Down to the water

A story of exploration from a few weeks ago.

He hasn’t always been brave.

When you’re raising a little boy, an extra bit of caution isn’t the worst problem for him to have. His natural prudence has saved us the emergency room visits and household damage other parents of wilder ones talk about. Still, there are times where his hesitancy can be frustrating, times I want to nudge him further out into the world. 

It was sunny, the first sunny day in weeks and the first to be shirtsleeves-warm in even longer. We chatted with a neighbor in their backyard as the kids played further down, where a long gentle hill slopes toward a small stream. The neighbor’s baby giggled with delight next to us, we I marveled at how when we moved into this house several years ago our kids were this small, not the full-fledged people obsessed with Star Wars and Frozen and Legos they are today.

They grow up quick, we said, as that’s always the thing you say.

The children soon tore up the hill in delight, bearing an unexpected and momentous find: a beach ball from last summer, dirtied by the long winter but remarkably still inflated. They batted it around a bit before engaging in the kind of scientific experimentation 4-year-olds must: what would happen if we rolled this down the slide? 

Before I could offer any predictions on how that might go, the ball bounced down the long hill, skipped into the stream, and drifted quickly out of view. He was despondent, even though the ball had only been discovered a few minutes prior. We lost it. I offered half-hearted consolation, with the experience of knowing it would be soon forgotten and we could move onto the next delight or crisis or combination thereof. The kids wandered back down the hill, gathering sticks and rocks while we resumed chatting up above. 

It wasn’t long before I heard his voice shout from the edge of a small wooded patch that marks the end of the yard. “We found the ball! Come on! It’s down the river!” I excused myself, and headed down to where he’d disappeared into the trees. It’s hardly a wilderness, but to a suburban-reared preschooler, it could pass — a hundred yards of trees and brush before popping out into a grassy field behind another neighborhood. He was already well ahead of me, and my normal parenting instincts were to tell him to stop, let it go, don’t worry about it. I couldn’t, though. There was a determination I’d never heard in his voice, a resolve to recover the wayward beach ball as though it were the most important mission he’d ever undertaken. 

I scrambled over fallen branches and brambles to where he’d arrived, at a bend in the creek where the ball had lodged after rolling away from us. We devised a plan to lift it out with a couple long branches that I tasked him with finding, and before long we were returning triumphant to the yard, bearing the recovered ball and a few scratches for our efforts. He beamed like I’ve never seen, a little boy with one of his first tastes of being truly big, of stepping beyond his parents’ grasp and into uncharted territory, of braving an environment that surely felt to him like reaching the edge of the earth. The beach ball was returned to its rightful home under the neighbors’ deck, and we parted ways for the kids’ lunchtimes. 

“Where do you think the ball would have gone if we didn’t get it?”, he asked at home before bed later that night. I pulled out my phone and opened the map, showing him the blue dot that represented us and the tiny blue squiggle that marked out the meandering of this barely-noticeable creek. We traced its path through nearby subdivisions, rolling downhill and under roads we ride on every day. We took note where it joined a larger creek, and then where it emptied into the Ohio River. There’s the bridge we take when we go to see your cousins, and there’s the waterfalls we took you to that one time. I zoomed out. If we let that ball keep going, I told him, it would’ve passed through all of these states, remember those from your puzzle? Kentucky and Indiana, then Illinois. It joins a bigger river, and then past Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas — remember, Daddy went there for work a few times? — Mississippi and Louisiana, and then out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean and all the continents from your globe.

He stared in awe, seeing all the places we’d discussed join up on the hypothetical (and perhaps hyperbolic) path of this would-be world-traveling beach ball. I’m proud of you for being brave today, I told him. He smiled the way he only does when he’s really proud of himself. I kissed him on the forehead and asked him not to stay up reading too late, as I knew he would regardless. We had a big day today, and tomorrow can be a big day too if we rest. He asked me to leave his map book in bed with him — a big illustrated atlas we got him last year, one that describes magical places in the world, ones that must seem no more real or fake to him than the Star Wars planets or Disney kingdoms in their shows. He flipped through the book, and I left his lamp on, knowing he’d fall asleep with the book open.

It’s a big world, full of people and places beyond what you know today, I wanted to tell him. Someday I hope to show you all of it. There will be times where it seems like the world is out of reach. For now, understand that that first step out of our door, out of our yard, out of our neighborhood is a step closer to it all.

It’s all connected, and we’re all in this together. We just have to be brave.

“You were brave today, buddy. Good night.”

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)