“I have one favor to ask. Just one. Please?”
We were standing by the river’s edge, waiting for a small barge to take us across to Camp Westwind, where we planned to spend the weekend in rustic cabins without internet or cell service with a hundred strangers – all families of children in our kids’ school program. The ground by the pier was a complete bog.
“Please don’t get mud all over your shoes. Can you do that?” I asked my 8-year-old, N.
I decided to trust him. This weekend was supposed to be about kids being kids and parents remembering what being a kid is like. So I was working on letting go. Only it was really hard. The car was hot; we got stuck in traffic. Z – our 6-year-old – got carsick. I suddenly realized I had no idea when my last period had been and I hadn’t packed emergency supplies. By the time we got to the barge, I was already tense.
The afternoon was one of those rare treasures: a warm, sunny day on the Oregon coast. After months of rain, the sun felt like heaven. The breeze carried a salt tang down the river, and high above, a bald eagle circled. I chatted with a couple on the pier about homework, about summer vacation, about the challenges of raising boys. I started to relax.
“Excuse me, isn’t that your son?”
I didn’t recognize the voice, but I pretty much knew what I would see when I turned around. N, knee-deep in black, sole-sucking mud. He was trying to yank his feet out and just kept sinking deeper. A classmate had managed to extricate himself from a similar predicament and was laughing from the safety of the pier. As I watched, N stumbled forward two steps, three—without his shoes.
I won’t describe the next fifteen minutes except to say that it was obvious from the get-go that the shoes were lost forever. I made him keep searching anyway. His footsteps made deep wells that immediately filled with water, and he turned in unstable circles, looking everywhere except where his feet had been.
Eventually I got tired of calling out instructions, so I waved him back to the pier. I made him take off his socks. They were heavy with mud and water, and I made him carry them on the barge, across the river, along the beach and up the hill to the camp. He complained quietly all the way: the sand was hot, there were sticks on the path, he was hungry.
When we get to camp, I thought, I can really start letting go. Everything will be fine when we get to camp.
My wife had gone on ahead with Z; they were waiting for us on the sandy overlook in front of the lodge. Down below, the tide was on its way out. The wind was stronger up here. Turkey vultures wheeled overhead, occasionally dipping down below the treeline. I couldn’t imagine a more lovely spot.
I glanced down just in time to see Z take two large handfuls of sand and dump them on his own head.
There’s a moment in every parent’s life, I think, where you just accept that things aren’t going to go the way you expect, and you just let it all go. This was not that moment. Neither was it the moment when Z, shovel in hand, faced off against a group of 4th-graders who were angry because he’d been throwing sand at them. Nor was it the moment when we learned that instead of going all the way to the bathroom to take care of business, N had been peeing on a tree outside our cabin. And it certainly wasn’t the tantrum he threw when he didn’t win a candy prize for the sandcastle competition in which he didn’t even participate.
It’ll be fine, I kept thinking. I can let go once we get unpacked. After dinner. We can start fresh in the morning, and it’ll be fine. After we go down to the beach for a while, after we throw rocks into the ocean. At the campfire later tonight. I found two intact sand dollars on our walk that afternoon, and a sliver of sea glass and a stone that fits the pad of my thumb. I carried that stone in my pocket the rest of the weekend, rubbed it whenever I needed to remember to breathe.
Still, that moment of acceptance didn’t come until Sunday morning. Someone else’s kid was screaming bloody murder because his mother only brought the lotion kind of sunscreen, not the spray kind. He kicked, he flailed, he wailed and sobbed. I watched, surreptitiously, and caught the eye of another parent. He shrugged, I smiled ruefully, and in that instant I felt it all drop away. Not because I was reveling in another mom’s misfortune—though the petty side of me will admit that it was satisfying to see someone else struggle—but because I realized right then that letting go isn’t an end state; it’s a process. It’s that series of moments that fall in between other moments, like punctuation: ellipses providing a respite from all the exclamation points.
The walk back to the barge was one protracted ellipsis. We took the long way, along the beach to the river inlet. We saw a half-dozen mama seals lounging with their pups on the sand. N soaked his second pair of shoes in the river and his pants up to his knees. Later, we ate our lunch in the car and Z shared his sandcastle winnings with his brother. I almost forgot about the stone in my pocket.