Upon unloading our gear at the Coon Fork County Park campsite, my wife Meredith is reminded that I am still not the seasoned camper I pretend to be.
“So let me get this straight,” she says. “You forgot to pack the baby’s shoes?”
“Well, to be fair,” I say, “she forgot to pack them ...”
“She’s a baby!”
“Right! And does a baby even need shoes?”
It is not the best of all possible answers.
“Seriously,” Meredith sighs. “How did you forget her shoes?”
Where to begin? Because I was trying to remember the tent, and the rainfly, and the cooler, and the towels, and the kayaks, and the lifejackets, and the paddles, and the children, and the dog, and the ...
“I guess I just had other things on my mind,” I say.
“Yeah,” Meredith says. “Me too.”
In 16 hours, Meredith will wake, wave goodbye, and then leave the campground to begin the 450-mile drive to Indiana for final preparations for her father’s funeral. Two days later we’ll join her, though only after she lugs all that emotional baggage herself.
“We’ll figure out the shoes,” I promise. “For now, let’s just try to have a nice time, huh?”
It seems worth a shot. And so, shortly after breaking camp, we race toward the water — all three kids splish-splashing along the edge of the pine-lined lake, where shoes are hardly required.
Later that night I start the fire with ease, the result of all the things I didn’t forget: kindling, dry wood, and a long-range butane lighter. Yet despite my perfect fire-building preparations, it appears as if I may have forgotten the hot dog roasting fork.
I sweat, though not due to my proximity to the flames.
“So where’s the roasting fork?” Meredith asks.
“Well,” I say, taking a philosophical approach, “can we ever really know where anything is?”
Meredith throws up her hands.
“First the shoes, then the roasting fork, what next?”
“The ketchup and mustard!” my son chimes from his place beside the open cooler. “He forgot those too!”
“And the bug spray,” adds my oldest daughter.
“I got this!” I shout. “Everything’s under control.”
Reaching for the car keys, I drive to the nearby town of Augusta. Ahead of me, I spot the answer to most of my problems: the local dollar store.
I enter through the automatic doors, where a female employee in her 20s says, “Can I help ...”
“Baby shoes,” I beg, throwing myself at her mercy. “I need baby shoes. And a hot dog roasting fork. And ketchup. And mustard. And bug spray. And probably a lot of things I don’t even know I forgot yet.”
“Um ... okay,” the woman says, “well we’ve got some shoes over here ...”
In the end, we find everything but the roasting fork. Better still, on the way to the register, I grab some peace offering moon pies for the kids.
“Anything else?” the woman asks.
My eyes fall to the assortment of helium balloons floating near the store’s front corner.
“And one of those,” I say.
“Any one in particular?”
I study my options: Happy Birthday, You’re a Star, Congratulations ...
“One ‘I Love You,’ balloon,” I say.
Fifteen minutes later, I pull into the camp site to find the rest of the family thoroughly enjoying roasted hotdogs.
“Well, what happened here?” I ask, surprised by their sudden change in mood and self-sufficiency.
“We found a stick,” my son says. “And we just stuck the hotdog right on the end of it!”
“You found a stick in a forest?” I ask. “Well, if that’s not the craziest thing ...”
“That’s not all we found,” Meredith says. Sheepishly, she holds up a pair of tiny pink shoes.
My jaw hits the pine needles.
“Where did you ...”
“They were buried in some bag,” she shrugs.
“Shoes,” the baby confirms. “Shoes!”
“An abundance of shoes!” I agree.
Bypassing the children, Meredith walks toward the trunk of the car and offers me a quick hug.
“I probably owe you an apology,” she says.
“I probably owe you one,” I reply. “But since they don’t make ‘I’m Sorry,’ balloons, you’ll have to settle for this one.”
She laugh-snorts when I hand it to her, then ties it to the picnic table.
Thirteen years into marriage, there are plenty of things we no longer say. The shorthand says it all: a look, a sigh, a snort, a sniffle, a smile.
But that night, there are still messages to convey that extend beyond the space of a balloon. As the fire burns low and the kids ease toward sleep, I say, “Hey, why don’t you take the kayak for a quick spin?”
“Well,” Meredith says, eyeing the lake. “I guess I could.”
Needing no further prompting, her silhouette descends toward the water. She slides into the plastic seat, reaches for the paddle, then slips from the safety of the shoreline. Having grown bored with the fire, the kids, dog, and I circle the rim of that lake to watch.
In the distance, the kids see nothing more than their mom bobbing about in the water. What I see is a woman who, for what seems the first time in a decade, treats herself to 10 quiet minutes. Ten quiet minutes which, with startlingly accuracy, the children interrupt with a little impromptu caterwauling.
“Hey kids!” Meredith shouts, her voice carrying across the water. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“No!” shout the oldest two.
“Shoes!” shouts the baby.
Moments later, I walk to the water’s edge to help her pull the kayak ashore.
“Your turn,” Meredith says, handing me the paddle.
“You sure?” I ask. “Even though I forgot like ... everything?”
Smiling, she gives both me and the kayak a push.
For 10 minutes, I take my turn paddling into the dark.
But I don’t make it halfway across the lake before I hear the echo of our children’s playful screams. From the sound of things, someone has stolen somebody else’s moon pie.
“Where’d you put it?”
“I didn’t put it anywhere!”
“Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!”
I sigh, close my eyes to the starry night, and listen to what sounds like music.