Two years ago over Sunday dinner in September, Peter and I hashed out the family schedule for the week ahead. Afterwards, he yawned, nodding in dismay at his grilled vegetables. I didn’t need to ask what was wrong—I felt it, too: our calendars were wracked with tedium. Soccer practice, napping, and yard work had edged out any meaningful time for each other. It wasn’t exactly a crisis—no menacing flash flood—but it was a slow leak, portending drought.
The following Sunday, Peter mentioned casually that he’d signed us up for a half marathon.
“WHAT?” I yelled from the kitchen sink, at first laughing. Then I whined, “How long will that take me?”
Thirty-minute jogs were more my type, but I started training anyway. We hired babysitters on Saturday mornings and went on running dates. I joined a gym with a great childcare room. Peter bought a nerd gadget to keep track of his footsteps and sleep patterns. We got hooked on electrolyte jellybeans, which we kept in our pantry alongside the Pirate’s Booty and pretzels.
Six months after our first half marathon together, we agreed to run in the Safaricom half and full marathon in Kenya with a group of friends. Peter would run the full and I the half; together, we would raise money to bring new schools and clean water to communities near the marathon course, on the Lewa wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya. Our three children would stay at home with my parents for those 10 days, though we enlisted their help choosing a baby elephant to foster at an orphanage in Nairobi.
Soon after we made our reservations, Nairobi and the coastal areas of Kenya were the targets of several terrorist attacks. Although the Ebola crisis was developing on the opposite coast of Africa, there was also that to consider. As our departure drew near, I felt less like throwing caution to the wind and more like pressing some kind of parental panic button. Maybe we were taking the whole fitness-is-togetherness thing too far.
Peter and I talked it over; it wouldn’t be an easy trip, but that was the point. We both still wanted to go. I began putting our affairs in order. I potty trained our toddler. I flew to Wisconsin to visit my 97-year-old grandmother. I called my sister and told her where we kept our will.
One afternoon, in our 8-year-old daughter’s backpack, I found a small booklet made from scratch paper, bound tightly with dozens of staples. In her writing, it read, “How to Deal With Parents Going to Kenya: Based on Experience!”
I breathed in sharply, chiding myself for overlooking her feelings in the midst of all my packing and preparation. Then I opened the book: each page provided a suggestion to help her manage in our absence. If she started missing us, she would draw pictures or play games with her grandparents to stay busy. The kids were going to be fine.
Even so, the night before we left, I longed for them already; I peeked into their rooms and watched as they slept, their hands tucked under their cheeks, their thumbs resting in their mouths like little roots.
The next afternoon, as the plane lumbered down the runway, its meal-service carts stowed and rattling in their compartments, I felt the full weight of the anxiety that had been building inside me for weeks. The houses on the sand in East Boston grew smaller, into postcards. For a few minutes, I pretended we were actually just taking a pail and shovel and heading for Cape Cod.
When we met our friends in Nairobi, it was easy to stay focused on logistics: where we’d get our morning coffee, which of us carried air-sickness medicine in her backpack, where the nearest toilet was located.
We flew to a dirt airstrip in Lewa and were greeted by roaming zebra, giraffe, and ostrich—animals so exotic they might as well have been dinosaurs. We visited schools that would benefit directly from our fundraising efforts; we took pictures of smiling first graders to show our own children when we returned.
Back in our camp, we cooled off under the acacia trees, joking with our friends about who among us would actually carry the emergency medical evacuation cards we had been issued along with our race packets. We learned a few words of Swahili, chirping out the same syllables over and over again like calling birds.
On the morning of the race, we drove to the starting area where we funneled through metal detectors set in the grass—a dubious line against violent interlopers, but comforting nonetheless. The race began at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet. When we weren’t gasping for breath, we high-fived spectators and commiserated with other runners. Reaching the finish line — a sweat-spangled stranger love fest — was thrilling.
Afterwards, we flew south to another wildlife conservancy and sat quietly for hours, observing a new kind of meditation. Every herd, tower, leap, and pride ambled along, feeding its ample young, most of which would be taken down by predators. Our feeble desire to jump out of the truck and nurture every calf seemed silly—we held back, resetting our notions of what was right and just.
At night, we listened to lions bellowing out their sovereignty and bloats of trumpeting hippos leaving their protective pods in the river. Lying in our remote, tented camp, far from the violence that had unnerved me in the days before our departure, Peter and I also emerged to reclaim one another.
When we returned home, we found that my mother and father had forged even better relationships with our children without us hanging around, inadvertently forcing everyone to stick to the status quo. In their typical jocular fashion, my parents had posted their house rules on the fridge in the form of a poem:
“Hamper, hook, shelf, or drawer; nothing thrown on the floor!”
The house was tidy, indeed. My mother gently suggested we keep the poem up for consistency.
Our toddler wasn’t sure who was in charge, so he ran around hugging everybody.
“I feel like you guys are the competition,” my mother admitted.
If that was so, then at first, Peter and I were the clear, jetlagged losers. At bedtime, our children begged us to ad-lib a safari tale, complete with live illustrations on their backs—my mother had indulged them in this, her signature goodnight ritual.
“We’re only reading a book tonight, guys,” we announced with a collective handclap. The kids’ faces flounced in defeat.
Then the weekend came. The kids learned to babble in broken Swahili over breakfast waffles. They cooed at our photographs of tottering elephant calves. Together, we traced our journey on a map of Kenya that we’d found online.
On Sunday, we did laundry. The bush-colored clothes we’d been living in for nearly two weeks went into the wash; then, we pulled them out and put them on again. After Kenya, something had crystallized that was worth holding onto: that breezy relief in removing what was dull and weakened by routine was only matched by returning home as we had promised our children we would, braced by the certainty that we still loved the things we loved, that our life was unfolding as it should.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia. You can follow her @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.
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