The mother whale keeps perfect pace with her baby—some baby—dripping tons of sleek black flesh. They move in tight unison, mother and child, through the lazy water. Up comes a flash of black and then down to where we cannot know them.
We’re home after ten days in wilderness land, my family that became a family not long ago. Unwinding, slowly, I let the rhythms of my own backyard conjure up the spray of exhaled water, the brief flashes of whale. One form of nature is really so like another, silent stirrings, when almost nothing happens but everything seems to change. The whales taught me how to stare into infinite space, to sit in silence, like a fisherman, eyes hooked in constant hope, muscles tense from doing nothing. This kind of observation takes time and what you find you cannot keep.
My sons are in their twenties now-—more than midway between child and adult—but still they skip flat rocks on water, still they take bets on whose rock will hit the tree. It is a curious thing to observe one’s offspring grown, separate from you, not needing to swim close. You consider yourself lucky if you know where they are, and wait in hopeful silence in case they seek your hand. On their own now, as well they should be, the sound of “mom” is a quaint vestige of an idea grown old. Still, between us, there is the constant up and down of familiar currents, the unbroken rhythm of belly and breath.
When I planned a trip to Alaska with my new husband and old sons, I wanted to create something we all missed—a family where all parts connected—where all will was good will, where no one slipped and got away. This trip had to make up for all the trips that weren’t taken, when broken marriages and failed priorities upstaged the natural rhythm of mother, father, child. I chose a wilderness place for our first family outing so that we might, with all four sets of eyes open wide, find a home together.
My husband is a hearty, disciplined traveler. He has his own stories to tell, of India, of Kenya, of riding with bare-breasted women in horse carts through villages where you eat with your hands and speak to no one. He met my sons after they had grown, and it was a better-late-then-never kind of love that grew up between them. What places would we have traveled together, what memories would we have made? I think about all that but it is a useless thought, like staving off a hunger that never really comes.
Tundra it’s called—a spongy pad of earth one year deep. When you walk, you bounce slightly and the thin undergrowth suggests that yours is the first and maybe last footprint to pit this quiet landscape. Across a dried up stream bed, my sons toss a hacky sack back and forth. Sometimes, while we walk down streets, even in crowded parking lots (they are that good) a flying object will pass between them, a tennis ball, a set of keys, a pebble.
When my boys were little I was keenly aware, like most parents of my era, of the implications of early sex-role stereotyping. I bought them dolls, Batman and Robin of course, and generic boy-girl-mommy-daddy dolls to encourage compassionate play. They immediately decapitated the dolls, prompted neither by scientific curiosity nor misplaced aggression but simple pragmatism. The heads were round, albeit bumpy, and therefore perfect orbs for volleying into holes, in between markers, or to teeter (for ten points) on to a table’s edge.
A ball flies past me in the tundra field. The youngest throws me a token toss, I’m in the game for a throw or two, and then back to the real game. I don’t mind. I love to watch them play, love the irony that I have two athletic sons, having come from a long line of intellects and klutzes. The tundra grasses tickle my legs and the only sound is the wind and the dull clap of hand meeting ball. It is times like this that I love them so much I can’t speak.
The days were long and warm, we had no rain. Clouds appeared only once, serving to magnify the blueness of the glacial sculptures. The boat ride to the glaciers was four hours up and four hours back. It seemed like an awfully long time just to see a mountain of ice. To pass the time we played a card game, dashing out occasionally with cameras posed to catch a drift of timelessness. The game we played is a variety of Hearts. You deal out one card, then two, all the way up to twelve, then back down again to one, making it terribly hard to keep track of Aces. Some of my old bridge skills came rusting up to the surface but my strategies generally fall flat. I fail to consider the overview. Always a nice surprise to pick up a trick; always a sting of consternation to miss one. The three of them take game playing to another realm. They count, configure, strategize, systematize. They engage in complex discussions as to why the low trump should be thrown before or after or why starting first makes all the difference.
I listened politely but really, I didn’t know what they were talking about. My sons are ardent competitors and my mildly athletic husband holds his own quite well in a card game, although they would dust him on any playing field. Still, they share a language and it is distinctly male. I listened to them and listened to the squawking birds and sometimes, when the glints of blue ice and rocking boat distracted me, I found myself listening to nothing at all.
At the end of the long misty ride came the reward: hundreds of seals lounging on cerulean floats, rolling over shamelessly, frozen in time, alongside great ice mountains that heaved and thundered into the silent waters.
Kayaking, hiking (we stumbled on a beaver dam) and I caught a big, I mean really big fish. They were more excited than I was but still, I wished one of them had caught it. My oldest was two when he caught his first trout (I still have the picture—a toddler with baggy pants holding up this little slimy thing on a pole. Beaming proud.) He’s grown to know the hooks, the flies, the litany of secrets that make up the soul of a fisherman. When my fish struck the line, his hand supported the pole while I strained to reel in a very reluctant salmon and it was beautiful to be a mother inside my child’s wing, dependent, trusting, knowing I raised someone strong and worthy of leaning on. When we cut the fish open she had millions of roe inside her. It wasn’t time for sentiment, and it was just a fish, but filled with the fortune of being a mother, I was sorry to have taken so much away from her.
From island to inland, we moved easily. Nature was on our side every moment as we watched the grizzly mothers nudge their cubs along the trail. Nature cleared the clouds so we could see far into a gully where a lone caribou held up its great branched head. On a hillside we saw freshly scooped out heaps of earth where the bears had recently shopped for ground squirrels.
My youngest son picked out a caribou in the far distance, a drift of brown on brown, the way he used to pick out letters from the confluence of lines on walls, crying out L, X, where the rest of us saw nothing. The doctors suggested he might be dull, but I watched his eyes and knew he was taking something in, something none of us had the temerity to notice.
We made our way to the top of the hill and he turned to me, saying simply, thank you. But the gratitude was mine, knowing he had fully received what I most wanted to give.
There were surprisingly few rough spots. We lost my husband more than once as he wandered off poking around landmarks. There was the requisite fight about who sleeps on the floor. Sometimes our rhythms faltered. I tended to sway and turn to the rhythm of my sons, feeling the pull of blood over bond. And sometimes it was just the three of them discoursing on athletic trivia, making impossible frisbee shots across wide flat fields. And sometimes two brothers went off hunting for treasures in the pools of tide, while we, in the shape and form of lovers, walked along paths leading nowhere.
On the last night we walked along water’s edge. There were distant sounds of spraying whales and occasionally a dark shape cut through the silver water. My three playful men tossed a whiffle ball in the dusky light while I snapped their pictures, hoping to take the moment home with me.
Waiting for the dark that never came, the boys found a wide rock and hooked their lines one last time, while the two of us wandered down the shoreline hoping to see the sun set. It never did. In the absence of darkness, we basked in the slow constant dimming of light that finally turned into morning as memories began to wash over us, blending us into something we could now call family.