Aquanaut Mom


I’m writing under a chlorophyll-filled canopy of redwood trees, but my mind is on something I found on the beach near La Paz this spring. Something that I’ve been hoping to be lucky enough to find since I was a young girl shell seeking in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Paul and I are spending a land-based summer driving our old pickup from Tucson to Tacoma to visit my son who I haven’t seen in over two years. The last time I hiked with him in the Cascades I actually had to carry his camera pack up the mountain for him. Fast forward just a couple years and the kid just took second place at the national weight-lifting competition in San Antonio. Not only has he grown (understatement) but I’ve forgotten how his neck smells. Clearly it was time to hit the pavement. But I’m struggling with something all parents must wrestle with; letting go of their child. I thought I had already done it. Yeah, HaHaHa, right.


That fateful spring morning I was running Gizmo along the beach of El Magote where we were anchored outside of La Paz. As usual I was keeping an eye on the sand at my feet. As a kid I used to search for treasure in the form of seashells but now I leave those beautifully crafted exoskeletons and their cache of much-needed calcium* and focus on plastic pollution. I typically return to Triplefin each morning with part of the kayak filled with discarded water bottles, snack wrappers, and other assorted single-use plastics. I was just rounding the corner of the beach where currents meet when I spied, partly buried in sand, the unmistakable milky white plastic of a discarded gallon milk bottle. Or so I thought. When I reached down to unearth it, I could not believe my eyes nor my luck. There in my hand was one of the most precious, delicate, and misunderstood seashells on the planet and it had washed up in ABSOLUTELY PERFECT CONDITION! It was a shell collector’s dream come true. A pristine paper nautilus shell (Argonauta pacifica), and one of the world’s rarest species who is found only in Mexico’s Pacific waters and mainly the Sea of Cortez.

Paul's photo of the perfect paper nautilus shell I found.

Most seashells are made by marine gastropods (think snails) who use calcium carbonate to continuously construct colorfully patterned, self-protective shells almost like a 3-D printer with the coding built into their species’ DNA. The paper nautilus is very different. The fragile shell is actually made by a type of octopus who is rarely seen since they live on the surface of the open sea. It is only the female argonauts who create the shells and they are not used for their own self-protection. Once they’ve mated with a super-duper, tiny male, the larger female paper nautilus begins to excrete from two specialized arms, another type of calcium carbonate that she uses to carefully construct the paper-thin shell in which she will lay and tend her eggs and young. We have no idea how they learned to be these sculptor mothers. Once the shell is finished, she lays her eggs inside, collects an air bubble in the shell and manages it for proper buoyancy as the kiddos grow. Once her babies are big enough, she moves out and her nursery craft becomes a little, perfect sailboat that carries her offspring far away on the wind and currents. She simply gets on with her own life and trusts that her kiddos will be able to handle whatever the sea tosses their way. How the heck do they DO that? My greatest challenge in parenting has consistently been deciding when to let go and let “fail” so my son could learn from experience and when to intervene if the costs of a mistake are too great for either of us to bear. My son is 24 now and I thought I had already let him go to make his own way in our society’s winds and waves. Then came summer 2021.

Photo of Female Argonauta argo with severely damaged eggcase and eggs by Bernd Hofmann at de.wikipedia

We’ve been on the road for a while now and I’ve been on a yo-yo of anxiety because my son has become a Gen-Xer who is Covid-19-vaccine-hesitant. Paul and I eagerly rolled up our sleeves as soon as we crossed the border after trying to get our shots while still in Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexico doesn’t have the abundant supply that we have in the more privileged US, and a lot of people there are getting sick and dying, like Paul’s dad did, while they wait for the vaccine. I’ve been checking my phone way too much for sanity’s sake and I am NOT a smartphone-o-phile. One day he will message me that he’s heard some scary stuff about the vaccines and doesn’t know what to believe. As a biology teacher I remind him about the miracle of vaccines and their long and trusty track record. Then I look up the actual factual information that got twisted like a social-media version of the game “Telephone” and reassure him that getting a vaccine (any of the three) is astronomically safer (and more patriotic) than going without it. Then he’ll tell me that he’s going to get it “tomorrow”. The next day he’ll text with news that he didn’t get to the vaccine place for one reason or another. Then a few days will go by with me sending unanswered messages that look like this: “???????????????????????”. When I finally hear back, he’ll share a whole new round of concerning anti-vaccine mis-information and the whole yo-yo process will start all over again. This cycle has been going on for a few months now.

We’re holed up under the redwoods at my brother’s and sister’s in-law home. She is a virologist and a mom and some of her close friends were part of the teams who developed these vaccines. She shared some very comforting information and my kiddo seemed to really appreciate it and trust it. He made an appointment for the next day. Up went my emotional yo-yo for the last time. I heard nothing the next day. “?????????????????????” again, from me. Nothing back. Down went my emotional yo-yo and I finally hit bottom as the string broke. My brother-in-law, who’s a pretty smart guy, witnessed my agony and reminded me that even though my kid is my kid I simply cannot control what he’s going to do and that I need to let go and let him make up his own mind, for the sake of my own heart and mind. I’m trying but I sure wish I had the deep-sea confidence of a mother argonaut because the cultural seas are pretty stormy lately.

My photo after the "incident".

I still can’t believe my luck that day when I found that perfect paper nautilus shell. I did keep it and planned to cradle it and appreciate its miraculous perfection from time to time. Paul took it one day to get that above photo of it to share with you, and guess what? Yep. Oh, yeah. He broke it. He broke it! Was I upset? Do redwood trees have bark? Heck yes, I was so disappointed and at a loss. But what could I do? I just had to practice letting go of a precious object that, like the state of mothering, was created for the purpose of nurturing and then letting go. Maybe that’s what my luck that day on the beach was for . . . practice.