In late April I spent a week at outdoor camp with my son’s grade seven class. Two hours on the ferry, almost three more by bus. A nervous, cloying energy seemed to emanate from pre-teen pores the whole trip there. Everyone is off to high school next year, and with summer only a few weeks away, the camp very much had the feel of a culmination. An ending. A beginning.
The class was split into four smaller groups. Camp rules mandated that parents could not chaperone their child’s group to ensure that sons or daughters were neither unfairly scrutinized nor inhibited. This struck me as a very good rule. But it meant that although my son and I were technically together at camp for the entire week, we remained, in fact, mostly separate from one another. We moved in different orbits. When his group went rock climbing, mine was off to the zip line (how would my cautious, risk-averse son ever manage the zip line?). When my group was stand up paddle boarding, his group was out for a hike. On it went. In truth, I might have seen less of my son at camp then I did during an average week at home, where our time together is splintered by work and school, activities and sports, adolescent wanderings, sullen moods, and screens, screens, screens.
There were decent stretches of free time every day, but even then I kept my distance, knowing that he would much prefer to revel in airy, unpaved freedom with his friends than sit through confessions with his father. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to know everything about his time in the kayak, his passage across the trembling high ropes course, every doubt he overcame, every shriek of joy or fear that escaped his lips, every surge of pride he must have felt in meeting some terrific unknown. But I also knew, or perhaps realized, slowly, throughout the week, that he had reached an age where new adventures and experiences, new failures, belong much more to him than they do to me. I knew he was happy. That was enough. It had to be.
The entire class took breakfast, lunch, and dinner together and during meals I found myself craning my neck in search of his table, twisting in my seat, getting up to refill a full cup, all so I could get a glimpse of him. Just take him all in, however briefly. I would see him eating things I had no idea he liked or was willing to try, listening and laughing to stories and jokes that I would never know. I caught in these glimpses a precious, delicate quality that I thought he had mostly sloughed off as he prepares to enter his awkward teenage years. His skin looked pure and applewhite from across the room. My love for him felt absolute and desperate and painful. I wanted to cross the room and take him in my arms and crush him to me. I wanted to tell him that everything will be ok, always, and to not be afraid. And I suppose I wanted him to tell me these same beautiful lies.
For me it was a week outside of — or maybe parallel to — reality. No ochre-stained fascists spewing hatred to the gaping masses, no rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, no lone gunmen on the streets. I spent a week willfully ignoring these realities. I did not take my phone. There were no televisions. No newspapers. The closest the real world came to intruding on my pastoral fantasy was when a guide stopped during a hike and gently fingered a tender green bud that in most years past would already have been a burgeoning leaf. The stubborn snow on the mountain tops confirmed it. It was late April and the weather was all wrong. But the guide didn’t say this and neither did I. She just smiled a thin, confused smile, shook her head, and we carried on.
It was a great week. Two memories loom especially large, the kind of memories that you can feel your mind take the shape and weight of even as they come into being. Sturdy memories that I can already feel pressing into my future selves. The first is a moment of solitude. The class split in half and canoed out in different directions for an overnight excursion in the woods. Cooking on an open fire. Sleeping under tarps. Again, camp protocol meant I wouldn’t be with my son. The guide on our trip encouraged all of us to take a few minutes to find a small piece of land and to sit quietly, alone with our thoughts in the stunning surroundings. I wandered up the rocky beach and sat on a moldering treestump facing the lake. Windworn sticks lay everywhere, bonewhite. Wavelets rippled like raven wings on the iron grey water. To my left and right the undergrowth of the forest was a verdant sea of plankton catching blades of light through the trees.
I heard it before I saw it. The steady, recognizable thrum. I turned away from the water to see a hummingbird anointing clusters of pink petals dangling in the breeze. Four feet away, maybe less. I had not seen the flowers behind me when I had picked my private seat. The hummingbird was there for what felt like a long time, proceeding carefully from bloom to bloom, floating slowly around and through the plant in a deliberate pattern. The complexity of its passage astounded me. It did not return to the same bloom twice but rather blessed each one with humbling attentiveness. I stayed very still but I am sure that it knew I was there. Watching. When it had explored each and every flower, it flew away, and the sound of the breeze and the water and of a robin clucking in the brush somewhere all came rushing back.
A miracle. This was my first coherent thought. For our lives to have converged, even briefly, amidst the vast ruggedness, seemed miraculous. What are the odds? As ridiculous as it might sound, the simple beauty of the encounter momentarily ruined me. I was struck by the tremendous scale of everything around me — mountains, clouds, trees in sway, and I was struck as well by the precision of the little world before me — stones dappled with lichen, the rusty gargle of a crow, blankets of soft moss so green they seemed to be lit by hidden filaments running beneath the earth. I could have wept, though why I cannot say for certain. I felt terribly alone. I missed my son. And I knew, in that moment, that some small part of me would spend the rest of my life missing him. I wished he could have been there with me to see it, even as I knew that his presence would have somehow changed the experience, diminished the strange power of what I saw by stripping it of its solitudinous wonder. It was, in some way I don’t completely understand, a moment for me alone. It had to be.
After its vanishment, I hoped, impossibly, that the hummingbird would make it the three or four kilometres down the water’s edge to the site of my son’s camp, where he alone would be drawn to its steady thrum and he would follow it to some quiet clearing or hollow and see it, fairybright and fragile against the darkening timber, and then he would think of me. But what are the odds?
The second memory is of the return trip. After the long bus ride, the class was waiting in the ferry terminal to begin the last leg home. The children continued to buzz with energy, now giddy with thoughts of reunion and warm showers, home-cooked meals. I sat apart, paging through my book. I looked up at one point and saw my son across the room, his back pressed to a large window framing the ocean and the incoming boat, a thick slab of hard blue sky. He too sat apart, he too sat quietly with a book. I watched him for as long as I could. He didn’t know I was watching, though I suppose I can’t be certain about that. Through the window, needlepoints of sun on water cast him in glimmers prophetic and unreadable.