Friday, February 2, 2018

I Want to Be Amazing!

  When Sylvia was a toddler and caught her reflection in a mirror, a dark window, even the curvature of a spoon, she used to say, “Dee Dee in der! Dee Dee in der!” Was she too young to understand that it was her own image that she saw? Or was “Dee Dee” a generic name for any little Witsell girl, the way toddlers will call all four-legged animals “dog?” Maybe she and her twin were just so linked in her psyche that when she saw herself, she saw her sister.

Six years later, Sylvia has never stopped loving her own reflection. She often goes to our room to study herself in the full-length mirror there.

“Clayton and Dee Dee think I’m vain when I look in the mirror,” she explained to me seriously a few weeks ago. “But I’m not. I’m just excited.
Her words elated me. Because isn’t this what we all want for our daughters? For them to look in the mirror and feel good— excited, even— about what they see? That person she sees in the mirror? Sylvia’s in there! How cool is that?
Clayton’s sense of self-worth is much more complicated.
“I don’t want to be just nine-years-old,” he told me last Friday. “I want to be amazing.”
Clayton is writing a book. At six thousand words and counting, it’s a real, book-length book, easily as long as any Magic Tree House or Junie B. Jones. Typing a six-thousand word story, hunting and pecking each letter at a time— even that much is an accomplishment. But Clayton wants no qualifiers. He doesn’t want his book to be “pretty good for a nine-year-old.” He wants it to be J.K. Rowling amazing, Rick Riordan amazing.
Clayton dreams of publishing. He wants the five star icons by his title on amazon, “National Bestseller” on the front cover, “Based on the novel by Clayton Witsell” on the big screen. Every day he asks me, “Do you think I’ll really publish my book?”
With my own e-stack of rejection letters mounting, it is not an easy question.
“You can always self-publish,” I hedge. I tell him about The Martian and Still Alice, both best-sellers that were originally self-published.
He nods, not entirely convinced. Like me, he wants the validation of traditional publishing.
“I think I’ll still try to send it to real publishers first,” he says. “Do you think there’s a chance someone will publish it?”

Last weekend, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in nine years. In the interim, she’s earned her Ph.D., gotten a coveted professorship in Australia, completed “a couple” of Half Ironman triathlons, and become a competitive tennis player. And what have I done, I wondered? No Ph.D., no publishing credits, certainly no Half Ironmans or tennis tournaments. Instead, I have three kids and an elliptical machine in the basement, where I squeeze in workouts before leaving the house for a job that offers minimal pay and only minutely more status.
I don’t want to be just forty-three years old, I can almost hear myself thinking. I want to be amazing!
Here, Clayton is the mirror I can hold up to myself. Because what was the first thing I thought when he said those words? Clayton, you are amazing! Of course I think it’s pretty awesome that he’s writing his first book at the age of nine (and, in my biased opinion, a pretty wonderful book at that), but that’s not why he’s amazing. Book or no book, published or not, he’d still be amazing.

At the bar where my friend and I are having a drink, the bartender searches for our tab. She can’t find my friend’s name in the computer, neither first nor last.
“Here it is!” she says finally. “It was under Doctor.” She arches her eyebrows playfully. “Aren’t you fancy?”
We all laugh good-naturedly, because my friend is anything but pretentious. But still I find myself wondering what it must be like to go through life like that, when even the person who rings up your tab knows something of your accomplishments.
It reminds me of an experience I had in graduate school, when, as a student volunteer, I had the opportunity to go to lunch with a visiting poet. I went through the meal in a state of nervous awe, determined not to say much lest I say something stupid, until finally it was over and we sat back, our empty dishes spread before us. That moment is still vivid in my mind, because just then the acclaimed poet reached into her empty water glass, snaking her fingers among the ice-cubes to reach the wedge of lemon at the bottom. It was exactly the kind of uncouth gesture I would have made had I not been on my best behavior for the poet, and it has stayed with me as a lesson on humanity: that even the most amazing people are human, are ordinary.
When it comes to my own life, though, I have been much more hesitant to accept that the inverse can also be true: that the ordinary can be amazing. Catching up with my friend, I worry that by her international, high-academia standards, my own life must seem boringly conventional. But when I admit this, she shakes her head emphatically. She tells me that, without children, she is constantly striving to find ways to truly make a difference in the lives of others. To her, the fact that I have children who bare their hearts to me is amazing.
Recently Clayton seems to have tempered his ambitions a little. He now says things like, “Do you think I can be as good as J.K. Rowling when I grow up?” Or, “Even books that not many people know about can be good, right?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I say, to both of us.
Meanwhile I have found some of Sylvia’s school writing crumpled in her backpack:

It is hard not to smile at her unabashed self-love, unfiltered by any pretense of modesty. But, as in so many of the things my children say or do, I think there might be a lesson for me in all of this. For if his little sister teaches me about unconditional self-love, the question Clayton has raised is quite a bit more complicated: How do we strive to reach our dreams without our self-worth becoming impossibly tangled up with our successes... or the lack of them?
I think, for me, the answer is in both of my children. From Clayton, that the pursuit of our dreams is vitalizing and worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. From Sylvia, that it’s okay to love yourself for exactly who you are.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Soča's Tummy Troubles

I knew something was wrong on Sunday morning, when Soča wouldn’t lick the kids’ cereal bowls. He left his own food untouched, too, and didn’t even bat an eye when Howard slunk over to eat it for him. By the afternoon, Soča was in so much pain that he wouldn’t lie down. He stood forlornly in his dog house, back arched against the pain.
“He has his sick ears again,” Dee Dee said sadly and ran off to make him a card.
Of course it was Sunday. It is a lesser known corollary of Murphy’s Law that pet emergencies almost always happen on the weekend, when the regular vet is closed. I silently counted the hours until Monday morning, knowing even as I did so that we wouldn’t— we couldn’t— wait, not with Soča suffering and the vet’s emphatic words— “Pancreatitis can get bad very quickly”— still ringing in my ears from Soča’s last bout of GI distress.
We coaxed Soča into the car, and off Don and Soča went to the emergency clinic, while I waited anxiously for an update. When the call finally came, Don told me that the vet had recommended hospitalization but had agreed to let Don bring Soča home with a subcutaneous fluid pack, an anti-nausea injection, and oral meds. This was familiar territory; the last time Soča had developed pancreatitis, we had opted for home-care, and Soča had recovered quickly. The difference in price was not negligible either; at over eight hundred dollars for a night in the hospital, any other alternative seemed worth a try.
As soon as Soča came home, however, I regretted our decision. Soča’s back legs seemed unsteady, and he didn’t seek out any of his usual spots but stood uncertainly at the top of the stairs, his eyes unfocused. When he finally lay down, one of this front legs splayed out at a strange angle, and his head slumped on the wood floor uncomfortably.
“The vet tech said the pain meds would make him sleepy,” Don said as we stood watching him.
But this was not sleepy! Soča was either doped or on the verge of death.
I anxiously called the clinic, seeking reassurance that Soča could make it until morning.
“You know, any of us could be dead before morning,” the vet tech on the phone replied cheerfully.
Strangely, I found this reassuring, since he he had effectively equated Soča’s chances of survival with my own. Still, I passed a wakeful night. When Soča staggered to his feet around two in the morning, I followed him out into the rainy night, worried that he might be looking for a private place to die. When he finally settled in his dog house, I went back to bed, but sleep did not come easily. What if we had opted to bring him home only to have him die during the night?  
Soča did not appear during the usual morning chaos, and when Don and I went to find him, I steeled myself for the worst. We found him awake but lethargic, and uninterested in the treats in which I had hidden his meds. An hour later, Soča and I were back on our way to the vet.

Two days later, Soča was back to his happy, food-loving, eleven-years-young self. It was a relief to have him home again; the house had seemed empty without him. For the next few days, Soča milked his illness for all that it was worth. When I caught him on our bed, he didn’t even deign to look guilty. He just stared up at me with those sad eyes.
“I almost died, you know.”
At bedtime, I didn’t kick him out of our room like I normally do, but moved his bed from the living room so he’d be more comfortable. And when, predictably, he scratched to go out in the middle of the night, I didn’t even swear once, but meekly followed him to the front door. Later that day, scouring the house for food, Soča devoured Dee Dee’s witch’s brew science experiment that was growing mold on her bookshelf. I wrung my hands and watched him closely, worried that his newly-healed pancreas would not take kindly to a handful of potting soil mixed with 3-day old tomato soup.

During the days of Soča’s illness and the ones that followed, it was my love and concern for Soča that was foremost in my heart. Yet there was another feeling, too, one that was harder to make sense of and left me feeling strangely shameful.
On the one hand, I am keenly aware of our privilege. When I lived briefly in Ecuador, I saw horses with the ticks so thick and bloated in their ears they looked like corn cobs, the feces of skeletal dogs crawling with worms. Veterinary care is a luxury that a relative few can afford. And it seems to me that  ‘few’ is shrinking.
“Don’t even get me started,” a coworker told me, when I winced over the cost of Soča’s emergency care. “It’s the fastest growing industry in America. It’s putting pet ownership outside the grasp of the middle class.”
Was that true, I wondered? A little googling and I found that Americans spend more than three times as much for their pets now as they did in 1994. But those figures, of course, include chew toys and doggie manicures, and do little more than confirm my suspicion that I am paying far more at the vet than my parents did for my own childhood pets. But why? Is it because I am one of a growing number of privileged, pet-loving Americans willing to shell out big bucks for animals who are not pets so much as members of the family? Or am I the victim of a booming industry in which an ever-greater quality of care means rising costs passed along in bills that make you want to cry? Am I a first-world pushover with a too-ready credit card, or a humble pet-owner bludgeoned by the rising price tag of an industry beyond my control?
Because this question looms over me, I feel judgement at every turn. Is my pet-free friend shaking her head at the vast sums I’ve just spent on our dog? Do my parents think I’m letting myself be manipulated by an overzealous vet? At the veterinary office, it is no better. When I opt out of another round of bloodwork, does the veterinarian think I’m far too tight-fisted to responsibly own a pet?
It seems to me that the same upward pressure on costs exists in veterinary medicine as in our own human health care system. Namely, that the doctors rarely, if ever, know the price of the type of care they choose to give. Tests are ordered, injections given, and drugs prescribed, with little, if any, thought to the expense. After all, it’s someone else’s job to print up the invoice in the end.
At the end of day two at the vet with Soča, I was sent home with nearly seventy dollars worth of pills, in addition to the two prescriptions he had gotten from the emergency clinic the night before. Soča, by this point, seemed completely recovered; was all this medication really necessary? The vet insisted that it was, and who was I to argue? She is the expert, and I am not. I took the meds home and dutifully administered them, but each time I wrapped a ten-dollar pill in a pill pocket and fed it to a perfectly healthy dog, I wondered if that vet even knew how much each of those pills cost.

In the end, Soča’s bout of pancreatitis cost us a long weekend at beachfront condo, a plane ticket to Italy, a.... No, that was exactly the kind of thinking that I had to make myself stop. Of course I would rather spend money on a fun vacation than at a vet’s office, but, ultimately, that is not the point. Don and I choose to have pets because there are millions of homeless animals that need loving homes, and because our animals enrich our lives in hundreds of intangible ways. When I stopped thinking about the vacation we could have had, and instead thought of all the joy and laughter that Soča has brought us over the eleven and a half years he has been our dog, the bills became a heck of a lot easier to stomach. Because, really, if I had to choose between a vacation and having Soča in our lives, there would be no contest. Soča would win, every time.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

I Just Wanna Go Home

for Kristen

“I just want to go home!” Clayton sobbed, again and again. “I want to go home!”
At that moment, I did, too. I imagined lugging all our sleeping bags and gear back to the parking lot, and then driving the hour and a half back home, where our nice, comfortable beds were waiting and the dogs would be oh-so-happy to see us. I even imagined leaving it all behind, just walking away empty-handed, with the tent half-pitched on the tent pad and the whole slapdash heap of pads and sleeping bags piled up beside it. It would be so simple to just shovel our over-tired kids into the van and come back for the rest of it in the morning. Because clearly things weren’t going to work out. Clearly this was a camping trip that was just not meant to be.
It was all my fault. It had been my idea to come here. The kids and I had camped here with my sister and her two boys earlier in the summer, and I couldn’t wait to come back and show Don how clear the lake was, how near the tent sites to the water’s edge.
And it had all seemed to unfold so perfectly. Even in late September, the forecast predicted clear skies and unseasonably warm temperatures. I had borrowed a friend’s canoe and had concentrated very hard on keeping it on the roof during our drive down the mountain, and it had not fallen off. And I was confident that this time I had remembered to pack every single thing, from beach towels to beer coozies.
I had also thought to borrow another friend’s ten-man tent. We had our own tents, of course, but only one tent was permitted per campsite, and I had wanted to spare Don the discomfort he had endured the last time all five of us had slept in our one four-person tent. I had also wanted to arrive well before sunset, so that we could avoid putting up the borrowed tent in the dark. But traffic south had been awful as usual, and it had seemed, at the time, like a good idea to stop for burritos on the way. The burrito joint was next to the kids’ favorite toy store, and I hadn’t been able to resist Clayton’s pleas to “just look at the toys for a minute.” And then there was the balloon man in the toy store lobby, with absolutely no line at all, and what were a few more minutes when we were so late already?  
It was twilight as we rolled into the campground, full dark by the time we’d found our spot. Borrowing the tent now seemed to me a ridiculous idea. The instructions were miles long, and the gray and black tent poles were perfectly camouflaged on the dark ground. Don and I made a valiant effort while the kids played cavemen in the dark, but as their play wound down and their patience wore thin, the tent still lay limp and shapeless on the ground.
At last we gave up.
“We’ll just sleep out tonight,” I said, trying to sound as cheerful as I could. “We’ll put up the tent in the morning when we can see.”
“But I don’t want to sleep without a tent!” Clayton said. I could hear the anxiety rising in his voice, and since I had proved unable to do the one thing that would relieve that anxiety, I fell back on the pis aller of every parent in a pinch: sugar.
“Why don’t we make a fire and have s’mores?” I said.

While Don tended the fire and the kids roasted marshmallows, I laid out our mattresses and sleeping bags.
“It actually looks pretty cozy!” Sylvia said cheerfully, eyeing the nest I had made. (Sylvia these days is reliably upbeat, so that I find it harder and harder to remember her younger, weepier self, when she would throw herself to the ground in a fit of tears multiple times a day.)
Even Clayton, propped up with the sugar and his sisters’ enthusiasm, had begun to accept the inevitable night under the stars. As his sisters changed into their pajamas, he opened his backpack to get out his own.
“Oh no,” I said. He didn’t even need to speak; I knew immediately what was wrong. I had told all the kids that afternoon to pack their pajamas and two sets of clothes. I had even checked the girls’ backpacks, just to make sure. Why hadn’t I checked Clayton’s? It was all coming horribly back... I remembered now him saying his backpack was too full of books and stuffed animals; the clothes wouldn’t fit.
“Just put your clothes on your bed, then,” I had said. “And I’ll get them.”
But, distracted by the long list of other things I had to pack, I hadn’t gotten them! And now Clayton— of course it had to be Clayton, Clayton who is so meticulous about his routines, so rigid about his wardrobe— Clayton had no clothes.
“We brought two bathing suits,” I brainstormed. “You can wear one of those as shorts and we can buy you a t-shirt at the gift store.”
He shook his head, sobbing. Swim trunks were not shorts.
“You can wear your daddy’s t-shirt as pajamas,” I suggested. Still more tears.
“I just want to go home!” he wailed. “I want to go home.”
This is the point when all my internal conflicts about parenting a sensitive child rise up and twist around inside me, leaving my head spinning. On the one hand, my heart goes out to Clayton. Not only is he being expected to sleep outside for the first time, with no shelter of any kind, but he is being asked to do it without the comfort of his own pajamas and the ritual they represent. Morning will come, and his backpack will still be barren of clothes, and so while his sisters get dressed for the day, he will be left out of that ritual, too. For Clayton, this is a legitimate reason to despair, and as his mother, every part of me wants to protect him from it.
And yet there is another part of me that wants him— needs him— to pull himself together and buck up. He is almost nine years old, and this is not a true catastrophe. The stars are brilliant; we could not have picked a better night for sleeping out. And surely there are millions of little boys who would not think twice about wearing the same clothes all weekend— we are camping, after all. For all I love Clayton’s sensitivity, I want him to be resilient, to be flexible. I don’t want him to fall helplessly apart each time life throws a curve ball at him.

In the end, it was his own empathy that got him through. I told him how badly I felt. I said that it was all my fault, and if I could make it right, I would. Even as badly as Clayton felt, he didn’t want me to feel worse. And so, eventually, he stopped crying and fell asleep.
I had told the children that sleeping out was one of my favorite things to do. During the dry California summers of my twenties, a tent had seemed superfluous and artificial; I loved how the stars were the last thing I saw when I went to sleep, the moon’s slow journey across the sky as the night passed. Maybe I am out of practice, maybe the kids’ anxiety had made me anxious, but I did not love sleeping out that night. All night I scanned: the sky for rain, the campsite for critters, my bare limbs for the daddy-long-legs I could feel creeping across my skin. My sleeping bag was gritty with sand, and I was too hot inside it and too cold out. A baby in a nearby campsite cried every few hours, and long before dawn I could hear the boats roaring out from the marina, the slap of their wake against the rocky shore. And I thought, of course, of Clayton, and his plea to go home. Yes, I thought, swatting another creepy-crawly off my arm, we should just go home. Have breakfast, take the canoe out, maybe go for a swim, but definitely go home.
Except by the time morning came, no one— least of all, Clayton— wanted to go. The sun sparkled on the lake while we ate our pancakes; we couldn’t wait to get in. The water was summer-warm against my skin, and as I dove beneath the surface, I let it wash the night away.

The camping trip turned out to be one of our best yet. With a little help from our neighbors, I got the luxurious tent set up. Clayton got a new, glow-in-the-dark t-shirt from the camp store, and learned that even the worst moments pass, and that tomorrow is indeed another day. We packed a dry bag and set out in the canoe, stopping to picnic and swim at our own private swimming holes and beaches. We hung the hammock between two trees above the lake, and Dee Dee and I snuggled while Clayton and Sylvia played sweetly together with the cavepeople in the sand. That night I slept deeply; if the baby cried, I didn’t hear him. And in the morning, when Clayton and I stepped out of the tent together, and the sky was just barely lightening in the east and the trees were dark silhouettes against the lake, Clayton— wearing as pajamas one of his father’s t-shirts that came down to his knees— looked out at the view and said, “Momma, it’s so beautiful here.”
Then the girls were up, too, and we clambered carefully down the rocks in the half-dark. I lifted the canoe into the water, and we set out. Slowly, the dawn came. The sky was bright; the water clear and warm. We stopped to swim at a deserted beach, then headed home to warm up with cider and hot-chocolate.
Clayton sat in the front of the canoe, trailing the paddle through the water.
“I really don’t want to go home,” he said.

Here's Dee Dee's version:

Monday, August 21, 2017

Where's Santa?

Even after two full days of driving, the kids were in high spirits. We were headed for the room I’d booked on priceline forty-five minutes earlier: a Days Inn in southern Illinois with a coveted outdoor pool. The kids were happy because we’d promised them pizza for dinner; Don and I were happy because we had only seven hours to drive the following day and we’d be home. It was the last evening of our vacation, and all of us were eager to get out of the car and hit the pool.
But as the GPS delivered us to our destination, it was clear that our luck had run out. There was no Days Inn in sight, just a run-down, off-brand motel with the skeletal remains of what might once have been a pool.
Getting another motel at a reasonable price should have been no big deal; we had passed several likely-looking places since we’d exited the interstate. But this was eclipse weekend, and even the modest place where we’d stayed on our way out to Colorado wanted a hundred and fifty dollars for a mediocre room and a green indoor pool. And, by the looks of things, places were filling up fast. It was time, as Don would say, to drop back and punt.
The Drury Inn across the street had five stories, free breakfast and an indoor pool, but that was not all. At the check-in desk we learned that they also offered something called kick back: free food until seven and three free drinks per adult.
“Three free drinks?” we echoed. “Per adult?”
The clerk checked the clock. “For the next forty-five minutes, yes.”
“Three drinks in forty-five minutes,”  Don repeated. “I think I can do it.”
We dropped our luggage in our room, then hurried the kids back down to the lobby. This was, by far, the nicest hotel we’d ever stayed in as a family, and Clayton was trying valiantly to conceal his disappointment. He wanted a cozy room in a middle-of-the-road, two-star hotel, with Fruit Loops for breakfast and a pool— no matter how green— all to himself. What he didn’t want was a bustling lobby of free food (but no pizza) and a pool full of preteens.
But Don and I wanted our money’s worth. If our eclipse-inflated bill included three free drinks, we were going to drink three free drinks! We’d spent ten hours in the car that day, and a cocktail, or three, sounded pretty darn good. At 6:57, my second drink only half-finished, I headed to the bar with Don for last call; the Drury was our new favorite hotel.
But even through the rose-colored glasses of a vodka and tonic sucked down in ten minutes, I hated to see my son so disappointed.
“All right, all right,” I conceded. “We can still get a pizza.”
I needed to slow down anyway, so I left my full drink in the room and walked across the street to a pizza place I’d seen from our window. By the time I got back and the kids had eaten, the pool was empty once again. If there’s anything more fun for kids than a hotel pool all to themselves, it’s a hotel pool all to themselves past their bedtime. Sharks and minnows had never been so much fun.
But back in the room... disaster. Dee Dee, ready for bed and complaining of a headache, wanted her beloved stuffed bear, Santa, so Don went down to the car to look for him while I searched the hotel room. No Santa.
“Are you sure you left him in the car?” I asked Dee Dee.
“He might still be at the car wash,” she said sadly.
My heart fell. After the first hotel fiasco, we’d pulled into a car wash parking lot, where the kids had run races in a strip of grass while Don and I figured things out. If Dee Dee had taken Santa out of the car then, or forgotten to put him back in again, we had been too distracted to notice.
“I’ll go look,” Don said, but neither of us harbored much hope. I imagined Santa falling out of the car at any number of the rest stops or gas stations we’d stopped at along the way. Would we go back for him? Santa was irreplaceable; this trip was about to go down in history as the trip when we’d lost Santa.
My stomach jolted when I heard the door: I was sure that this was the end. Dee Dee’s tears for her poor dead fish would be nothing compared to the ones she would cry over a lost Santa. Please let her have fallen asleep, I thought. I wanted to spare her, if only for a few hours, from the awful news. But then the door opened and in sauntered Don, Santa slung over one shoulder like a workout towel.
“He was hanging in the tree at the car wash,” he said, surrendering him into Dee Dee’s arms.  
How can one floppy, off-white, love-worn teddy bear make things so right with the world? My giggly buzz was gone, but looking at my three kids sleeping side-by-side in the hotel bed, Dee Dee’s arm hooked around her bear’s neck, a quiet contentment came over me. Clayton had gotten his pizza and his pool, after all; Dee Dee had her bear. Sylvia had... well, Sylvia had her unending good spirits and her father’s sense of humor. When the fireworks began outside our window a few minutes later, it only seemed fitting: we had so much to celebrate.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Rainy Day Blues

On the morning of the fourth day of our vacation, the sky outside the tent was heavy with the coming rain. I pushed our bedding into the center of the tent and piled on top the two dozen stuffed animals who had accompanied us to New Hampshire. Then we walked through the drizzle to Don’s sister’s camper, where three of his siblings and his parents had convened for a mini, mid-summer reunion.
We had planned to drive to the White Mountains that day; instead we crowded into the camper to watch E.T. When it was over, we looked outside hopefully, ready for bocce ball and swimming, only to find that the surface of the lake was still dimpled with rain.
“Want to read Wings of Fire?” I asked. The kids and I settled sanguinely on the floor of the screened-in porch, water dripping through the roof into pots and bowls around us, and imagined ourselves hiding behind a waterfall with the dragonets of Pyrhhia.
But what at first had been cozy soon became claustrophobic. By early afternoon, my voice was hoarse and the book’s cover was limp with humidity. Clayton had fallen into an immutable funk, which even a walk to the camp store for ice-cream did little to dispel; after four days of intense sugar consumption, one meager fudgsicle had no chance of producing the same high.  
“Roller-skating?” I suggested, casting around for some fun, indoor activity.
The rink was closed until four.
“Not if Granny and Papa aren’t going!”
Finally, desperate to do something, Don and I mobilized the troops for a hike at a lake a few miles down the road. Clayton slumped in the back seat, determined to be miserable.
At the trailhead, my spirits rose. The path leading into the woods was verdant and picturesque, with patches of delicate grass growing on the trail and a light mist among the trees. It was exactly the kind of long, lush stretch that, horseback, would have invited a canter. I immediately knew just what I would have done had I been there as a child without a mount.
“Come on!” I called to the kids. “Let’s ride our horses!”
The girls hardly missed a beat before swinging a leg over their own steeds. Gathering up the reins, we took off at a gallop.
I had done it for Clayton. I rarely share in my kids’ imaginary play anymore, but the old adage is true: you’re only as happy as your least happy child. Clayton’s funk was dragging me down, and I’d hoped a healthy dose of make-believe and an invigorating gallop might snap him out of it.
It did not. Despite my pleas, he refused to mount his own horse, but plodded mournfully after us, holding his father’s hand.
The girls, though, were in the spirit.
“What’s your horse’s name?” Dee Dee asked me eagerly.
“Midnight,” I said, forgetting that name was already taken by our one black chicken.
“Mine’s is Forest!” She paused, considering. “Is Midnight a girl or a boy?”
“A boy,” I said without thinking, even though as soon as I said it I suspected that she might actually be a mare. It was as if I had sensed where this conversation was going, and some old heterocentricity had flared up in me: Dee Dee’s horse would be a girl, so mine should be—
“Momma, how do horses get married?”
“They don’t, actually.”
“Oh. So how do they have babies?
“Um, well, they have sex. Like the chickens.”
Sylvia perked up, eager to show off her new knowledge of the birds and the bees.
“So they put the penis in the—”
“Momma,” said Dee Dee. “Can we make Forest and Midnight do—”
This conversation had proved impossible at a gallop. We had slowed to a walk and were suddenly being swarmed by mosquitoes.
“We’d better check in with your dad, girls,” I said. Don is driven so mad by bugs that mosquitoes were my number one worry about our wedding: it had been all too easy to imagine him slapping and cursing through the entire outdoor ceremony.
The girls and I trotted back along the trail, the air around us thick with bugs. By the time we reached Don and Clayton, it was obvious that continuing any further was out of the question. I looked at Clayton, expecting to see that his misery had only been deepened by the swarming bugs.
Instead, he was pounding his father on the back, cheered by the little black smudges left on his t-shirt— evidence of all the causalities he’d inflicted on the enemy.
“Die!” he cried, slapping yet another. Clearly battling a mosquito army had done what an imaginary gallop had failed to: Clayton was animated once more.
“Run!” I cried. Unfortunately, it turns out that it is far easier to gallop with a full bladder than to run. On the bright side, clearly nothing cheers a bunch of kids with the rainy day blues like their mother wetting her pants a little.
“Wait!” Dee Dee said, laughing. “I need to pee too!”
Since staying still for any length of time was treacherous, I tried my best to hurry the process along.
“But Momma! I have to wipe!” she protested, stubbornly reaching for a nearby green leaf.
“No! That’s poison ivy!”
I found a crumpled piece of paper towel and handed it to Dee Dee. Then we all climbed into the car. When we finally stopped laughing about Momma’s accident and Dee Dee almost wiping with poison ivy, I asked, “Dee Dee, what did you do with your toilet paper?”
“I threw it at your back,” she said matter-of-factly,  launching us all into giggles again.
With our hilarity came a new-found optimism. When we passed a playground on the way back to the campsite, Don swung the car into a U-turn. Maybe there’d be fewer mosquitoes here? Given the rain, I had assumed it would be deserted, but a half a dozen kids, faces smeared with icing, were scattered about the playground. Their moms stood by, deep in conversation near a discarded Dunkin Donuts box. As our three kids climbed on the carousel, a little chocolate-faced boy rushed up.
“Can I ride, too?”
“Sure!” I said. “Hold on tight!”
I began to push the carousel, faster and faster. Suddenly the little boy flew through the air, landing in a heap on the wet mulch.
His mom barely looked our way. “Oh, he’s always falling off of stuff,” she called.
Then an older boy tried to persuade Clayton to join them for hide-and-seek, and he politely assented, even though playing with unfamiliar kids is decidedly not his cup of tea.
After one game, though, he sought me out.
“Can we go now?” he said.
But as we began walking to the car, the boy came after us.
“Hey dude!” he called out to Clayton.
“Want to be friends?”
“Um, okay,” Clayton said.
The other boy nodded, as if— hide-and-seek or not— at least that was taken care of.
“I’ll probably never see him again,” Clayton said quietly as we climbed into the car.
“No, probably not,” Don agreed. “But at least now you have a friend in New Hampshire!”
We were giggling again, and kept at it all the way home.

“Oh, he’s always falling off of stuff.”
“Hey dude! Want to be friends?”
“What’d you do with your toilet paper?”
“I threw it at your back.”

When we arrived at the camper, the kids rushed inside, busting a gut to tell their grandparents and aunts and uncles that their mom had peed her pants and Dee Dee— “Clayton, no, don’t say it!”— had almost wiped with poison ivy.