By B.J. Hollars
Our plan was perfect: grab pillows, sleeping bags, then head to the hammock for a beautiful night under the stars. There, I’d point out constellations (or try to), identify owl calls (or make them up), and finally, after a good hour or so of father-son bonding (“And that, my son, is the secret to the universe…”), four-year-old Henry and I would drift off to sleep in the slow rock of the nighttime wind.
Then, we’d replay this scene every night of the summer.
Yes, it was a perfect plan, in theory, at least: our unforgettable summer nights spent snoozing outdoors.
Henry was on board. My wife, less so.
“He needs a good night sleep,” she’d argued that first night, and since my rebuttal was thin, I left it to the wilderness.
“Can’t hear you,” I hollered, as my son and I dragged our sleeping bags into the yard. “That Great Horned Owl’s really whooping it up tonight!”
The next several minutes were dedicated to Henry and me engaged in the spectator sport of two people trying to balance side-by-side in a hammock. Mistakes were made. Vocabularies were inadvertently expanded four letters at a time. Fast forward a few flips, however, and we’d seemed to have figured it out. The trick involved stretching my limbs to the corners of the netting—the dad-bod equivalent of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
There would be future flips (one, in fact, that would momentarily land Henry in the hospital), but despite the black eye, I remained committed to our cause night after night.
“Come on,” I called the evening following our hospital visit, “let’s go try it again.”
And try we did, again and again, though we never quite lasted until morning. Yet in our dozen or so attempts to call our hammock our bed, we still managed to fulfill my initial vision— the two of us chatting about stars, owls, and the difference between our pine tree and our birch.
One night we even got around to talking about my own childhood backyard, the stars I once saw, the trees I once knew, and Henry’s grandpa—my father—who never missed a chance to stand alongside me and misidentify a few owls himself. Young as I was I still remember those nights, and over time, have come to treasure those memories. How we’d peer out at the dark and point to everything in it—A bat! A bug! A Bigfoot! It didn’t much matter what we allegedly saw; what mattered was that we’d allegedly seen it together. What I wouldn’t give, I sometimes think, to go back to being the son for a while. Whereas it’s the parent’s job to make the magic, it’s the child’s job simply to soak it all in. In one role we star in the movie, in the other role we direct it.
Despite my best efforts, most nights last summer I couldn’t bring the magic. I’d had my directorial vision, of course, though more often than not my vision was ruined by rain or mosquitoes or both. Inevitability, I’d call cut, and then Henry and I would make the slow march back to the house, having dozed off just long enough to give the impression that we’d indeed slept under the stars.
In the mornings, when he woke in his bed amid a slew of stuffed animals, Henry still fancied himself an outdoorsman.
“How’d you sleep?” my wife would ask over cereal.”Good,” he’d say, never breathing a word of our retreat.
When my wife’s eyes drifted toward me, I’d double-down on Henry’s response.
“Good,” I’d repeat, straight-faced. “We slept like a couple of babies.”
More accurately, we were a couple of babies, and it didn’t take much to rouse us back to our beds. But our dream states ensured that we only ever remembered the good parts from the previous night: the moonlight, the constellations, the magical moments we’d made.
This, of course, is the lesson we, parents, often learn too late: that every moment has the potential for magic, not just the ones we create. Sure, we can try to stage every scene in our children’s’ lives, but at some point the stagecraft feels like a lie. What good is a memory, after all, if the memory is simply a page from our script?
Last night, in our final acknowledgement of defeat, Henry and I disassembled the hammock for the season. We broke down the bars, rolled up the netting, then carried it piece by piece to the basement.
“I know!” Henry said upon our arrival there. “Let’s set it back up and sleep down here every night.”
I chuckled at his suggestion.
“It’ll be awesome!” he continued. “No rain or mosquitoes or anything!”
Suddenly, I stopped chuckling. I tossed my script and improvised..
Five minutes later, I returned my dad-bod once more into the Vitruvian Man. Henry, hitting his cue, climbed aboard.
B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com