On the way to the creek, Max stops at the birch tree beside our driveway.
He peels off the bark, which comes off in tidy silver strips, exposing pristine beige skin beneath it.
I flinch, wanting to ask him to stop, but not entirely understanding why. “Come on, sweetie! Let’s go!” He jogs ahead, and we find the beginning of the trail.
Heading down the hill, my gut tells me we should turn back. The slope is steep and icy, and the edges gully down to the water.
But Max, my five-year-old, is already almost to the bottom of the hill, and he can see the rush of water. So I plant my snow-panted bottom on the ground, secure my two-year-old, Violet, in the v of my legs, and we slide down the rest of the way. The three of us sit beside the creek, happy to finally be out in the sunshine.
Spring in Maine is late this year; it’s the first of April, and we’ve dared to leave our gloves and mittens at home. Small patches of brown grass and earth spread out around the edges of our yard as the snow finally recedes. The creek flows fast, fed by all the melting snow. The air smells like earth and coins, and we watch the water, entranced.
I want to relax, but my mom eyes constantly measure how close my kids are to the edge, how deep the water is, and how quickly I could fish them out if they fell in.
Max tosses small fistfuls of icy snow into the creek. “Mom—look! It makes circles!”
I watch the silver circles spread out after the splash. I remember tossing pebbles into water as a child, enamored with that same process: the impact, the spread of circles, widening and widening until they vanished altogether, the water stilling itself. I always felt a combination of awe and sadness watching that, as if that simple process held everything we truly needed to know about life.
Violet whines for the long stick that Max is holding, and after he relinquishes it, I help her poke it into the stream. For a moment, I don’t worry about the kids falling in. I relax, enjoying the small moment of quiet. The trees and the water seem to have a calming effect on all of us.
The past few weeks with Max have been challenging. After a few weeks of relative calm after he turned five, he’s been touchy and aggressive. With little warning, clouds gather around him, and no matter what I say, he explodes, then stomps off, unreachable. So a peaceful moment by a rushing brook is more than welcome.
“My hands are cold. I want to go home,” Max announces a few moments later. His hands are red and raw from pawing at the stiff crystals of snow, launching them into the creek. “Come on, Vi,” I say.
We head back to the hill we descended, and that same anxiety I experienced on the way down revisits me. The hill is dusted with thick, crystallized snow, the earth beneath still hard. Max scrambles up the hill. I follow him.
“Violet, can you walk up in front of me?” I ask. “No!” she bellows. She lifts her arms in protest, and I pick her up and begin to trudge up the hill. I hit an icy spot. As Max scrambles up to the top, I kick the toes of my boots into the façade of ice.
Holding Violet on my hip, we make it up a few more steps. But one of my feet slides out from under me, and I start to fall, Violet underneath me. I punch out my hand, which takes the brunt of my weight, but we slide and Violet starts to cry.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I tell her. But I don’t feel okay.
My hand hurts. The ground just under the ice is too hard for me to get a good foothold. And Violet, who had been contentedly riding on my hip, is spooked and now wants me to hold her facing me, with one leg slung around each side of me. I’m used to carting her around on my left hip, and the change of weight distribution throws me off balance even more.
I look up, trying to hide my anxiety.
Max stands at the top of the hill. “I’m going to try again,” I tell him. “Okay. You can do it!” I scan his face for fear. He looks concerned, but not scared.
I inhale, and try to head up the hill again. With Violet clinging to me, I try to take a few more steps. But again, my foot starts to slide, and I start to topple over. I look around, remembering that there’s another trail up, further down alongside the creek. It goes directly up to our neighbor’s driveway. Max has been on it with our neighbors, but I haven’t.
“Maxie? Is the other trail less steep than this one?” I ask him. He is only about 20 feet above us, but it seems further away. “Uh, yeah. I think so,” he says. “Okay. We’re going to try that way, okay? Can you meet us at the top right there?” I say, pointing.
Separating means he’ll head into our neighbors driveway, and I won’t be able to see him for a few minutes. I hate the thought of it, but I see no way to safely make it up the hill with 27 pound Violet straddling my waist. “I know you’ll make it up by bedtime,” he announces solemnly, nodding his head.
It’s 3 PM. “Of course we will, sweetie.” Seeing the worry just beneath his words makes my chest ache. “I’ll see you in just a minute, okay? Be careful.”
I scoot down onto my butt and once again slide down the hill with Violet in my lap. “Nooo, Mama!” she says when we get to the bottom and I start walking. “It’s okay, hon. We’re just going to try another way.” I walk for a few moments, still carrying Violet, and we arrive at the other trail that climbs the hill. It too looks steep; the logs that form a rough staircase are still frosted with a layer of gritty snow.
I make it up several feet, and then the same thing happens. I slip, landing on my already sore hand. Violet beneath me. She starts to scream. “I’m so sorry, Vi. It’s okay, Sweetie.” I try again, and the same thing happens.
Fuck, I say, barely beneath my breath. For a second, I chastise myself for saying it in front of her. Then I remember Max. I look up the hill and don’t see him. My thumb is throbbing. My arms are tired from lugging Violet, who is scared and clinging to me like a koala cub, and has just learned her first curse word.
It occurs to me at this point that I would last about five minutes in any sort of apocalypse situation.
Here we are, in the woods of the suburbs. I can see our neighbor’s house atop the hill that I can’t climb, and another neighbor’s over on the other side of the creek. I have my cell phone and could call for help if I really needed to.
And yet, I’m panicked and about fifteen minutes from gnawing on a semi-frozen pine cone. I consider asking Max—when I find him—to knock on the neighbor’s door and ask for help; all I need is someone to carry Violet up the hill. Between her awkwardly placed weight and the ice, I just can’t get enough of a center of balance to make it. But the potential for embarrassment is high—admitting that I’m stuck in a small patch of suburban woods seems ridiculous.
“Max?” I holler. I haven’t seen him for a few minutes. “Maxie?” I call again. He appears at the top of the hill, still dressed head to toe in his black snow gear. He notices we are partway up the hill. “Mom! You can do it!” he beams at me. “I know you can do it!” I want to cry, partly because of fear and frustration about how quickly our nature walk has devolved.
But mostly because seeing him at the top of the hill, encouraging me, with no hint of fear on his face—I am watching him expand. He is becoming the next phase of himself, like a picture being unearthed by invisible ink.
He is calm and strong and sure, while I am the scared child.
Pride fills my chest like air, followed by a quiet storm of guilt. For being in this situation. For forcing him to be the adult. I eye the landscape, looking for some way up that isn’t so steep. “Max, I’m going to try one other way, okay? Please stay right there.” “Okay, Mom,” he says.
He stands still.
Violet and I slide down the hill once again, and I almost lose control and slide off the path. About a dozen feet down the creek-side path, the hill is still steep, but a series of branches and logs splay across it. I start up, and the branches and logs afford me just enough traction. Slowly, surely, we head up the hill.
“MOM!” Max says. “You did it! I knew you could do it!” he says as we finally reach him.
I am out of breath from both the effort and the sheer relief. I plop Violet down in the shallow snow, shake my arms out, and grab onto Max’s puffy black jacket. “Thank you, Maxie. Thank you so much.” I hug Violet tight, and then the three of us hug. “That was the worst time ever,” he says. “Yeah, it was pretty bad. But we’re okay now.”
I smile at him. I imagine we each arrive at a moment when our children outshine us with their competency; it seems part of the natural cycle. I just didn’t expect that moment to come so soon. “Maxie.” “Yeah?” He looks at me, his face open and smooth. “I’m so proud of you. You were so calm and brave. And thank you for telling me I could do it. You really helped me.” “Sure, Mom. Of course,” he says.
We head towards our house. “I think we should get into our pajamas when we get home,” Max says. “You know what? That is a great idea.” The three of us change into our pajamas and play quietly for the rest of the afternoon. At bedtime, I snuggle with Max after reading to him.
Bedtime, that last desperate sprint of parenting before—hopefully—a night of sleep—sometimes provides the quiet space for thoughts to surface. I snuggle into him, our cheeks pressed together. “Mom, I’m so sorry that happened today. That you fell. I thought we were going to be out there forever,” he says. “Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry it was scary,” I say, although he had seemed the least scared of the three of us.
Again, I feel that uneasy blend of pride and guilt. I think of all the challenging days we’ve had lately, all of the tantrums and time-outs. The worries that something is wrong with him or us or both. And then I see him standing at the top of that hill, calm and encouraging, exposing a part of himself that I’d never seen.
I think of the tree he was peeling, and how I was worried that it wasn’t ready to be peeled yet, that he would leave it raw and wounded. And I think of how layered we all are—the layers we’ve shed, and the layers that rest just beneath the surface, waiting for a chance to be shown. “I’ll always do my best to keep you safe,” I tell him, knowing that my best won’t always be enough.
Knowing how little control I actually have over anything, anyone. It feels insufficient, so I reach for what I know—skin and words.
I squeeze him a little tighter. “I’m so proud of you, Maxie. So proud.”
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard Photo: Courtesy of the author