During days of hiking in the wilderness with her son, Susan made discoveries about her child, herself, and the challenges of any great journey. She reflects on her lessons in this three part series.
By the afternoon of the second day on the John Muir Trail we had hiked with our packs to over 11,000 feet and over two mountain passes. The sweat from struggling (I was struggling; Jack seemed to be sailing) up the steep ascent of granite combined with the increasing altitude demanded we double our drinking.
Jack landed us a campsite surrounded by tall pines and overlooking a large pond where three deer mesmerized us as they took an end of day swim. Jack asked me to attend to purifying the water he’d retrieved from a stream, as there was no running water during our days in the wilderness. Not paying attention to the few but critical instructions, I promptly ruined a half day supply of our drinking water.
I choked up as I apologized, my eyes cast downward. Perhaps it was my fatigue, my feeling of incompetence, or my fear of being a disappointment to my child. A prolific problem solver, Jack quickly crafted a solution to remedy my mistake, quietly forgave me, and silently set about starting the small flame to heat water for our one hot meal of the day. Soon we were happily eating our beans and rice, watching the sun set.
Jack was 6 years old when his father and I divorced. At the time, I had a certain smugness about the importance of my parenting. Surely the time he and his brother Ben spent with me was going to be “better” than the time they would spend with their father—or anyone else for that matter. After all, who was more devoted or committed to their happy future than me?
In the years that followed the divorce, my boys saw me pitch political arguments but not pitch tents. Being athletic or playful was not my forte as a young mother. It was their father who taught them how to sail a boat against the wind and how build a fire despite it. Their dad’s lessons had impact that would endure all of their lives.
At 15 Jack left for college over a thousand miles away from home. By 21, he was a soldier in the Army. From his father to his law professors to, this year, his fellow forest firefighters, others have influenced him to become who he is.
An irrepressible appreciator of the magnificent beauty of the wild, Jack was my teacher on our 40 mile trail, sharing what others taught him while apart from me. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who contributed to my two sons being not only strong survivors of divorce but extraordinarily capable men in a myriad of ways that I had nothing to do with.
If you ever worry about the weeks, days, or hours your children are apart from you, my hope is that you have faith in who they are and who they will become. You may discover what I did about my being the influencer. I never was the only one.