We had been married for just over a year and had recently found out that we were expecting our first child in the spring. It was mid-August and we had just set out on our first vacation as part of our first anniversary. The truck was packed with the necessary camping gear and we were off to the Great Smoky Mountains and then on to Edisto Beach, South Carolina. Neither of us had ever been down south and I had never seen the ocean so we were pretty excited. We had ten days, a year of marriage behind us, and the wide open road ahead…what could go wrong?
Now, you must understand, I’m not much of a talker and I love to drive and when you put the two together you get a pretty quiet road trip…especially for a soon-to-be mom with no one else in the car to talk to. I did my best to stay with the conversation and interact but I just love to watch the countryside going by and am always looking just around the corner to see what’s out there. There is a lot of time to talk when driving from Michigan to South Carolina…and a lot to see…so needless to say I probably wasn’t as engaged in the talking as I was in the drive. When I finally did realize the conversation we were having it was too late…I couldn’t rephrase what I had said and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; my foot was in my mouth and it didn’t taste very good.
Since the day we found out that we were expecting, most of our talking had been about baby and what kind of parents we wanted to be and how we would raise kids and this trip had become one long conversation about us and him or her. During one of my absent minded moments half way through Indiana we had started talking about priorities and what is right and wrong and larger, deeper issues concerning kids and the responsibilities of parents. I should have known to pay more attention but I just couldn’t keep my eyes off the countryside. My wife had set up a scenario with one question that changed the course of this 10 day vacation. It went something like this: If our child were out swimming and began drowning, would you dive in after them to save them? Of course, not even a question in my mind – (Oh, look at all the horses in that field…we must be getting close to Louisville…almost half way! I wonder what it’s like to swim in the ocean…) Then came part two of the question: So if our kid were drowning and I dove in to save them and I started drowning too and you could only save one of us, who would you choose? – (Ah, there’s a sign…about 35 miles to Louisville…we’ll have to stop for gas and a bite to eat…who wouldn’t save their kid?) – “Well, the kid, of course!” I blurted out as I was thinking about what to have for lunch. For the first time since way back up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan there was silence in the truck – and not the good kind. We stopped just north of Louisville for a very quiet lunch. By the time we got back on the road her tears were flowing and I was clueless.
We argued all the way through the rest of Indiana and Kentucky and into Tennessee before finally getting to our campground and deciding that we should just agree to disagree. Apparently the correct answer was that I would save them both but that wasn’t the question that was asked. If I could only save one “who would it be?” was the question and I thought it was quite obvious that my priority would have to be the child. I even told her outright that if the situation were reversed she had better save the child and let me drown! That didn’t help the conversation…and lead to a very quiet and restless night. In the morning we had our breakfast and headed out into the Great Smoky Mountains to Roan Mountain State Park for two nights. We didn’t talk much except about the beauty of the mountains as the morning fog was lifting off the ground and creeping in and out of the valley floors. It seemed to mirror our souls…each wanting to give in and let go of our point but understanding the importance of the underlying issue…then hoping to the other would give in first. The ebb and flow of the fog was truly beautiful but was difficult to enjoy.
By the afternoon we had reached the state park and had set up our camp and had gone out for a walk along the trails. There had been a bit of rain but the sun was beginning to filter through the canopy and settle on the giant rhododendrons underneath as the fog began to drift off. Our tempers had cooled and we were both ready to have the real conversation. I kept trying to explain that as a parent it is my responsibility is to do all I can to preserve and protect the life of my child and in the drowning scenario I would most obviously go for the child first. I then made sure to add… “if there were time I’d come back and try to save her as well”. There was silence as we turned to walk back to the campground. She was getting frustrated and I was at a loss. I just didn’t know how to explain it any differently. There was something I was definitely missing. After the walk we put some brats on the grill and sat and tried to enjoy another very quiet dinner and evening as the sun went down and the fog rolled back in.
In the morning after a bite to eat we went for a walk on another trail in the park and watched again as the fog rolled through the mountains. It crept into every nook and cranny and then lifted with the slightest breeze before settling back down into the valley. For us too there was a fog of misunderstanding that would seem to lift and clear for a moment but then a misspoken or unspoken word would bring the shroud down and cloud our understanding once again. Later that morning we took a drive down to Gatlinburg just to see what was there. The drive was amazing and the town itself is pretty cool as well nestled in the hillsides. We strolled through the streets and tried to move past the argument that had been confounding us both. We browsed trinket shops and tourist traps and even got dressed up in old west fashion and had our picture taken. Neither of us spoke about who should be saved from drowning or why but there was an undercurrent tugging at both our hearts as we drove back up to Roan Mountain for the night.
In the right setting and in the Good Lord’s timing, a campfire can soften a heart and put tender hearts in a place that is less defended and more relaxed and most honest. That night we were finally able to speak in terms that each of us could understand and accept. We began talking about the last couple of days more in terms of how the argument had separated us and how we did not want this to be what our life was like if we disagreed on something. I realized that my answer to ‘who would you save’ seemed a bit too mater-of-fact and seemed to just cast her aside as unimportant to me – which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. That had been the whole crux of the argument – I had made her feel unimportant and dispensable. In my distraction I had blurted out an answer that I should have given more thought…or at least a little more consideration for her feelings. After I was able to explain this in a more loving way, she also agreed that the one to save would be the child – she just didn’t like being made to feel unappreciated. I never made that mistake again…I just love a good campfire.
We slept that night finally at peace with each other. There were still some bruised feelings but the hurt was behind us. It was that night when we promised not to ever use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ in our arguments because things are never always one way or another. In the morning we got up early and packed the truck and headed out of Tennessee and on to South Carolina. The fog had lifted and we were only half way through our vacation…