Flown

I met my stepchildren after their dad and I had been seeing each other for a few months. My son was seven at the time. My stepdaughter was fourteen and my stepson, twelve. I wasn’t keen on rushing the introductions between us and our three children; this was serious business. So we confined our time together to “non-kid” weekends when our children were with their other parents.

One of those weekends long ago, we went out to play in the creek and left Thomas in his crate in Travis’s living room.  When we got back to the car, Travis had a text message from his daughter. “Who’s the big puppy?” she asked. Taylor had just returned that day from vacation with her mother, and she wanted to see her dad. Finding him away from home and having forgotten her key, she simply broke into her bedroom window. Once inside, she had found the dog who would eventually become one of her family pets. And so my effort to keep the brakes on the kid-mingling was short-circuited by Taylor’s directness. She still has an assertive sense of self-direction that I admire. It’s served her well.

When his sister informed him that she had met Dad’s new girlfriend, however, twelve-year-old Deryk was not happy to be left out. This was not a bell we could unring. This toothpaste would not be going back into the tube. The cat had not only gotten out of the bag but had clawed it to pieces on the way out. So we scheduled a proper time for me to meet Deryk.

I have thousands of memories of my stepson filed away in my mental cabinets: his thirteenth birthday when I made him ice cream and he stuck his head into the base of the ice cream maker to lick it clean; the time he brushed all my hair into my face to make me look like Cousin It; when I caught him eating a tablespoon of cinnamon just to see how it would feel, and reddish clouds of dust puffed out of his nostrils, like a spice-breathing dragon. I was horrified, later, to find that eating cinnamon was a thing, and that kids could hurt themselves doing it. Someone was always catching Deryk doing something dangerous just when it was too late to stop him.

But the memory that has been playing over and over in my head this week is from the day I met him for the first time. I came to Travis’s house and we made dinner for the four of us. After saying hi to the kids and getting the intros out of the way, we went into the kitchen to cook. Two minutes later, Deryk wandered in. “Can I help?” he asked. So we tasked him with grating some cheese. While he did so, he told me about himself, and asked me questions about my life. I wasn’t used to preteen boys having a genuine curiosity about the lives of adults they don’t know, but this one did. Over the years, there were times he seemed to know me better than Travis or even my own son. When we moved into this house, he took one look at the tiny galley kitchen, screwed up his face and said, “Jen. Are you sure about this kitchen?” And he was right; the kitchen is still the sore spot with me.

Deryk has always been interested in what the people around him are doing and eager to involve himself. He enjoyed tripping the shutter on my camera after I’d composed a shot, and was always helping me cook. One night, after we made chocolate fondue and found outrageous things to dip into it, I told him he was my sous chef as well as my photography assistant. He corrected me between bites of pickle dipped into fondue: “No. I’m your sous-tographer.” He put the pickle down and picked up a tortilla chip to plunge into the chocolate.

1917231_105713532772670_6022449_nMy sous-tographer was always eager to get in front of my camera, too. I have so many images of him with the dog – petting him, brushing him, snuggling him, putting his T-shirt on him. “That’s my boy!” he would say when he walked in the door every other weekend to Thomas’s prancing delight. “Pretty sure he thinks you’re his boy,” I would laugh. It went the same way every time.

I also have scores of images of him pretending to annoy his father in a thousand silly ways. I was always the one who laughed at Deryk; I couldn’t help it. Who could? And he responded as anyone does when their behavior is validated – he escalated. Travis pretends to be annoyed by it. He isn’t. Still, he turns to me and says, with an air of manufactured weariness when his son is engaged in his latest form of light mockery: “This is your fault.” I return this with a blank and serene stare of faux innocence. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

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When your father is your soccer coach.

His sensitivity, charisma and intuitive ability to know people does not, however, come with a corresponding softness or sense of restraint. This kid has been an avid thrill-seeker from an early age. He jumped off roofs and broke bones; smashed his face on a skateboard; carried an injured bat into the house. We call him Der for short. It’s pronounced “Dare.” That’s always seemed appropriate to me.

Eventually, as all children do, my stepkids grew up. Travis’s nest began to thin when Taylor went to college three years ago. It was a little easier than usual, though, because she attends the university in the town where she grew up. Travis still sees her once a week for dinner, and the transition from non-custodial dad to parent-of-college-student wasn’t terribly stark. She was entering a world we knew and understood when she matriculated at Purdue University, where we both graduated. She studies entomology, and takes regular trips into the natural world to collect her specimens. She just returned from Costa Rica in May. We get this; we understand it on a core level.  The self she has developed is like ours in many ways we recognize.

184322_204700386207317_637122_nWe wondered during those years, a little bit nervously, what Deryk would do when it was his turn. Like his sister, he is extremely bright. But his energy struggles when confined to a classroom, and the idea of college felt uninspiring and limiting to him.  We suggested possibilities from our own store of un-met dreams: do a gap year; hike around the country; travel somewhere. But those were our un-lived possibilities, not his, and they never resonated. Instead, he had another idea that had nothing to do with anything in our wheelhouse: he wanted to enter the Army. We stiffened against that idea, worried that the military would extinguish that vibrant, zany personality. We wondered if — hoped, perhaps — the plan would dissipate in the 18 months between when he announced the idea and when he could actually enlist. It didn’t.

We weren’t so much worried about his safety; as I pointed out during one of our many discussions about it, he would probably be a lot safer in the Army doing the crazy shit he wants to do with some training and structure, rather than unleashed in a small Midwestern town with no direction, no focus, little discipline, and all of that buzzing energy.  So it wasn’t fear for his life. Although that prospect is unsettling, we know the world is dangerous no matter where you are and what you are doing. Rather, it was the fear of losing who he is, because we love who he is so much.

We have the “Proud Parent of a Soldier” sticker on the car – we put it on the Prius right after we hugged him one last time and watched him board the bus to basic training two days ago – but we are still somewhat ambivalent military parents. Travis is a marriage and family therapist. He spends his days pulling emotion and vulnerability out of men who have buried it for years, or tried to obliterate it altogether. The purpose of basic training, we understand, is to “reprogram children and civilians into warriors.” The extinction of individuality is the point; vulnerability is not just uncomfortable; it could get a soldier killed.

10997192_958627040814644_3126776500083949807_nBut the strongest parenting value we share – even over the acceptance of emotion and vulnerability – is that children must be encouraged to heed the call of their true selves, over the wishes of parents, grandparents, friends, and lovers. Because we are the kind of people who hold that value, we’re deeply uncomfortable with any agenda to reprogram his essential self.

But the irony is that the same value requires us to support him if that is what he wants. His self belongs to him. He is an adult, and he must mold it how he chooses; our job now is only to adapt, and to love what develops in him. It’s our job to support him in his work, and be open to the idea that he may know what he is doing.

It’s not a revelation that launching a child is usually a time of grief as well as pride for parents. But as we navigate it, we’re finding that for all these reasons, and the usual ones of realizing that your family will never be the same again, this is a complicated fledging. It’s piercing for my husband in a way I can’t know. He is the parent; I am not. He has memories going back nineteen years; I have seven.  Although it’s a loss for me too, I also can’t tell where my own feelings are merging with empathy for Travis’s more elemental loss, and my feelings about my own son’s departure in a few years. It doesn’t matter. It’s all a stew.  The role of a stepparent in this process is usually the least interesting and the least poignant; but it is very confusing.

As we sat this week in the Military Entrance Processing Station, known in that acronym-happy military way as “MEPS,” waiting to attend his oath of enlistment ceremony, I noticed that everyone – me, Travis, Der’s mom, Der’s girlfriend, my son Sean – looked unhappy. “I wonder,” I whispered to Travis as we stood sharing a Diet Coke from the vending machine, “if maybe a part of you just dies when they leave.” He nodded in agreement. That seemed right, at least at the time.

A few moments later Deryk abruptly emerged from the baggage room a few doors down, smiled briefly at us, and swiftly walked back to the room where he was finishing paperwork, the look on his face a stark contrast to our hollow expressions. He looked confident, ready, and stable. He knew what he was getting into. He knew he’d be getting screamed at by a drill sergeant in twelve hours. He was moving eagerly forward into that challenge, perhaps propelled by the same spirit that led him to jump off the roof eight years ago. It occurred to me then that he was the only one of our family there who looked happy. That is how it should have been.

In the end he got on the bus, of course. He hugged each of us one last time, and I could tell he had real sympathy for his family’s sense of loss, even as he wasn’t feeling it in the same way. That he was able to leave us to our sadness and get on the bus anyway is a sign, to me, of the success of his dad’s cardinal parenting value: Be you, no matter what. No matter if I like it, no matter if it causes me pain. Be you.

And he was. IMG_0883

He got to keep his phone on the bus and a few final texts flew around as the bus pulled away.  I wanted to send one, too, but I wanted it to be lighthearted. So I texted him a photo of Thomas: “Someone is upset that dogs aren’t allowed into MEPS, so he asked me to tell you goodbye.”

The reply flickered into my screen twenty seconds later. “That’s my boy.”

And you are his, I thought to myself.

Breakfast

There is perhaps no more reliable a visitor to backcountry campsites than ground squirrels and chipmunks. There was one in Yellowstone, and another in Glacier. This one was hoping to share our breakfast on Lower Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park. I never let them get to my food; it’s not good for them. But they can appear out of nowhere — and kick up a lot of fairy dust in their wake — and sometimes I’ll trip the shutter before one of my companions waves off the intruder. This was my first shot of the morning.

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Flat out to the finish: Old looks different in Glacier

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Fogged-in Kintla Lake just after sunrise.

“I have good news and bad news,” Travis said to me, leaning into the tent where I was grouchily pulling on my socks. It was just past dawn at the Kintla Lake Campground near the trailhead where we were to embark, later that morning, on a three-day hike. I was cranky because I’m always a little on edge the morning we hit the trail, and because I hadn’t had much coffee yet. I wanted the good news first. Too bad.

“The bad news is, a hiker saw five bears on our trail yesterday, and one of them charged him,” Travis said quickly. “But the good news is that I just met the oldest park ranger in Glacier National Park over there! He’s 86 years old.”

“NO WAY,” I said with excitement. He had just said the only thing that could draw my attention from the words “five,” “bears,” “hikers,” and “charged.”

“He’s over there,” Travis pointed across the campground to a slender figure in a ranger’s uniform, chatting with a couple of campers.

This was the guy I wanted to talk to if there were five bears loitering on the trail. Anyone younger would give you the standard line, which I already knew: carry bear spray and make noise.  But a guy who’d been working this place for a long time would give you stories, and he would give you nuance, and detail. In my world, I’d rather meet an 86-year old Glacier National Park ranger than most rock stars.

Travis went over to ask him to talk to us about the bear situation, and I saw him nod agreeably and follow Travis back to our site. He introduced himself as Lyle. “I hear you folks are concerned about the bears,” he said. “Strange situation,” he mused. “Can’t seem to get a straight answer from the folks who saw them, and ordinarily a sow would push her cubs up a tree first, but she didn’t do that.” He stroked his chin with a finely wrinkled finger. “And they stopped to take photos of the cubs. Most important thing to do if you see a bear is to observe it carefully. What is it doing? Does it have cubs? Where are they? If you can, back off slowly. The bear they saw charged them, but it was a false charge, you see – most of them are.” He paused for a moment, as if remembering something.  “I once herded a bear and her cubs out of this very campground, over there,” he said, pointing to a spot about twenty yards away from our tent.

“Wait, you herded bears? How did you do that?” Fred asked in astonishment.

Lyle shrugged. “Banged pots and pans together behind them till they moved off into the forest,” he replied nonchalantly. “Now, you can’t do that out there on the trail. Because it’s their territory, and there’s not anywhere for them to go if you do that. So you back off slow out there; let them have the space. And most important, you make a lot of noise in the first place, because they will run off if they know you’re coming, and you won’t have to encounter them at all. And don’t you worry,” he said directly to me, “there’s no reason to think bears prefer ladies to gentlemen.” His eyes twinkled. I smiled, now feeling much less grouchy.

“Always watch for overturned logs and big rocks that have been disturbed. That’s a sign they’re in the area, looking for something to eat. But mostly, have a good time and don’t worry.  I’ve worked Kintla Lake since 1991, and bears are everywhere here. They’re a fact of life, and if you’re smart about it and don’t lose your head, you’ll be fine. The trail you’ll be on is a wonderful hike, and the campsites are right on the water. Let’s talk about the miles. You’ll want to get started by noon.” He paused again. “You’re going six miles in today, six tomorrow, then all twelve back on the last day? Well, that’s a stiff hike for that third day, I’ll tell you that. But a few years ago I hit a bunch of the lakes in the North Fork all in one day, and I made it.”

I mentally calculated the space between most of the lakes in the North Fork region of the park. “In one day?” I asked, shocked. “How long was that hike, sir?”

Lyle looked sheepish. “Oh, about 29 miles. Can’t do that anymore, of course. That was sixteen years ago,” he said, as if he’d been just a young pup a decade and a half ago, and not 70 years old. We went briefly but respectfully silent. Our itinerary suddenly seemed unimpressive.

“What about other wildlife?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s there. Mountains lions though, they mostly keep to between Bowman and Quartz Lakes. And wolves, you never know where they are.”

“Have you ever seen one?” I asked, riveted.

“Oh, of course. One day I ran right into one, and we stared at each other for a little bit. Then he picks up one paw and holds it up for a second, and he starts to back up, real slow. He didn’t turn his back on me till he was ready. When he finally did, he trotted a few steps, then turned back to look at me one more time. Bluest eyes I ever saw.”

We sat there listening in rapt silence, eyes wide.

“Well,” he said, gesturing to our gear strewn about all around us, “I said you needed to get started, but here I am talking and keeping you here. Have I answered your questions?”

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Foggy dawn at Kintla.

We assured him that we had, and he shook our hands and told us to have a good time. I wished I could’ve talked to him for hours, and heard story after story of his quarter century in the park. I did the math in my head, and realized he was 61 when he began working at Glacier.

When you are in one place, doing something that’s not precisely what you want to be doing, making compromises for children or relationships or whatever, life can sometimes seem very short. You can become afraid that your best years are being used up; it’s easy to forget that the outer edges of life can be deeply vibrant. Lyle seemed to embody the idea of going “flat out to the finish”, as my father would say, and ceding nothing of life until nature demands you hand it over.  It’s a lesson I’m being taught over and over again this year, in different ways.

There’s no guarantee of anything, of course – which is why I was sleeping on the shores of Kintla Lake in the first place. But meeting Lyle made life seem a bit longer, a bit more hopeful, and much more exciting.