Mile 3 of Freeport’s annual 4th of July 10k race runs right by the house where I grew up and so it was that a little before 8 o’clock in the morning on Independence Day I waved to Jay as he sat cheering with Caroline and Wally on our front lawn. Half an hour later I crossed the finish line and the holiday was off to a good start: My time was a minute faster than it had been two years ago and the sun was just beginning to burn through the early morning fog. Flush with endorphins, I walked with my brother and brother-in-law (who’d also run the race) down to the refreshment tent where we ate watermelon slices as we waited for the official results to be posted.
I’ve written before that I think running is a good metaphor for parenting in that both require the endurance to repeat simple tasks over and over again. That said, the day-to-day experience of raising children feels almost nothing like the feeling of finishing a race. At the end of a race I feel whole and powerful, like a mountain. At the end of a day taking care of Jay and Wally I feel like a jumble of parts.
Back at home the afterglow of the race faded quickly. Caroline had spent the morning wrangling Jay and was ready for a break. There was talk of a trip to the beach, which is its own kind of production. Jay broke free four times before Caroline managed to get enough sunscreen on his face to call it good. I ran around gathering towels and beach chairs. We put Wally in the middle of the bed, hoping he’d hold it together long enough for me to pack the car and for Caroline to convince Jay it was a good idea to put on his bathing suit. A few minutes later I couldn’t find the car keys, Jay’s bathing suit was wrapped around one ankle, and Wally was hysterical.
Our week in Maine has made it clear that we don’t travel as easily as we did before Wally was born. Last August we spent a month in Maine with Jay. Caroline and I remember it as an idyll of ice cream sundaes, date nights at the movies, and long afternoons at the beach. Such pleasures have been more rare this time around. Yesterday Caroline remarked that in six full days on ‘vacation’ she’s had only one cup of coffee, two showers, and no ice cream sundaes. Between Jay and Wally and the general commotion of an extended family get-together, some juggling has been required even to find a minute to go to the bathroom.
Our views on traveling as a family of four change depending on when you catch us. In the early morning, crossing the finish line of the race or reading the newspaper on the deck behind our house while everyone else sleeps, I’d say there’s nothing better than returning to the town where I grew up with my two young sons. In the early afternoon on the 4th of July when Jay was cranky and covered with sand and Wally was clamoring to nurse at exactly the moment Caroline and I would have liked nothing more than to eat a sandwich, I would have said we were never leaving home again.
And sometimes our feelings about this whole big family production fall somewhere in between. Around 9pm on the Fourth, after the grill had cooled and two quarts of ice cream had disappeared, my extended family headed to the high school baseball field to watch Freeport’s annual fireworks display.
Jay was asleep and we figured the noise would be too much for Wally’s ears, so Caroline and I stayed behind. As we were getting ready for bed the sound of distant fireworks popped through the night air. Just before we went to sleep Jay began to cry in his room. The day had one more turn in it yet.
I went in and found him kneeling at one end of his crib, pointing to a puddle of throw-up down at the other that was a tableau of the day. I lifted him out of the crib, and told him to stand there for a minute while I went and got a rag. Caroline came in and cleaned Jay’s face while I gathered his dirty blankets and laid down new ones.
Outside the intensity of the popping fireworks picked up and for the first time all day I felt content, like a family at rest. As we readied Jay to go back to sleep, I had no ambition to run a race and no frustration that our family circumstances are anything other than what they are. “It’s a singular time in our lives,” Caroline said after we’d closed the door on Jay, “It’s where we are right now.”