Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nostoc

by John D Ramsey

When I send my love to Cara, I send her mother.

When Cara went away to college in Chestertown, Maryland, all six of us took her. Since then, she has come home over summer vacations, Christmas holidays, and some spring breaks, but Lisa has made most of the trips away from home to see Cara. Together they conquered Annapolis, Baltimore, and New York. One year Lisa even flew to San Francisco to meet Cara at a conference where Cara was presenting. They have great stories of their time together, which I cannot retell. Suffice to say, when Cara needed comfort or support from home, I sent Lisa.

I had my opportunities to be with Cara. I flew out one year, helped Cara store her things at a friend’s house, and drove her home. We watched a thunderstorm pass by from a mountaintop in West Virginia. I drove her out the following August and flew home. Once we arrived in Chestertown, Cara was busy with her friends. I watched the tide roll in along the Chester River. The conflicting currents actually formed a wall of water until the tide won out.

When Cara finished a summer internship in Galveston, Claire and I flew to Dallas where Cara met us. Claire and I toured the Dallas World Aquarium while we waited for Cara to arrive. I then drove Cara’s Saturn back to Kansas City. Both girls slept most of the way home.

On balance, I would say that I made the utilitarian trips while Lisa made the fun and poignant trips. Lisa can reverse Cara’s stress within minutes of landing. No one pretends that I reduce Cara's stress.

Cara is now living in Galveston and working as a researcher in Houston, Texas. A couple weeks ago Lisa, the little girls, and Lisa’s parents went to see Cara for an extended weekend. I stayed at home partly because of work and partly because of seating capacity in the Toyota versus the cost premium driving the Explorer. The original idea was for Lisa to fly to Texas. On the same budget, Lisa, her parents, and the little girls could drive. Cara and Lisa both needed that trip. It was mine to give, but not mine to have. While they were there, they toured the aquarium at Moody Gardens. Cara made sure that Gabby got a close up look at her beloved penguins. They built memories that they can share all their lives.

Cara and Lisa have shared memories of Annapolis, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and now Galveston that I do not have. I have memories with Cara that I hold precious. On Cara’s nineteenth birthday, I took her to see Madame Butterfly at the State Theater in Minneapolis. It had been years since I had been to an opera. It was Cara’s first opera. We both cried.

Then there were simple pleasures. Cara attended Metro State in St. Paul for a semester before transferring to Washington College in Maryland. We carpooled. She spent her mornings and afternoons in the library, and I spent my evenings at the office working late until she finished classes. We had many little conversations along the way. I suggested that she would learn her biology vocabulary better if she studied the etymology of each word. She told me that my suggestion helped. I would like to think that she enjoyed our time in the car; I know I did.

During Cara’s first semester in Washington College, she called me with a crisis. "How do you make nostoc float?" Dr. Ford had assigned an experiment promising an A to the first student who solved the problem. Nostoc (cyanobacteria), commonly called blue-green algae, apparently floats in the wild, but sinks in Dr. Ford’s lab. Dr. Ford wanted to know how to make it float. I googled “nostoc”. I learned that researchers had observed the cyanobacteria floating in ice ponds during Antarctic summers. I told Cara to freeze the nostoc in water until the ice felt dry. When the water thaws, I told her, the nostoc will float. I figured that as the water froze, the air dissolved in it would turn into tiny bubbles. The fibrous slime of the nostoc would trap the air bubbles when the water thawed; the trapped air would float the nostoc. Cara froze it. She thawed it. It floated. Dr. Ford gave her the A. I felt so smart.

Thereafter Cara’s coursework became too difficult for me to be of help to her until she was finishing her senior capstone thesis project. After hundreds of hours of observation and data collection, she had more data points than she could import into Excel. She tried to work with the raw data row by row, but that was daunting. After she called me with her problem, I spent a couple hours writing a little c-sharp application that imported her data into a SQLExpress database. It aggregated the results based upon her analytical requirements, and exported them into Excel where Cara could work with them further.

Cara titled her thesis, Effects of Juvenile Cognitive Training on Adult Behavioral Patterns in Repeated Variable Prenatal Stress Rat Model of Schizophrenia (at least that is the working title of the draft I have). Her work won the Senior Capstone Experience Award from the psychology department, and the following autumn she presented it at Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in San Diego. She wrote in her acknowledgments, “I would like to thank . . . John Ramsey & Amy Linthicum for their help with statistical analysis.” I am sure that Amy did more to help than I did, but Cara was gracious to let her dad feel smart once again.

Some dads may send their daughters cards and flowers. I send Cara articles related to neuroscience just to let her know that I think about her and that I support her interests. Recently I sent Cara a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Neuroscience of Retailing, Research Shows Shopping Can Make People Euphoric.” Two days later Cara went shopping. Lisa tells me that she bought two outfits and a pair of shoes. I was glad that Cara took my subtle advice to relax a bit from her stresses. She is frugal, too.

Since Cara moved away, what she has needed from me I have been able to provide largely via email, text-message, or voice. When she has needed a hug or just a friend with whom to discover a new city, I have sent Lisa. Nevertheless, there was one moment a year ago in Chestertown that Lisa did not see, but that I will remember forever.

After Cara’s graduation, we all helped empty her room. Cara said extended goodbyes to her friends, and then we drove to the Chester River. Lisa, Daniel, the little girls, and Lisa’s parents left to buy gas across the bridge, but Cara and I remained on the bank for a few minutes. Cara stood with her chin up and her eyes absorbing the view. She smelled the air. There were tears in her eyes. She panned the scenery from the bridge, to the houses on the far bank, to the boats and crab nets on the water. She had battled four years to leave this place on her terms, and she had won. It was time to go. Now, though she knew she would return, she also knew that it would never be the same. She stood still, taking a moment to memorize Chestertown. Everyone else had gone ahead; just the two of us remained.

I could hear cellos. Their long slow strings sang:

The water is wide I can’t cross over.
Nor do I have wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

The soundtrack faded. Cara again took a deep breath, turned to me, and said, “Okay, let’s go.”


Cara has been an adult for a number of years, probably since she was fourteen or fifteen. For a father, it is sometimes difficult to know what his first baby girl needs. Gabby needs a hug and kiss before I leave for work in the morning. She runs to see me when she hears the garage door open or the Explorer start. Claire needs a kind conversation when I get home. She sometimes waits for me in the hallway to be the first one to see me. Both little girls need my time. They need my praise. They need me to be part of their daily lives.

Cara needs to know that I am just close enough, but not too close. She needs to know that she can call me, text me, or email me. I cannot be a wellspring of knowledge for her anymore. She surpasses me there, nostoc notwithstanding. Though my knowledge depreciates, I hope that I cans still provide her with the treasure of wisdom and the comfort of love.

Cara does not talk to me as often as I wish. Nor does she text message me, or email me as frequently as I like. Nonetheless, Cara knows that she holds her father’s very heart each time she has her mother's ear. Age and distance will not change that.

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