I know I've entered the wilderness when my son says, "Dad laughs. You don't."
It's true. So we are embarking on our first post-divorce vacation. I'll have the kids for a solid week, on my own, and I'm scared. I've chosen a YMCA family camp in Wisconsin as our destination because at least there will be a group there, with a staff and planned activities, to ease my way. But it's a six-hour drive from Chicago, and once we're in the car, I panic. I spend the first hour trying to breathe normally, telling myself that I can turn back anytime. When the kids ask me something, I snap at them, "Be quiet! Mom's thinking!"
We arrive safely, but I remain on edge. I note that all the other families look intact and complete. Even our cabin is apart from everyone else. It's sheltered by tall pines and hugs a pristine green-blue lake--beautiful, yet all I see is that it's a good hundred yards from the nearest bathroom and separated from the main camp by a winding gravel road.
By noon the first day my son Jed has worn down my nerves with demands, tantrums, and tears. We walk to the lake and I manage to give him a quick hug before plunging into the water, where it makes sense that my face is wet. I know how desperately he wants his dad and me together. When he was a toddler, he loved to walk between us, wrapping one arm around each of our knees and pulling us close. He is the middle child and has always seemed happiest in the middle of his parents.
Thankfully, my daughter distracts him. She runs to the water's edge, points at the ground, and yells, "Look Jed, it's a perfectly good hole!" I sit beside them as they play and I stare at the hole. What a metaphor it seems for my life. Is there a way to be in this dark place and know that it's perfectly good?
That night, the kids are asleep when I hear footsteps. They are slow and deliberate, coming closer to the window. I have it slightly open, and through the screen the noise is unmistakable. I bolt upright and pull the curtain aside. I can't see anything, but I know what I heard. Every horror movie ever made begins playing; I see ax murderers and the flash of a white mask, I hear the thud of bloodthirsty zombies, the whir of a chainsaw. Like any true urbanite, I'm convinced that the most heinous crimes happen in the middle of nowhere. I peek again. Nothing. I know there's a motion-controlled light on the corner of the cabin. It's not on. But the noise is still there, very close through the thin wood wall. Why isn't the light coming on? The footsteps sound human, but can't be. It's an animal, that's all. I don't feel any better. I wait on high alert until there is nothing more to hear, then I grab my Ipod, put my ear buds in, and listen to Les Miserables until I fall asleep.
I stick close to the lodge the following day, made safe by sunshine, staff members, and internet access. That's when I overhear the director and head counselor talking about a bear. It's been years since they've spotted one, but there was a sighting the day before. I think of the bag of garbage still sitting on my screened-in porch and realize who my late-night visitor was. I tell the director about the footsteps and, to my surprise, he offers us new lodging. The main house, located next to the lodge, with a bathroom and full kitchen, is available and it's ours for no extra charge.
"How nice of you," I say, flustered. "But we'll be fine." I don't want to be a charity case. I thank him and turn away, then stop. What's the matter with me? This is a vacation, not a competition.
"Actually, I would really like that." I wonder why it's so hard for me to see the simple act of moving to a new cabin as a decision of power, rather than weakness. What is the part of me that can't admit when I'm needy?
When my older son plops next to me on the knotty pine couch in the new, spacious cabin, I reach for him, and with a shaky sigh, confess, "I'm scared because I don't have a husband."
"Mom, you're a strong, independent woman."
I look at him closely to see if he's joking, but his face is earnest.
"But I'm not invincible," I say.
"Neither is a husband," he says, and squeezes my hand.