When my son Foster was four and people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded with sincerity, “A bird.” He has always loved them, and my guess is this love derives from a kind of spirit-animal kinship. Foster is inexplicably light, as though his bones were as hollow as a bird’s. Although he is now 11, I still can lift him off the ground with ease. He is also completely in and of the moment he is sharing with you, the way that birds are. Think about it: aside from some chirping, birds enter our consciousness only as they alight on feeders or swoop into our field of vision, briefly delighting. We think little about them after they have flown away.
Foster has no inclination to fly away. A self-described homebody, he has eschewed sleep-away camp despite his older brother’s glowing reports. He likes to come right home after school, while his younger brother prefers to remain on the playground until the last bit of daylight disappears. Thus, it was with some concern that Fos and I were monitoring the approach of the annual fifth grade camping trip—during which the entire class is loaded on a school bus and driven two and a half hours north to Camp Timber-Lee in East Troy, Wisconsin for an overnight complete with leathercraft and the obligatory fireside talent show. Foster was lukewarm on the whole thing, and as the weeks ticked by he was more luke than warm.
As if the general anxiety of piling on a bus with a sleeping bag and his peers wasn’t enough, life threw on some additional stress. Three days before they were supposed to leave for camp, I received the following email from our school.
Subject: Urgent! Camp Timber-Lee
A nationwide manhunt is currently underway for an “armed and dangerous” fugitive who has close ties to and was last spotted in the town of Janesville, Wisconsin. His whereabouts are still unknown. Based on our current knowledge of the situation, we would not send students to Camp Timber-Lee. However, given the long weekend ahead we will wait to make a final decision until Saturday at 12 p.m.
The email went on to say that students were being told that afternoon by their teachers that an “unsafe person” was near camp and that the trip might be cancelled.
I called my husband.
“Did you see the email about Camp Timber-Lee?”
“Yeah,” he replied, “It’s just kind of …”
“The plot of a horror movie?” I interjected.
After school I watched Foster walk toward me. He was smiling, two adult-sized buckteeth dominating his still child-sized mouth—a good sign. When he reached me, I decided to gently feel him out on the topic.
“So,” I fished, “Did your teachers say anything about Camp Timber-Lee today?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “there’s an ‘unsafe’ [air quotes] person nearby, and we may not get to go.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How are you feeling about that?”
And here, the warring sides of a child trying to make peace with something that is worrying him:
First up, the Foster who really wanted to go to camp: “Well, they said they don’t know where he is. So that means he could technically be in California or something.”
“Right.” I agreed.
Next up, the Foster who wanted nothing more than to stay safe and sound at home: “But it’s okay because I have baseball practice on Monday anyway ...”
“Right,” I said again. In truth, I didn’t know which Foster I wanted to win.
The whole manhunt thing dominated parental texts for a few days, but before we knew it, on Saturday—as promised—we received the following email.
Subject: Urgent! Camp Timber-Lee
We have received confirmation that law enforcement has apprehended the individual and that the situation no longer presents a safety concern. Students will attend Camp Timber-Lee next week as originally planned.
Some Googling verified the report. The man in question had been found camping on someone’s land a little over 100 miles from camp. The kids would have been fine regardless. It was time for Foster to go.
I shared the news with him, curious to see which Foster would respond. First Foster took the match, hands down. When I told him that the “unsafe” man was no longer at large, and that the trip was back on, he gave a quick fist pump and quiet “Yessss!” and ran upstairs to pack his bag. On Monday morning I put him on a bus with the rest of his class. Standing on the sidewalk, shading my eyes against the bright sunlight, I scanned the bus windows. I located Foster toward the back, waving as the bus engine started up. As they pulled away, I caught the blur of his waving hand and the faint outline of some giant buckteeth. He was smiling.
The poet Li-Young Lee writes that “birds don’t alter space; they reveal it.” So it was with the little bird who rests right in the middle of our family. It was only in his leaving that Foster’s space was revealed to us. We sat with each other at dinner keenly aware of his absence, each of us longing for the family member we considered our personal confidante and biggest fan. We couldn’t wait for him to come home. Luckily, this was just a fledgling journey. A little drop out of the nest. The buses returned on Tuesday afternoon, and when he walked in the door my husband called out “Foster!” with a joy reminiscent of Norm entering Cheers.
Foster is back for now, somewhat under my wing, but I can see the future. I know there is more leaving down the road, and that it will get easier for him, as it gets harder for me. Next fall I will watch his retreating back as he and his friends walk down our street toward middle school. The sight of those little backs saddled with their oversized backpacks will give me pangs, the way the buckteeth do now. This strange mash-up of childhood and not-quite-adolescence—it gets me every time. But I will try to watch this process with joy. With the kind of amazement and quick catch of breath that comes from seeing a bird take flight.
Guest post written by Susannah Q. Pratt. Susannah writes to connect. Her essays have appeared in publications including Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and Third Coast Review. She believes in the power of writing to explain and explore the many ways in which we belong to one another. Find her at www.susannahqpratt.com