My son Owen is fifteen –just the right age for taking chances, which he’s recently informed me only young people do.
“Older people don’t do risky things,” he says, “I mean, because there’s the whole love thing which messes people up. And they’re scared to.” We are in the kitchen after school. Owen takes a bite of a sandwich, nodding earnestly in my direction. He’s recently been dumped by a girl he really liked, who told him he wasn’t mature enough. Since the fated break up, via text message, we’ve had a lot of talk about the mysterious ways of the human heart.
“Well, except for somebody like Evel Knievel,” he continues, “but look what happened to him.” I’m considering how to address the confusing wellspring for today’s conversation, and also feeling tickled that though there are many shiny things to delight and distract a boy his age on the brink of manhood, Owen is still obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records, which is how he knows about Evel.
“But he didn’t die on a stunt,” I say. “He was sick.”
“Still,” Owen says, shrugging.
“What do you mean by scared and messed up?”
He moves his mouthful into one cheek. “People in love change themselves and try too hard. I mean, love is kinda lame. You know what I’m saying?”
“Change can be a good thing too.”
“I guess.” He leans against the counter, chewing and shaking his head. “Let’s talk about something else.”
I wonder how much of what he sees in his parents’ relationship informs this opinion. Before we were middle-aged and busy with the business of raising a family, John and I lived years of sustained, anxious change, hoping love and hard work would make our sacrifices worth the journey.
Exactly the kind of risk-taking Owen admires in Evel Knievel. Minus motorcycles and spangled costumes.
Just a week after Owen was born, John, a paramedic then, announced he wanted to go to medical school to become an emergency room doctor. I had a newborn; I was still pretty hormonal, alternately joyful and blue. I cried about the day I’d have to go back to work teaching and leave Owen with someone else, about the day I’d realize he’d hit puberty, or got a girlfriend, or drove away to college. I didn’t really have the headspace for unmooring our lives with another major change. We finally had jobs we loved, and we’d just finished gutting our first house. From our yard, with its pond and stream, we could watch the sun rise over the White Mountains and then set past the crooked jaw line of the Eastern Sierra range. I didn’t want to leave, and medical school meant ten years of schooling and training, not to mention living in the city.
But after weeks of perseverating, we decided we didn’t want to look back and wish we’d been brave. We were “messed up” by love, as Owen says, and blind hope for the future.
Six months before Y2K, we moved to the Los Angeles area for a sixteen-month post-baccalaureate, pre-medical program. Owen was eleven months old. We sold our house. We took out massive loans. We became renters again. At my new high school, four times the size of the old one, there were no lockers– students had blown them up with homemade bombs, so the district took them out– and no textbooks. Drug dogs came through our classrooms regularly. I taught eleventh grade English in the morning and massive P.E. classes in the afternoons. Wrangling 90 students the last period each day was like being trapped in an urban version of Lord of the Flies. John’s classes, too, were demanding and consuming. Owen and I kept ourselves busy, finding a haven in the botanical garden a few miles from our house. Still, the din of our city neighborhood was a tough adjustment. We longed for quiet, dark nights. The palpable millennium hysteria all around us made us even more homesick and wonder about our bravado at leaving our other life.
The new neighborhood was a potluck of residents either in college, retired, or single. It seemed that Y2K was all our neighbors could talk about. I’d overhead a series of conversations two of our young college neighbors had while jumping on a trampoline in their backyard. Our breakfast nook, where I graded papers, was separated from our neighbor’s afternoon “beer jumping,” as they came to call it, by a high fence. Their heads appeared above the top rail every few seconds, and in the fall of 1999 these sessions were spent brainstorming what to do about New Year’s Eve. The plan consisted of closing the drapes and staying high while “the world falls, man.” Our neighbor Clark on the other side was a bachelor who worked for the road department. His bungalow was dwarfed by his garage, where he kept two trucks and a muscle car in constant need of repair. One day in October he stopped me in the driveway, confessing he’d built a safe room in his basement.
“Good information for you to have,” he said, nodding slowly, his wiry blond eyebrows raised. “In case your husband isn’t home. For when things get, you know, scary.” He gestured toward the other houses on our tree-lined street.
One night in November, John and I made a plan of our own. We weren’t really afraid of the world’s electronic hum grinding to a halt, but of the way people seemed to be responding. At home, wilderness had always grounded us, and we felt sure it could soothe us this time too, even if escaping in this way made no better sense than a hiding in a safe room or smoking dope. So on New Year’s Eve day, we packed our camping gear into the car and headed to Joshua Tree. Whether the world imploded or not, we’d spend the night cocooned in a tent under a pinpricked starry night.
We arrived at the campground just before dark, met by high winds and freezing temperatures. One byproduct of parenting, we’d discovered, was always being late. This delayed start was due to a trip to the outdoor store, where we purchased a stove and a lantern after deciding it would take forever to cook with our one-burner backpacking stove. “Good call,” the clerk winked at us at the checkout line. “Me. I’m getting drunk. Gonna sleep in my truck with my dog.”
We chose a site with a sheltering parabola of rock and parked near the picnic table to unload in the wind. Owen began to cry. Twin rivulets of snot fell from his nose. He and I climbed back in the car to read One Fish, Two Fish while John set up the stove and lantern. The wind rocked the car. As I watched John pour gas from the can into the lantern and stove, spilling it because he didn’t have a funnel, I considered the pending frigid night of no sleep and Owen’s croupy cough. Clark and his guns, the college students and their shuttered living rooms and marijuana didn’t seem so crazy.
Outside the car, the wind collapsed the flaps of the stove. John blew on his cupped hands to keep them warm. He lit several matches that blew out instantly. I climbed out of the car, and together we managed to light the lantern whose flame cast warbling shadows on the rocks. Owen’s furious cries were barely audible; he began beating his favorite train engine against the fogged-up window in protest.
John found a small twig, which he set ablaze from the lantern flame when the wind lulled, and held it up, grinning.
“Man make fire,” he said. “Family eat dinner.”
He toasted the lit stick in my direction, and then bent down to light the stove, which ignited right away—along with the entire picnic table. Fire tracked along the trail of spilt fuel, engulfing the stove and the lantern. A new rush of wind teased the whorl of flame into a ten-foot spire. We watched for a beat, the heat warming the arc of our camp, before we remembered our tarp and threw it over the fire, extinguishing the flame and melting the tarp in the process.
“I thought I only spilled a little,” John said.
The wind caught the tarp, which pulled the lantern to the ground and broke it.
“Car-camping is harder than it looks,” I said to him through the dark.
Through our headlamp’s beam, we could see the table and the stove were thickly charred. We managed to eat a cold dinner, set up our tent and cozy down in our sleeping bags to play pat-a-cake and tell stories while the world howled outside. Owen drifted off to sleep snuggled between us. And although John and I had planned to stay awake until midnight to see shooting stars through the netted skylight of the tent, we faded as well.
The New Year filtered in as we slept, the world still very much intact.
New years have continued to arrive as we raise Owen to live with passion and integrity, to be a risk-taker who is also a helper. John’s an E.R. physician. I still work with kids. We have a daughter. We’ve camped many times since that trip without setting anything on fire. Medical school has left us wickedly in debt; it’ll be years before we pay off our loans. We’ve moved three times more, rebuilding lives in new towns and making new networks of friends and colleagues each time. Our choices have made our lives full of hard blessings, but I wouldn’t trade our journey in for an easier one.
Owen will recover from heartbreak, despite his insistence that love is lame. In the kitchen, he makes himself another sandwich and we chat about spring break, homework, and swimming. I let him do most of the talking. Another time, when his heart is healed, we’ll ponder the importance of falling in mutually edifying messed up love with someone loyal, someone brave, someone a little crazy.