On the bucolic New England hiking trail my children gathered and threw handfuls of leaves, climbed on top of tree stumps, jumped off of tree stumps, and picked up long sticks to use as weapons and wands.
In between directives to stop pointing the sticks in each other’s faces, I reveled in the outdoors. With each step, I could feel nature balancing out our city life and yesterday’s commercialism festival called Christmas—my 4-year-old son had opened seven Lego sets.
“Are the bears hibernating now?” my son asked.
“I’m not sure,” my husband responded. We are embarrassingly cliché city folk. My husband was hiking in old loafers.
“What should we do if we see a bear?” my 7-year-old daughter asked.
I’d completed an Outward Bound course in my early twenties. With little outdoor experience and a tendency to run as anxious as my daughter, at the time I had researched what to do if you encounter a bear in the woods.
I told her she and her little brother were so loud that a bear would be too scared to come anywhere near us.
“But, what if it’s not scared and tries to eat us?” My daughter has a tendency to follow what-ifs to the bitter end, a trait my husband and I unfortunately passed onto her.
“We remain calm. We turn to face the bear, and the four of us gather together and try to look as big as possible to show the bear that we are not scared.”
“Let’s practice,” she insisted.
And so we gathered together. My son insisted his dad pick him up. My daughter tucked her head under my armpit. We did not scream or yell, we raised our lanky arms—another family trait—into the air, and faced down our pretend bear.
“I turned my eyes into red lasers, so no bear can eat us,” said my son. We laughed and before we dismantled our long-limbed, laser-eyed, multi-human, bear-fighting creature to continue our hike, I thought about how I wanted my children to know that no matter what frightening thing should cross their life’s path, our family would gather together, remain calm, and face it down.
I remembered that moment on the trail yesterday when I learned that a friend of a friend’s blue-eyed 10-month-old baby boy died of a rare form of cancer. I wept for them.
My family and I did not encounter a bear in the woods that day.
Yet, this family encountered a metaphoric bear of the worst kind.
I do not know this family personally, but I am sure they gathered together with their beautiful baby—and their extended circle of loved ones—to calmly and bravely face that cancer down.
Cancer won. Inexplicable. Like most of life’s tragedies.
I hope the boy’s parents find solace in their loved ones—and strangers—who are gathered around them to face down their loss.
We can’t anticipate or prepare or win all our battles, even if we turn our eyes into red lasers. We can only wrap our limbs around one another because together we are bigger and stronger.