In the months following our separation, the dynamic between my ex-husband and me was reminiscent of stale business partners. We were forced to run things by each other; we had to discuss finances and our son, Jay. Our interactions were cordial, but brief. The magic of a once-new business had dissipated, and we were left in a mountain of divorce drudgery.
But the following year, things gradually changed. Like the earth shifts and settles, our relationship was doing the same. It happened quietly, without either of us realizing, but the impact this change had on our family was monumental.
We began to sit together at Jay's sporting and school events, once in a while grabbing a bite to eat after. Then we added birthdays and some holidays to the mix. Rarely did a day pass without either of us contacting the other. We had become friends.
The following summer, he asked me to drive Jay down to his campsite in San Diego. He suggested I stay the night to make the trip worth the six-hour drive. My initial reaction was negative; I thought it was weird. Exes don't camp together. Plus, he had a girlfriend, and I had just begun dating someone. I didn't want to put any of us in an uncomfortable position. Besides, wouldn't this trip be confusing for our eight-year-old son?
After a few days of deliberating (with myself), I decided this trip was all about our son. We had spent many years camping as a family. Why should Jay miss out on making more of those memories?
Just because the romantic aspect of our relationship had died didn't mean our family had to.
Before I agreed, I explained the trip to Jay. I wanted to be clear: this was a family event and didn't mean that mommy and daddy would end up living together again.
It was a quick and seamless trip. The three of us spent the day at the beach, then huddled around the campfire with s'mores that night. I was able to leave the following day, and on my way home, I was genuinely happy.
The camping trip was the key that opened the door for two more family vacations since then.
We went to Las Vegas for our son's football tournament last year. We split the cost of the car rental, gas and food while my ex paid for the room. It was great for us to both be there when Jay's team won the championship trophy, as opposed to Jay having to share the experience with the absent parent over a cell phone.
This past spring break, we planned an even bigger outing: a 12-hour road trip up to the Utah cabin we had bought during our marriage. Admittedly, I had some anxiety over this vacation. Twelve hours on the road plus five nights together was a big commitment. I also needed to process the family memories made there, which I expected to hit me the second I walked through the door. Canceling crossed my mind once or twice.
My ex picked us up at 4 a.m., and it was like crawling into a time machine when I got into his truck. We sang. We ate. We chatted. We laughed. All those things families do on road trips. And it was no surprise that he would get sleepy right after passing Vegas; for all of the 13 years we had made this drive, I would wind up with the leg from Vegas into Utah. It's a narrow and windy four-lane road through the mountains and along the Virgin River.
On cue, just before the road narrows, I grip the steering wheel a bit tighter. Every few minutes, I remind myself to take a deep breath and slowly release it. I also habitually glance in the rear-view mirror and at my passengers, ensuring all is OK. I continue to keep my focus on the road ahead. Once I'm out of the canyon, the road widens and I am filled with a mix of relief and pride.
We arrived at the cabin before dark. As I had anticipated, the memories did greet me at the door as I walked inside. I looked around the living room and noticed not much had changed. I caught site of the wildlife photos we picked up in Canada right after buying this place. They were still hanging on the wall where we had put them so many years ago.
One of the photos was of a mother polar bear rolling around with her cubs in the snow and the other was of a lone black bear, standing in the middle of a lake with a fish in its mouth. When we bought them, we joked how I was the polar bear and he the black bear. They were symbols of us in our marriage: he was often out working and I wrapped up in being a mother.
It was then that I realized putting my feelings aside for our version of family was probably one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced, but the rewards were just as great.
That night, Jay sat between both of his parents as he watched movies and ate popcorn and M&M's. He was able to kiss us both good-night.
I glanced over at the pictures of the bears, hanging opposite each other. I noticed all the differences in the photos — yet these images still complemented each other beautifully.