With a Glimpse of Mortality, Losing Sight of the Wild

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Before I became a mother, I led wilderness trips. I was strong, firm, sharp. For more than a decade, I took other people’s children up mountains, into woods, across lakes, down rivers, deep into canyons. I held the ropes while they rappelled down cliffs. I paddled the raft while they screamed through rapids. I tied the tarps and gave them shelter; I knelt with them on sodden backpacks halfway down remote trails, singing to distract them from the thunder and lightning crashing around us, while the hairs on our arms stood at attention.

Now, I hide from thunderstorms. I avoid white water and steep cliffs. I don’t take my own children on the same adventures that I once took stranger’s children on. In my transition from young and fearless to middle-aged motherhood, I lost sight of the wild.

For the most part, I love being a mom-of-advanced-maternal-age. I was 37 when my first son slid into this world and into my arms, and 40 when my second son showed his face.

After years of infertility struggles, I was ready in a way that I never would have been in my 20s, the age my own mother was when she had her first child. I have all the time in the world to focus on my sons, and none of the angst about what I might be missing — career, social life, education, adventures.

I worry, however, that being an older mom lends itself to a different problem: How many adventures are my children missing, because their mother is already adventured-out? Because I can taste mortality, and project my own fears onto the shoulders of my boys?

Since becoming a mother, my fears have escalated. I watched my son suffer seizures in the relative safety of his own home. I saw him turn blue, and thought I was going to lose him. Perhaps I would have been an anxious mother no matter how old I was when my children were born; maybe it’s the epilepsy, not my age, that keeps me off rivers and out of tents.

Some days I remember the pictures of my younger self that are now stuffed in the bottom of storage boxes; I see my windblown hair, my pink cheeks, my arms outstretched on a high peak. I can almost hear my shouts echoing across the valley below. I wonder how these pictures would look with my young sons standing beside me; how their sweet voices would sound ringing over the mossy boulders.

My thighs are flaccid and so is my heart, my strength, my daring, my do. What if my son has a seizure on the side of a mountain, miles from nowhere? But he was in his own home, my brain screams. He was in his own home, and it happened anyway, his seizures. Safety, a mother’s illusion.

Sheltering my children won’t save them; it will rob them. I know about the life that is out there, in the wild where my spirit used to live, where northern lights send radiant reflections across still, dark waters. Where trees bend their branches and their trunks against strong alpine winds. This life is no less safe than my own living room, where my child falls backward without warning.

When it happens, it’s not momentous. Instead, on a Friday morning in June, my fear slips away and I’m unsure where it went, or how I held it so tightly in the first place.

“Did you know that mommy used to sleep outside, in a tent, almost every night in the summer? You have never camped. But today, we are going to camp.”

Wide eyes stare back at me, uncertain. The 4-year-old says something about owls, and the 8-year-old mumbles that he wants to practice first, in the backyard. How have I failed my children, so that they have never felt roots and rocks under their hips and heard the sweet sounds of silence during the night?

I pack in haste, before anyone can howl in protest. Before I change my mind. My gear is buried in the garage; half of it is missing, but I assemble the pieces, and in doing so, reassemble myself.

I find a tent, which will prove much smaller than I remember, now that I have grown in size from me to us. Sleeping bags, pads, flashlights, warm hats because it is Colorado, and mountains. Then, in deference to their worried faces, I pack my sons’ illusions of safety: pillows, from their beds. Loveys. A brown bear, a striped cat, a ratty white unicorn. A worry stone, and favorite comic books.

“It will be just like home,” the oldest says to the youngest, trying to reassure both of them. “But outside.” He is right. Safety is in our hands, not in our house.

We drive across the Rockies in a minivan, over high mountain passes. Goats scramble with precipitous ease and nudge their babies over tall boulders; alpine forget-me-nots hide in rocky crevices, so small we have to bend down to spot their petals.

We tuck into a campsite. It’s hardly the deep wilderness; before we crawled into our tent, we saw families on either side. But I watch my boys, heads tucked together under the light of a headlamp, flipping through comic books and playing cards. Giggling against a backdrop of outdoor noises: Wind rustling the tent walls. Bugs and crickets settling for the night. Sometimes, silence. A hush that calms our spirits; away from the hum of central air; away from running refrigerators, cars, sirens, the television.

My boys are content. Marshmallow bits are stuck to a layer of dirt across their cheeks. They are excited, yet relaxed — this feels exactly right to them, to nestle into silky sleeping bags with chilled noses and dark and stillness.

When I open the tent door and look out, they are already asleep. The entire campground is asleep; there are no noises, now. I step outside and zip my fleece. Then I look up. The stars spread across the black universe; they go forever, and reignite the light that has been missing inside me for nearly a decade of city sounds and washed-out skies. My boys won’t see this sky, tonight, but they have seen enough. Together, we have found the wilderness, peeked past our safety nets, and opened up a world that they need and I need and now we will have.