Archived Outdoors

Heed the Call

Heed the Call

Within hours of birth, fur seal mothers and pups can recognize each other’s voices.

Between October and January, the Pelican Point Cape fur seal breeding colony in Namibia is hectic and loud. Males fight each other for the right to copulate, females birth pups and everyone has something to say about everything that is happening. The rocks become one swarming mass of shouts, barks, skin, fur, fins, mouths and warm bodies.

Amid the frenzy, new mothers must leave their fur seal pups to eat and cool off in the water. When they return, they are tasked with finding their own pup among the throbbing crowd. The people who study these animals have found that mothers can recognize the voice of their pup two to four hours after birth, much faster than that of almost all other mammals.

Seal pups on the other hand can recognize their mother’s voice after hearing it just once. This has led scientists to believe that, like human babies, seal pups are learning the sound of their mother’s voice while they develop inside the womb.

Like my chunky, furry seal pup brethren, I too learned to recognize my mother’s call from a very young age, perhaps even before I made it into the world. But unlike these incredible creatures, I lack the distinction that is so vital to their survival.

In my formative months and years, I learned my mother’s call, I learned the sweetness of my sister’s laugh and the excitement that shades most of the sounds she makes. The pair of them are loud and bright and excited for life and have been pushing and pulling me along with them since before I could walk.

When my mother cheers, I am reminded of the wildness in her. The energy that oozes out of her every pore and ensnares her whole being. She has whooped and hollered her way through many a piano recital, trivia night, swim meet, cross country race, happy birthday song and countless other settings so casual my body used to tense with the abruptness of the sound. The lesson was clear, never spoken, always howled — celebrate everything. Life is too short for the alternative.

But I am no seal pup, and though I know the sound of my mother’s voice well, the sound of my sister cheering me on, I am easily fooled.

Every voice, every cheer, every shout of an excited human lauding some aspect of existence sounds like the women in my life. Elated screams in a bar will elicit an instinctive head turn as I scan a room I know my mother can’t possibly inhabit, looking to lock eyes with her or join in the call.

One can imagine the confusion this causes at an event like a road race. Supportive friends and families line streets and sidewalks bellowing at their loved ones to keep going, run faster or finish strong. Many of them spend the time between loved one sightings making general whoop and holler sounds, almost all of which make me jolt with the expectation of seeing my girls. This is the sound they instilled in me since before I was a being and it is still the call I answer obediently, red-faced and struggling as I try and emulate their effortless taste for thrill and adventure.

If one is going to fall apart during a half marathon, it will typically happen between miles eight and 11. Perhaps your stomach stops holding, the monotony threatens an otherwise brisk pace, or cramps become unbearable. These are the moments during a race that people turn up the music in their ears, fight the losing battle against pain as it settles in or fight back the threat of tears.

In February, me and my brother and his girlfriend and her family ran the Wilmington Half Marathon, and we had a wonderful weekend spending time together. By mile eight of the race, I had turned up the music in my ears. Partly in motivation and partly because every cheering voice that slipped through the earbuds made me turn in expectation of seeing my mom and sister. I knew they would be waiting closer to downtown Wilmington, rather than the starting point at Wrightsville Beach, but that didn’t keep instinct from jerking my head at regular intervals.

In more ways than one I resembled a disoriented fur seal pup, twisting my body to look for family, waddling/wobbling/shuffling my way through the gray coastal air and a cacophony of voices toward my goal, my people.

It was around this time in the race that I began to see the roadside signs that said something along the lines of “race day is the celebration.” I wasn’t wearing a watch and still knew I had dropped off my pace by a significant margin. The frustration tears were preparing to show themselves.

These signs didn’t elicit some revolutionary change of heart or an eruption of contentment — the pain and frustration were still there. But they served as a reminder of what my mother’s call has taught me, what my brother and sister demonstrate is their easy zeal for life — that it’s all worthy of celebration, the incredible and the mundane, every opportunity to come together, every instance of growth and change. Race day is the celebration, the party after the hard work, the chance to challenge yourself in the presence of others looking to do the same.

Soon we’ll welcome a new human pup to our clan and I can only hope they are already learning the tune that will follow them the rest of their life. Absorbing the celebratory whoops and hollers, the calls of support and compassion and all the pomp and circumstance that each moment deserves.

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