Here I am. Here we are. Just a few months after I leave their father and the three of us are joining some friends and their families on a camping trip.
The three of us. A number I am not quite used to, but here’s the truth: We hadn’t been a family of four anyway. He’d learned fast how to disappear.
Four take away one.
Subtraction can be the most dismal of math operations. Always something diminished.
And I am certain that to others there is sadness in this ending, this splitting apart.
For me, right now, there is open space: miles of highway, fields and mountains and forests. There is a body in need of feeling something again.
Promised Land State Park stretches over 3,000 acres in the Pennsylvania Poconos.
My daughters are four and five years old. They are thrilled by the idea of sleeping in a tent. I am less so, mostly because of what I know, what I do not tell them: It is early October and temperatures are predicted to drop into the low 50s at night. The tent and sleeping bags we’ll be using are borrowed, and they smell like a musty basement. At night, in the dark, just beyond our nylon walls, there will be snakes and skunks and black bears.
But I need to do this. For myself. For them. For the three of us.
I set up our tent outside the circle of chairs that surround what will later be the campfire. I assemble posts and drive stakes into the ground, each determined gesture carrying the weight of memory: a slammed door, accusations, a threat, thrown candlesticks.
Remembering is an act of addition. Each layer piling on, stacking up, making it evermore impossible to overlook.
Here I am, drawn into the swell of fall colors in the dense forest of trees. The red and orange of flame. Spun gold. An accumulation of light.
And the sun on my face, I feel it almost as though I’ve never felt it before.
Here we are, right away my daughters befriending a boy their age, skipping off to play in the woods. How easily they adapt, their imaginary games of shipwreck and survival keeping them busy all day.
Still, here, among friends, I am the only single mom. Uncertainty slips in like long shadows from the trees. I shiver, wonder if I’ve done the right thing, taking these two little girls away from their father, dividing everything: a house, a dining room set, their chances for someday finding love that doesn’t look like half of something.
Along paths close to the campsite, I walk—the first wandering I have done in years. For a moment, I worry about getting lost, but a bird stirs above in an evergreen and quickly distracts me. I glimpse its wings lift, listen to the sound it makes as it flies away, shrill, like a child’s toy whistle.
Between tree branches, the blue of sky. Cloudless.
Below, beside my feet, something bright. I bend to take a closer look: fruit-bearing lichen I have never seen before, red clusters overflowing yellow-green cups. To take in this kind of beauty, illuminated, beckoning. Here, like this, the day’s brisk air rushing into my lungs.
I hear one of my daughters call for me. I turn toward the sound of her voice and walk briskly back. Everyone is preparing to go down to the lake: backpacks slung over shoulders, kayaks and canoes hoisted high above heads.
We join the parade, one daughter on either side of me. Two hands. Two girls. Simple math. No remainder.
In the early afternoon sun, Promised Land Lake is fringed by the reflection of trees on fire. A spectacular blaze.
I watch a flock of ducks leave behind tiny momentary wakes on the otherwise still surface of the water.
On the rocks along the edge, my daughters and their friend begin collecting sticks, piling them up—walls, they say when asked, to protect us in case the lake gets bigger and bigger, tries to take over the land.
I wonder what makes them think of this—the need to fortify, to contain, to hold back what might threaten to harm us. What fantasies have prompted these elaborate stick piles, this make-pretend peril?
Four minus one. By taking them away, have I opened up a place for fear to lodge itself?
Maybe I am overreacting.
But I start thinking about other walls: about families behind walls of houses constructed to keep them safely inside or to keep unwanted things out. Stone or brick walls intended as boundaries or borders. Retaining walls. Seawalls. And the kind of emotional walls built to keep us from being hurt.
No one ever wants to say, I am fragile.
Someone offers me a canoe, suggests I take my daughters out onto the lake. So I do. I buckle them into life vests, climb into the boat first and reach out as a friend lifts them one at a time into my arms. I can feel my heart pumping harder and faster as we are pushed off shore with the kind of force that rocks the canoe back and forth. I almost drop the oars. I am convinced we are going to capsize.
One of the girls asks if we are going to tip over. No, I got this, I say, trying to sound confident. I tighten my grip on the oars, begin to slowly row us out toward the middle of the lake.
For a little while, we are steady. I am calmer. But doubt catches up with me again as I look at their faces peeking out over the top of orange life jackets that have nearly obscured their entire bodies. Two of them. One of me.
This is where the math becomes an impossible word problem: If a boat tips over and there is only one parent. . . .
I paddle us back to shore.