Saturday evening I looked across my pillow at Jay and thought with complete certainty: I’m going to miss him when he’s asleep.
We were side-by-side in sleeping bags in the backyard, fulfilling a plan that I’d instigated earlier that day by mentioning the existence of a tent, and Jay had hammered into being with repeated pleas that we sleep outside. Now it was approaching dusk. Through an open upstairs window I could hear Caroline putting Wally down to sleep. The air in the tent was thick and familiar and for a moment I was overtaken with contentment.
But Jay didn’t fall asleep and the mood retreated as quickly as it had come. Ten minutes later he was still awake and I grew impatient. I was eager to return to my book but I knew Jay wouldn’t have that as long as he was awake.
That book was “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner, who also wrote “Angle of Repose” which I wrote about enthusiastically this spring. Eventually Jay did fall asleep, and I opened the book to a scene, halfway through, where two characters, Sid, and Larry, discover a waterfall deep in the Vermont woods. They dive and swim and return to their wives in camp hours later, invigorated. But just as they are most flush with life, the story turns: Larry’s wife, Sally, has developed a fever and is getting worse. Larry concludes the chapter, narrating:
Good fortune, contentment, peace, happiness have never been able to deceive me for long. I expected the worst, and I was right. So much for the dream of man.
As I read that with Jay sleeping beside me, I thought about how I’d rather not concur with Larry, but I do. Through effort it’s possible to achieve and experience great things in life but the last note is always dissolution. Still, neither that thought nor the hard ground were enough to spoil my happiness as I lay down to sleep myself.
The next morning Jay woke up early, with the birds. He was grumpy from the get-go. Just after 5am he told me he wanted to go back inside the house. I told him everyone else was still asleep and we needed to wait but Jay only ratcheted up his whining in reply. Soon I was completely awake and fully annoyed, feeling aggrieved in a way that I think of as particular though not exclusive to fathers: I just spent the whole night sleeping on the ground for you and this is how you act in response?
The rest of the morning was spotty. I was tired and grumpy and there were other tired and grumpy people in the house on account of an infant, and twice before he’d even finished his breakfast, Jay broke down crying. The day was going to be long and I promised multiple times to myself and once out loud (regrettably) that I was never going to sleep in a tent again.
In between the roughness, though, Jay and I had a moment together on the back porch. It was after breakfast, the sun was out, and he had a fishing pole in his hand. We took turns pretending to cast out into the yard where the tent stood open and I watched the delight on his face as the pole whipped through the air.
In that moment I thought about the passage from “Crossing to Safety” I’d read the night before. It still seemed true to me that in most aspects of life, the inevitable direction is down and out: health falters, possessions tarnish, even the greatest professional achievements end up seeming small.
But relationships are different. My relationship with Jay, like my relationships with Caroline and Wally, can fluctuate many times in a single day, and it’s hard to hold it in one place for long. But the overall trend is positive, or at least it can be. I take that to be one of the very most optimistic things about life, that it’s possible to love another person with strength the world can’t undo.