Three summers ago, when the kids are teenagers, Terry and I decide to take a summer vacation without them. The oldest stays home to take care of the house and the dogs; we drop the younger two off to go to camp on an island off the north shore of Vancouver. It’s an unusual trip – without kids or a clear itinerary. We just go for it.
We start out in Whistler, and spend the night. Driving out of the village the next day, with Terry in mid-sentence, I say look at that bear! because there she is, right beside the car, walking down the street. She’s loose limbed, and muscular, big and black with rich brown on her muzzle like a giant Doberman. It’s no big deal, really (we’re in Whistler, after all, and you can take bear watching tours on the chair lifts) but she makes me catch my breath. So close, there’s no mistaking her strength and power, her utter lack of domesticity.
That evening, at a campsite half a province away, we see a cub in the forest, a half grown teenager, that makes us think nervously about mother bears. We stop the car and tell the park ranger. She listens and looks intently toward the bank of trees we point to. She says she’s jealous; other people have reported the cub as well, all week, but she has yet to see him. Do we need firewood? We do, and buy a bundle. We find her reaction comfortingly casual. l open a bottle of wine and poke the campfire and think about bears and how my own mother bear looms close: there’s no cell phone service where we are, and 300 miles away, my son walks home alone to an empty house, and the other two kids are doing god-knows-what at camp. I imagine scenarios of accident and threat. I hear the peaceful settling of the forest and smell wood smoke. I get a notebook and try to capture it all. I am at once happy and aware of the tissue thin fragility of my happiness. There are so many ways to be devastated. I want to be exactly where I am. Equally, I want to go jump in the car and race back to them.
Later, I dream I am standing at the side of a highway with Allie and Seamus, the two who are away at camp. I am letting them cross by themselves, frogger-style, dashing forward, stopping, running sideways and back. I stand on the shoulder of the road and let them; my predominant feelings are self-doubt and fear. I wake up with heartburn and take an antacid. Allowing children to grow up and away disagrees with me.
My kids came to me the way many people’s do: sort of by accident and before I knew any better. They will be gone before I know it. They almost are. Still, I choose not to race back but to stay at a snapping campfire and risk their growing independence. I choose the happiness of now and not the worry. I choose sitting at the picnic table with my notebook, trying to write it down. I wish I was a poet. These are poetry days, poetry thoughts and feelings – bears, children, wilderness, wine, isolation, connection, fear, fire. All I have is this blunt instrument, so long-winded and imprecise.