09/25/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Phonics, Motorcycles & Mourning Michael

A is for airplane. B is for baccala. Several years ago, when our younger daughter was just shy of two, my husband and I took the girls on a trip to Portugal. Our nine-year-old was happily self-sufficient: give her a book or a movie and the curious meals served on transatlantic flights and she would do just fine. But our younger daughter needed movement: bouncing on my knee or walking up and down the aisle from JFK to Lisbon. Now, I should mention that in our house we don't use phonics. We are not hooked, and I cannot tell you why. On this trip, however, phonics became my BFF as I sounded out words and identified landmarks from the old city in Lisbon to the dry plains of Evora to the seaside of Sagres, much to delight of our energetic toddler. Sounding out words was entertaining. Sounding out words made time zip by, and wasn't I being a model parent, contributing to the education of my child? A is for airplane. B is for baccala. C is for the castle we climbed in Lisbon. You get the picture. Letter after letter, we rolled our way toward M. And M was a cinch, because our younger daughter loved (and still loves) motorcycles. She spied a bright red motorcycle while we were driving underneath the arches of a Roman aqueduct on our way out of Evora. "M is for motorcycle!" she exclaimed. "That's right, sweetie, " I said. "M is for mo-tor-cy-cle."

Our next stop was Sagres, a cliffside town in southern Portugal, where we were looking forward to romping on the beaches and exploring a historic fort. It was in Sagres, though, that my husband turned on the TV and told me Michael Jackson was dead. We sat in shock as the details poured in about the doctor and the house and the ambulance and the strange circumstances surrounding his death. I picked up the hotel telephone and called my mother back in Georgia, all the while absorbing the blitz of celebrity interviews and the reactions from fans around the globe and the replays of Michael's magical moonwalk across stage at Motown's 25th reunion. When my mother heard my voice, she was borderline hysterical. "Gina, are you OK? My phone's been ringing nonstop. Your friends have been calling and asking how you're taking the news about Michael. I said, 'Well, I don't know. She's in Portugal.'" How could I tell my mother that I had pushed aside my love for Michael Jackson years before? That I could trace my loss of innocence to the number of times Michael had altered his face? I couldn't. So, I told her I was enjoying my vacation and doing just fine and then I hung up the phone. "Everyone wants to know if I'm mourning Michael," I said to my husband.

Our little one must have overheard the conversation because, from then on, every time she saw a motorcycle, she would point at it and shout, "Mourning Michael!"

"No, no, no. Listen to me," I said. "Mo-tor-cy-cle."

"Mourning Michael! Mourning Michael!" she insisted.

The next day we were preparing for a dip in the pool when our toddler danced right off her cot onto the sharp edge of the bed frame. We caught her before she hit the floor, but by then the damage had been done. There was an impressive gash along her left eyebrow, one that would require stitches. A jovial doctor at the clinic a few towns away said he would gladly stitch her, but the nurse behind him gesticulated to us in frantic Portuguese mime, "Don't do it--he's a drunk." We took the hint and headed straight to Lisbon, a four-hour drive along the highway. Our younger daughter was now busy in the back seat singing songs and playing games with her big sister, the run-in with the bed frame all but forgotten. Whenever we passed a motorcycle, she would kick with excitement and yell, "Mourning Michael!" I slouched in my seat and did not breathe again until we arrived in Lisbon, where a seriously calm and confident female surgeon stitched up the gash on our daughter's face so expertly that you'd have to blink twice to find the small nick there today.

Sintra was supposed to be the final lap of our journey. And can I tell you that in addition to being as verdant as Lord Byron described, Sintra was also blissfully relaxing. Our family slept in late, enjoyed leisurely breakfasts, strolled down the foggy, narrow back alleys and cobblestoned streets, and encountered nary a motorcycle. When we missed our flight back to the States, we took it all in stride. Perhaps the gods were being kind to us, allowing us to slow down and make up for some of the time we'd lost. We decided to spend a low-key last night in Lisbon and to treat the kids to the Lisbon Oceanarium.

We were standing before the floor-to-ceiling fish tank staring at the blue, blue water when the ugliest and most uppity fish I have ever seen swam past us and completely one-upped the shark. There was much oohing and aahing and "What the hell was that?" in many languages as adults and children leaned in for a closer look at the Mola Mola, the world's heaviest bony fish, its long, long head supporting a flat body that can tip the scale at over one thousand pounds. I turned to my younger daughter; her small face was pressed against the fish tank. Mola, Mola. Now here was a new M word. A glorious M word. I pursed my lips, ready to sound out Mola Mola phonetically, ready for another teaching moment, but then something happened. I stopped. And let my toddler claim the words. For once, I was able to do that rare thing: pause and live in the moment with my husband and daughters and this hideously beautiful fish that we might never see again.

Of course, later that night in the quiet of our hotel bathroom, I had a crying jag for Michael Jackson. The faucet ran low, so no one else could hear. I'm old enough now to understand that every tear you shed for someone who dies masks a thousand you shed for yourself. And so, in that moment, I was not only crying for my fallen teenage idol, but for my youth and for life's journey, with all its wacky twists and turns and the people we love who visit us on their own terms and do not stay.

We flew out of Lisbon on time the following morning. On the ride to the airport, we passed our first motorcycle. My younger daughter reared forward, and her legs started pumping and her arms started swinging and she sang: "Motorcycle!"