We’ve all heard it said that teenagers want to get as far away from their parents as possible, but come on! Did Ben, my sixteen-year-old, really have to take things so literally? When he signed up for a school-sponsored exchange program, I pictured Italy, South America, or someplace exotic like Staunton. But what did he opt for? Perth. Not even Perth, Scotland. Perth, Australia. In case you haven’t twirled a globe recently, Perth is nearly antipodal to Richmond. To get any farther away, Ben would have to do his exchange bobbing in a raft somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Now, I am the kind of parent who still sends care packages when my children are upstairs and I am downstairs. I have, with the help of a strong spouse and a trusty straightjacket, managed to survive my children’s previous unnecessary forays, to places like kindergarten and summer camp, but this is ridiculous. Australia? What do we Americans even know about Australia besides Crocodile Dundee?
By way of educating us, Ben helpfully provided Dena and me with a list of all the things in Australia that can kill you.
Some of these killers were familiar, like the great white shark and the fearsome saltwater crocodile. But the list went on and on, a phantasmagoria of bowelliquefying fends. The inland taipan snake.The box jellyfsh. The blue-ringed octopus.The funnel-web spider. The reef stonefsh, which induces death from nothing more than the mind-blowing pain of its sting. And don’t get me started on the bull ant, the giant centipede, or the paralysis tick. This place is so flled with deadly creatures that, having apparently exhausted their bestiary, the Aussies could come up with no better name for the eighth-most venomous snake in the world than the common death adder.
Do I even want to know if there’s an un-common death adder?
Because it is such a creeping, crawling, slithering, oozing cauldron of death, Australia, with an area approximately the same as the United States, can muster only about 8 percent of our population. I did some research into population replacement rates, which is the number of children a family must produce to replace deaths in a given population. Globally, the replacement rate is 2.33 children. In the United States the number is 2.1. In Australia the population replacement rate is 993.
And so off he went, my baby, my little boy who mere moments ago was demanding another reading of Goodnight Moon, sallying forth halfway around the world.
Now, by the time you read this, Ben will be safely back at home, but as I write, we are in the middle of figuring out how to manage things half a world apart. I spend a lot of time trying not to think about how opposite everything is between here and there, but I am having to deal with certain realities. When it is noon here, it is midnight for Ben. Our longest day of the year is their shortest. (And speaking of days, he is also on the other side of the international date line, which, it turns out, is not a queue for mail-order brides, but is instead a threshold beyond which Wednesday becomes Friday, and upon return Saturday remains Saturday until approximately mid-day on Tuesday, unless you are reading this at night, in which case you continue in a direct line to Thursday.)There is no way around the simple truth that he is a long way away.
In the days before the Internet, a young man would strike out on such an adventure and correspondence took months to travel to its destination. Thankfully, Australia’s Internet cable – at least as of this writing – has not been consumed by mulga snakes, so we at least have the full slate of modern keep-in-touch tools: email, Facebook, Skype. This is both good and bad. Dena and I enjoy hearing details of his days: the nautical radio signals he’s learning in his marine sciences class; the bowl he’s crafting in woodworking; the Australian rules football game he attended last weekend.But perhaps there are things we would be better off not knowing.
“I went boogie boarding yesterday,” he said on a recent Skype video call.
“Great!” Dena and I said. We love boogie boarding on our vacations to the Outer Banks. “Hope you had decent waves.”
“They were okay – about five meters.” Five meters? Damn you, metric system! Thank you, Google Converter!
The only time you get sixteen-foot waves on the North Carolina coast is during a category four hurricane.
“Come home immediately!”
Whee-boop, came the sad little sound of the video call disconnecting, accompanied by a Skype text from Ben: Whoops! Mulga snakes munching!
And then there are days when he seems a little down, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong, or if it’s just me, reading too much into a bit of fatigue and a pixelated face reassembled after traveling through twelve thousand miles of wires and servers and routers.
As the days pass I find one more discovery underlying all the rest: The amazing tensile strength of the human heart. Surely, a heart stretched from here to Australia would snap. But no. Taut as it might be with distance, it takes on a new quality. A triple helix of love and pride and hope. Heartbeats thrum along its corded route. And somewhere over the curvature of the horizon, passing over the equator or through the cumulous towers of the South Pacific or across the barren baked blastedness of the outback, those beats reveal themselves in song, subtle notes of tranquility wished around his day.
And when his journey turns his face this way again, that outstretched heart will illuminate with joy, a lighted path across the miles, showing him the way to come home.