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Lisa McElroy Headshot

Epic Struggle

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Lisa McElroy
Lisa McElroy

It is a dilemma for a mother when what enriches her life negatively impacts her child's.

I have the travel bug. Several times a year, I set out on my own, visiting Kenya or Palau or Chile or Belize. My husband, with whom I just celebrated my sixteenth wedding anniversary, is a saint above all others, gladly taking on the care of our two adolescent daughters and wishing me well when I hit the road. All he asks is that I bring him home an ostrich or a dolphin or perhaps a reef octopus, and even that (obviously) is in jest. When I am away, he organizes the trips to the eye doctor (my older daughter got contacts yesterday), the morning middle school band run (the bus comes too late for my younger daughter's French horn rehearsal) and the Great Kid Room Clean Up (OK, even Saint Husband has trouble achieving that one).

But this week, while I have been on a Cheli & Peacock safari in Kenya, he has had to handle a fish funeral.

Now, any parent who has a child with a goldfish knows without a doubt that the orange and white pet is going to last about as long as a freshly baked pound cake -- twenty minutes is about the max. But somehow, my animal-loving daughter, who has long begged for a pet of her very own (she shares our three dogs with the rest of the family), cooed over Bob so adoringly that he lived for six months. Not only did he live, he flourished, tripling in size and growing a decidedly weird bumpy orange brain-looking thing on top of his head. Bob? King of the tank. My daughter? His devoted lady in waiting. The orange brain? Gorgeous. Not gross. Spectacular.

We all came to love Bob (orange blobby thing notwithstanding), although my daughter restricted access somewhat, as any good lady in waiting should. Bob's tank was in her room, and she took to reading there in the afternoons after school, playing musical theater tunes and watching him swim around his fiefdom from the foot of her bed, where she'd moved her pillow when Bob moved in. When the rest of us wanted to come say hi, she'd warn us to speak softly, because "Guys and Dolls" was playing, and Bob fancied himself quite the dude, like Sky Masterson only more debonair. At feeding time, she giggled when Bob gurgled his pleasure over pellets. He liked them much better than the flakes, she said. She had to feed him carefully, because she'd been reading on the Internet about goldfish diseases. No ick for Bob. No indeed. Perhaps another pellet would be just the thing.

When I left last week for two weeks in Africa, she told me to look for friends for Bob. A lion might be nice. He was King of the Jungle, after all. On the other hand, a lion was a cat. Cats eat fish. No, leave the lion in Africa. Perhaps a hippo would be better? Bob was only a bit bigger than a hippo, so they would get along fine. Yes, a purple hippo, please, preferably one wearing a tutu.

And I left, as I tend to do, knowing I'd be back, as I always am. I didn't say goodbye to Bob. I was dropping my daughter off for French horn rehearsal, then rushing to the airport and besides, I wasn't allowed near Bob without an escort.

Kenya is everything they say it is, and more. For animal lovers like me (and my daughter), Elsa's Kopje in the northern Meru is a kind of paradise, with lions and ostriches and giraffes and zebras wandering around in the open, caring little about the game viewing jeep rolling by. Its 360 degree views are perfect for reflection on the deck outside my room -- with a very busy career and two adolescent daughters, reflection comes in handy every so often -- and an early morning cup of coffee with cookies before a game drive to watch the elephant herds. And the lodge is staffed by people who cater to a visitor's every need, with huge smiles and tales of Kenyan tribes and lion sightings.

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The author on safari

Despite being my version of heaven on Earth, for some, Elsa's has one downside -- a very weak, sometimes nonexistent Internet signal. And when I am traveling, a weak Internet signal causes me conflict -- the reflective traveler in me is more kicked back than at any other time, knowing that I'm off the grid and there's little I can do about it, but the mother in me is stressed and guilty, because I'm off the grid and there's little I can do about it (except not go in the first place, and believe me when I say I've considered that option but rejected it for all kinds of reasons). Saint Husband and my daughters tell me again and again that they are fine, they don't mind a bit, have fun and don't worry (certainly thinking I'll never know just how many chicken nuggets and thin crust pizzas they managed to consume while I was gone). And, over the years, I've come to accept that the price of having the travel bug is taking twenty-four hour flights with no Internet or phone to remote places like the Meru where there's little Internet and no phone.

This week, my hesitant peace with that state of affairs was rocked and rattled, and it's still teetering on the edge.

Because Bob died. And I couldn't talk to my daughter. And she was grieving. And I was on the other side of the world.

In our family, we love animals. We love children more. And when animals and children intersect, Saint Husband and I are about as happy as any couple married for sixteen years can be. That's why Kenya, and Elsa's Kopje, and the lions and ostriches and beautiful, happy Kenyan children are so soul restoring.

But now, I'm locked in an epic struggle, much like the ficus and baobab trees that grow in the Meru wrapped around each other, one saying, "I can squeeze harder," and the other shooting back, "I can last longer." Was Bob's demise a signal to me that I should fight back against the travel bug, stay home and mother these wonderful girls 365 days a year? Or does my willingness to capitulate to my need for solitude and reflection make me a better mother the 340 or so days I am home? Does my world perspective help me raise globally conscious kids? Or does my travel across the world mean that they miss out on something essential in what a mother promises her child?

In the Johannesburg airport, there is a mural, shouting for all to see the African proverb: "To travel fast, travel alone. To travel far, travel together." It may be that the time has come for me to travel together with my children, day in, day out, not to Kenya or Belize but to the grocery store and the ice skating rink. I'm going to give it some thought on this reflective trip through Kenya.

In the meanwhile, I will pile some rocks here in Kenya, as the Nilotic people did hundreds of years ago in the Meru to bury and honor their dead. It will be a large heap. Because Bob was a king.

And my little lady is waiting for me to come home.