4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I wanted to write about our anniversary last week. Twelve years married feels like both an infinitesimal blip and a humongous undertaking. Twelve years! Four kids! Three moves! Woot, woot!
And so I wrote something silly about the amount of time we’ve been married, the years we’ve known each other, how long we lived in the same place and how I’m totally unclear on any number except twelve years (woot, woot…)
Tonight we watched a movie. In the midst of Phineas and Furb votes, requests for Spongebob (as if!) and pleas for Everest (always a horrifyingly possible death-filled option), my husband chose a PBS film, River of No Return.
It’s a documentary about a 10 month journey through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. In it, Isaac Babcok, an Idaho wolf researcher of fifteen years, and his newlywed wife, Bjornen, hike and camp in search of elusive wolves.
The movie felt incredibly short in some ways, long in others, and the pair filmed a variety of wildlife while they were out there. Dipper birds dove easily in deadly rapids in search of bugs; playful otter sunned themselves on rocky ledges and then later dried themselves on crusted snow. We saw salmon first swimming upriver in heady excitement, all new and glistening, and then later returning to spawn, literally shredded by the effort it took for them to return to make new life. An injured elk destined for certain death at the mercy of a pack of wolves is unexpectedly saved when a sister elk comes to stand by her side, fending off the wolves through the night.
As we sat on the couch, my husband and I separated by four snuggling, squirming bodies, we occasionally glanced over at each other. Bjornen, the wolf researcher’s wife, was lagging behind, her gate was clumsy, her stiff-legged pace not nearly what was required as they mostly bushwhacked through overgrown trails.
Eventually it was disclosed that she had just been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and thus, this became a fourth presence on their journey: him, her, the wilderness, the pain.
Afterwards, after the kids were tucked into bed and the Bobbsey Twins chapter read, I stood in the shower and thought about the movie.
The play of the otters, the tenacity of the dipper, the sheer force of will of those salmon, the unflinching stance of the sister elk, and of course, the stark beauty of those wolves against the backdrop of mundane trails, breathtaking mountains, and the River of No Return, well, that’s as fine a metaphor for twelve years of marriage as I could possibly conjure.
Near the end of the film Isaac sat alone with the camera talking about Bjornen and the amount of pain she was in. Clips of her walking lock-kneed along the trail with her huge pack were interspersed with his monologue. She couldn’t sleep, could barely walk, needed help putting on her boots and standing. He got the chokey voice as he talked about this. You just knew this was nothing like the journey he’d imagined.
Tim reached across the back of the couch and took my hand.
Stage whisper: “Mama. What’s happening ‘dere? What does he mean?”
“They’re only 10 months into their journey, Buggy. Their dream was 12 months. But the brave Mama, she’s sick and in so much pain.”
“Mama? Why do you have the chokey voice?”
“Because it’s sad. Because it’s true.”
And so the two leave the wilderness. Two months early.
The movie ends with them heading away in a mail carrier plane, Bjornen staring out the window at the gorgeous river, the infinite life, the exhausting journey below.
What could a seven-year-old, two five-year-olds and a four-year-old have possibly taken from this movie?
Maybe they learned that real wilderness still exists in the lower 48, or real people can go to these places, that animals sometimes behave like humans, that beautiful things are challenging, that dreams are still transformative even when you alter them. Maybe they even learned that child-bearing is an exhaustively tattering swim upstream, that friends stick together to ward off wolves in the night, that mother birds will cram fallen pre-fledglings full of food in order to give them a fighting chance of survival (it was a dipper bird thing.)
No. I’m not so sure they learned all that much about wolves, but perhaps it affirmed something they’d already had an inkling of about marriage.
Marriage is majestic and mundane, gorgeous and messy, it perseveres and adjusts, it’s sometimes painful and hopefully playful.
Fifteen years together. Or maybe sixteen. Fifteen? Let’s say we’ve been together for fifteen years. Whatever. It’s twelve years married. That I can guarantee.
Twelve years married, and it’s the hand held during the sad part of the movie, the schlep through the wilderness, the moments that are bigger than the both of us, the minutia.
It is the river of no return.