumping along, not really thinking about what she was doing—he was probably more annoyed than not by how his mother was trying to tag along. He was on the edge of something better. His eye was on the horizon—on the open, cold waters of the great blue sea.