Some life lessons are best learned through experience. The concepts sound good and are easy enough to understand, but until you’ve truly lived that experience, it doesn’t seem real.
A true friend sticks with you through a tough situation. Too much sun can lead to skin cancer. Life’s too short to hate.
Until you find yourself alone, receive the diagnosis, or quantify the amount of time you’ve wasted stewing about someone else, it’s hard to truly absorb that meaning.
But they’re called “life lessons” because they’re served up by living. We wouldn’t purposefully create a situation to place a child in such a situation.
For instance, I wouldn’t dump my 13-year-old child in the river by himself and leave him to swim a mile and a half, by himself, to find civilization. A wilderness dump like that takes coincidences, and lots of bad timing.
We were rafting with several other families. For hours, the kids and adults alike happily swam, tubed, and moved between rafts. We stayed together the majority of the float, but as evening approached, our rafts strung out.
My husband and I were bringing up the tail end, several little girls, quite literally, in tow. They lounged on their tubes, holding onto the side of our raft, kicking pitifully, dragging alongside as we half-heartedly paddled. Our progress was regularly interrupted as they stopped to explore, trade tubes, retrieve lost shoes, or to plop into the water to cool off.
Just ahead, my son was with friends. He noted that we’d lagged behind, out of sight.
“I’m going to wait for my parents,” he said. They agreed, as we were presumably right behind them, and would catch up with him soon.
Meanwhile, we continued at our tortoise pace. A man appeared on a boat ramp jutting out from the wooded riverside. He waved us down.
“You guys are too far behind,” he hollered to us. “You need to get off the river here, and I’ll have someone come get you.”
We tried to plea our case, promise we’d hurry, but he shook his head. “It’ll take you too long.”
We had no idea our son was ahead of us, swimming, waiting for us to catch up.
An hour or more later, we were reunited with our group, and we collectively realized that our son was with none of us. He was alone on the river.
Oh, the scenarios that run through your mind in such a situation. Drowning, of course, was the most disturbing, though it seemed unlikely in such gently moving water, mostly shallow enough to stand in. Beyond the “D” word, thoughts of poisonous snakes, an undiscovered tribe of cannibals with blow darts, and a monster crocodile all flitted through my mind.
But I knew that the thing we most likely had to worry about was him — being scared, feeling lost, not knowing where to exit the river.
Eventually, he found his way to a river outfitter shack, where he explained his situation. Luckily, it was the correct shack (there were several), and he was soon was delivered to us.
He was fine, if concerned that he’d somewhere made a misstep, and that he might be in trouble. In fact, he quite enjoyed his swim. He swam alongside a kayaker for a while, discussing the types of fish in the river. After the kayaker pulled ahead, he continued his leisurely swim, in no rush, waiting for us to catch up to him.
The life lessons ran deep that day. Stick with the group. Communicate throughout the group. If someone lags behind, see if something unforeseen happened.
I was proud of my son that day. His decision to wait for his family, and make sure we were coming along, made me proud. He’s becoming a leader of the best variety — the ones who take care to make sure the entire pack makes it to the end.
There was a life lesson in there for me, too. That watching your kids grow up, take initiative, rely on themselves, is a scary thing. We lose sight of them, and have no choice but to trust them. And the best lesson? When they do so, they’re likely to do just fine.
Overland Park mom Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @emilyjparnell