My son asks a lot about dying these days. Maybe it’s a five-year-old thing, like learning basic addition and how to swim, or maybe it’s because a primal family member has been staring down death for the past year. “Mama bear, are you ever going to die?”
Sometimes he tears ups. Sometimes it’s in the exact same tone that he asks me whether unicorns are real or if we can spend travel to the Jurassic period for the weekend.
My birthday weekend I felt urgency to ensure his summer contains some good memories by the time he starts kindergarten, that it wasn’t all about working and visiting and saying good-byes.
Despite the forecast for thunderstorms, I loaded up our tandem kayak with camping gear. I’d made the reservation for a boat-in campsite at Lake Jocassee for this coveted weekend months ago, carving it out as sacred fun time with my son. We paddled across Lake Jocassee with another mountain mama and her little girl during a break in the clouds, arriving at the campsite on the other side of the lake. As if to welcome us, the clouds opened, rain warm pelting us.
We decided to wait until the storm passed to unpack our boats.
My son wore rain pants and a persimmon red raincoat. He jumped off a rock and canon-balled into the now milky green lake, beckoning me to join him.
I shook my head, telling him that I didn’t want to get my clothes wet
“But mama, they already are,” he said.
It was logic I couldn’t refute, so I jumped in after him. Laughing more than I had in the entire past month. It rained harder. We swam and dove, splashing each other and floating on our backs.
It was the most fun I could remember having until we got cold. We were wearing the warmest layers we had. That’s when it set in that the rain wasn’t stopping. The campsites were flooded, and the gravel pads where we were supposed to set up our tents were one big puddle. Our tarp was useless against the day-long onslaught of rain.
So later that night when other campers offered us a ride to the other side of the lake in their motorboat, we jumped on it. We left our kayak and canoe, still full of our camping gear, and sped across the lake at midnight just as the rain was letting up.
The next day, refreshed after a night’s sleep at my house, we returned. Late that afternoon the rain returned and I second-guessed my decision. Then the sky cleared.
My son and I sat near the lake, inhaling the clean scent the rain leaves behind, somehow metallic and earthy all at once. The fog lifted, revealing the sun that had been there all along, just out of sight behind the clouds.
The lake was quiet, the kind of stillness required to take in the beauty of a whole life, and I thought about what I knew about my dad’s childhood. For a minute I stopped resisting the thought that lurked just outside my every thought. My dad was dying.
I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. I also wanted to provide my son with normalcy, and ground myself in a successful work life. To do all the things, and be all the versions of myself that were possible and felt guilty the times and ways I hadn’t showed up. It was an impossible desire of course.
In that moment on the bank of the lake I stopped being anyone at all, I just sit and watch the setting sun.
He piled crystals he found and then leaves and twigs. “Mama, for your birthday I’m giving you your favorite thing. Nature!” He beamed at me.
It’s the only gift I received that weekend, because I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday. Part of me secretly hoped that if I didn’t recognize my birthday. I’d stay forty-two, my son would stay a five-years old, and my dad would stay dying, but at least not dead.
“Mama, do you like your gift?” My little boy pressed a rock into my palm.
I grabbed him into a hug. “It’s the perfect gift.”
I wanted to take it home, to hold on to it, but leaves don’t travel well and the rocks belonged to the land. There was no holding on to any of it, my son’s pile of nature heaped at my feet, his five year old self, me being forty-two, or my dad’s mortality. There was only letting go.
That night my son and I camped alone, and I woke up to my forty-third birthday in a dry tent on a sunny day. We I paddled to waterfalls, slid down rocks, and ate marshmallows smothered in peanut butter until our bellies ached.
As we paddled back, I reflected on the weekend, how I’d always remember swimming in the rain fully clothed and getting a boat ride on a moonless night. I watched my paddle drip, creating patterns onto the lake’s surface and felt gratitude for last night’s sunset, for it’s lesson that there was beauty everything, even in fading and letting go.