Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
–from Mary Oliver’s “Heavy”
Jodi and I recently took our first road trip and camping trip since Caemon died. This was no small thing. You see, Caemon loved both. He loved going places with us. He loved riding in the car, listening to music, watching the world pass by. He loved anticipating where we would be when we stopped, and because he often did not know where we would be, he loved the exploration of our destination, whether a hotel room, his grandmother’s house, or a campsite in the redwoods. During Caemon’s last summer, we took him camping for the first time, apprehensive at first because we really didn’t know how he would take to it. Like so many new experiences, he embraced it–everything from hanging out in the tent to cooking over the little camp stove to building a fire so that he could have marshmallows for the first time to learning about rock skipping and cold river water. During those first (and last) couple of camping trips, we learned that as still relatively new parents, we needn’t fear losing this favorite part of ourselves, that our boy would be happy to come along, and we imagined the memories we would build with him, fostering his love for the outdoors, feeding our very souls as a family.
It should not have been overly surprising, then, when, while planning this trip, the mere thought of camping again threw me into a panic. While Jodi and I have spent many a night lulled to sleep by owls and streams and wind in the treetops, long before Caemon joined us, that dream of camping with our little family had solidified. It was what we were to have done from then on out. Camping as a family felt right. To go back to camping by ourselves was altogether wrong. But this was not surprising: everything we do for the first time without Caemon is just hard.
The crux of all that anxiety, though, the hardest part to grasp was something else, something that surprised me so much more: What was I going to do with all of that quiet?
I will readily admit that one of the ways I have made it through the past eighteen months without my son is by staying incredibly busy. In the first few months, I sat right in the middle of my grief, but as time passed, I needed productive escapes from it, so I worked, I visited with friends, I started teaching again, I went to meetings for work, I held fundraisers and spoke, I watched a lot of television, listened to a lot of radio programs. I filled my mind with something to process most of the time because to stop meant to sit in the muck of the grief again, to miss my boy so completely that every part of me would ache with his absence. At home, I am able to control how much I do this. I have grown keenly aware of the need to sit with the grief now and then, to give it some space, and I do. However, I can then go to the farmer’s market or watch a home improvement program on television or turn on my laptop and busy myself with work and gain the necessary respite from the pain.
Each time my wife and I would talk about this trip, my stomach would flip-flop at the thought of time with no distractions but the birds and the campfire and the wind in the tops of the trees. When she would ask if I was getting excited, my breath would catch, and while I might nod and smile, inside, I was absolutely not looking forward to this trip. I was terrified.
But I went. We gathered our gear, made some loose plans for where we might end up, and before we knew it, we were in our first campsite at Burney Falls near Mt. Shasta. And there I was, unfolding our tent, weeping uncontrollably because the last time I folded that tent, our son had helped me. The last time that tent had stood, he had been in it. And he wasn’t. And he wouldn’t be ever again. It was torture. I spent the whole first night in a terrible funk. I hated the quiet and the dark and the fact that I had no cell phone service. Even the distant sound of the falls upset me. I didn’t want to be here if I couldn’t have my boy. I went to bed as early as I could, read myself to sleep, ticked off the first of the ten or more days we planned to be gone. I hated that I wanted them to speed past, but I could think of nothing more than returning home to my distractions. Even work would be better than sitting so helplessly with all of this grief.
The next day, I felt a little better. It was nice waking up in the crisp morning air, and the anticipation of a hike to a waterfall was at least something to focus on. I was allowing myself to settle in to my camp chores, making coffee, building a fire, staring at the tops of the trees. Later that morning, we began our hike. Within minutes of walking, as I stared down steep cliffs to the rushing creek below, something began to shift in me, and as we neared the falls, as their roar became louder, and I could feel their thundering in my chest, I began to lighten. Descending to the base of the falls, I began to cry and then smile. I told my wife as we made it to the base that I was happy.
Happy? Had that word really just come from my mouth? I had to sit with it, and I did. I sat at the base of this glorious waterfall, grappling with the idea of happy and finally just decided to feel it because this, a little voice was telling me, was why I was still alive. There was beauty to see, awe to be felt, and so I sat with that too, all the while wondering what Caemon would have thought of the spray on his face, the anglers casting their lines, the funky bridge with the same name as his school. I missed him so, but I felt good too, an ever-present dichotomy with which I had recently lost touch.
As our trip continued, Jodi and I drove up the middle of Oregon. We were following a volcanic trail, some of the land decimated thousands of years ago by eruptions only to be replaced by gut-wrenching beauty. That we were drawn to this was no mistake. We both long to find the sacred and the stunning somewhere in our own lava flows and pumice deserts. This landscape brought me more peace. The thin mountain air overlooking Crater Lake, the majestic peaks of the Three Sisters, the soaring, jagged cliffs of the Cove Palisades–all of it healed me bit by bit.
Our favorite nights were spent in the Columbia River Gorge, where we found ourselves among old growth Douglass Firs and ferns and spectacular views of this landscape carved by ice and fire and water. One morning, we took a hike to a rock overlooking the river, and I snapped photos along the way, a few of which were of Jodi. It was a glorious hike. We were up high overlooking the river and the gorge itself, and I know both of us felt a sense of peace. Later, as I looked through my photos, I found a photo of my wife with a smile that I haven’t seen since that last summer we had with our son: a pure, joyful smile. She stared and stared at the photo, incredulous that this happy woman could be her, now. I marveled too, wondering whether she had seen such an expression cross my own face. She had, she said. On that hike to the falls. It had been there. I was relieved to hear this, that I was still capable of feeling something good, relieved and also sad that feelings like this have been so fleeting, so few.
We hated to leave the Gorge with its own waterfalls and cliffs and glorious beauty born of destruction, but we did, and while the rest of our trip was perfectly pleasant, it lacked the majesty of the first week. Still, we were accompanied by a greater peace, and we carried that with us on the last legs of our journey, easily slipping into afternoons of fire-tending, whittling, tree-gazing, and more. On our way home, we stopped for a night in Eugene, Oregon, stayed in a hotel, cleaned ourselves up, and went for a stroll downtown the next morning to seek out coffee and books. We ducked into a shop filled with hand-crafted furniture made of slabs of wood, stumps, river stones, drift wood. We spoke with the artisan, an older man who sang along with a steady voice to the loud folk music as he dusted his furniture, and then looked around at his work, the tables, the tiny stools Caemon would have loved, and then the art on the walls. In the middle of a set of stairs, I stopped to admire one piece: the frame made of driftwood, four dried maple leaves stuck to a black canvas, and beneath them, written in a whimsical print,
“Your SOUL needs the WILD.”
Tears were pouring down my face as I began to see this phrase everywhere, on tables, in frames, on bits of driftwood. I picked up one of these pieces of wood, carrying it with me through the store, my face still wet with salty acceptance, and as I looked at the artist, ready to pay him for the little piece of driftwood, he returned my gaze, eyes warm, and told me it was a gift.
Indeed it was.
By the end of our trip, I wasn’t ready to leave the wild. I had grown used to the unparalleled stillness of thin mountain air, to the rush of fierce waters, to the whistles of favorite birds, the crackling of fire. And, yes, I had even found peace with the jags of tears that came when seeing reminders of my boy and the hollowness that came from missing him. On each phase of the trip, there were countless reminders of Caemon, hundreds of times when my wife and I wondered, often aloud, What would Caemon have thought of this? Our answer was always the same: He would have loved it. And this seemed to give us permission to keep moving, to keep enjoying beauty and adventure, even if only for ourselves–because, ultimately, what else do we have? By the time we were seeing our last snow-capped mountains, our last lava flows and pumice deserts, I was already longing to be in the wild again, sad to say goodbye to the stillness I had so feared, for while my back was certainly finished with sleeping on the ground, my soul was ready for more beauty born of devastation, more quiet, more reminders that even in this life without Caemon, joy can grow.