We were nearing the beachfront, and the gas level was lower than I anticipated. Would we still have enough to make it all the way home? I looked at the mirror to see Lizabeth watching her screen again. We needed to get home without stopping, for her sake.
We knew early on that she was at a much higher risk than most people concerning this worldwide disease. She could die from it. Allison and I both tried to explain it to her and to Timothy, but kids have a way of forgetting what they need when they see what they want. Adults do that too.
The beachfront came into sight, and the kids grew excited. There was no longer a staff member working the parking lot, and the gate was left open. Normally, they’d charge you a few dollars to park your car in there, but these days there was a widespread charity between people. It’s hard enough these days; each does his or her part to make it a little better.
I was so glad I switched on the child locks in the back doors before we left. As soon as I turned the car off, Timothy tried to maneuver his way out of the car. We looked back at him, and he drooped in his chair, a sort of apology.
“This is it, everyone!” I said. “Lake Michigan.”
Allison brought out our packed lunches, and distributed sandwiches, fruit, and chips to each person. As we were eating, Liz said,
“This is like heaven!”
Allison and I made eye contact, Wow, our daughter is talking about heaven? It seemed like an innocent, sweet thing, probably a repetition of a phrase she heard from us or from a show just to say she was enjoying the moment. But Allison dug deeper:
“How so, Lizzie?”
“You know it’s there and it makes you happy,” Liz said, pointing to the lake, “but you can’t actually go swimming.”
Deep¸ our surprised eyes said.
“But you will go swimming someday, right?” Allison asked. “Someday you won’t have to be here, stuck in the car, but you’ll be free, outside, in the water or the sand as you choose.”
“I’m not sure.” She responded.
“Look!” Timmy yelled, pointing to another car that pulled up in the parking lot. They were a few spots to our left, and as soon as they stopped, kids jumped out of the car and ran toward the beach. What are they doing? Don’t they know there is a global pandemic going on? Don’t those parents care about their children, at all? I couldn’t help but judge that family, for what to me was clearly a reckless, short-sighted decision.
“Can’t we go out there and play with them, or at least play away from them?” Timothy asked. “We’ll keep our distance, we promise!”
“No.” I said. “Remember we already discussed this. Our car is our ark.”
“But, Dad, look at them! No one’s even dead yet! They are having fun—unlike our stupid family.”
“Watch your mouth.” Allison quickly said.
“Dad, please,” Liz begged, “can we please, please go out there?”
“We’re leaving.” I said.
“No!” Both Timothy and Liz screamed. This was all a mistake, I thought. We never should have come here. The kids are all riled up, the gas is low, we might have to stop on the way back. Had I made us all upset and also put our family in danger—just to do something fun? Forget fun. These kids can live without it.
They were trying every trick in the book to get us to relent. Timmy’s book included screaming, crying, hitting, flailing, cross-arming, and finally deafening silence. Lizzie’s book included those too, but her final tactic was always surprisingly clever and biting. Who knew a five-year-old could say things like she did that day in the car:
“Mom said I get to go to heaven someday, Mom said. Why not today? Do you not want me to go to heaven, Dad?”
“Not today.” I said, and I put the car in reverse. I sped out of the parking lot, keeping my eyes on the decreasing fuel level.
We had coasted on the highway for a little while, and the kids were still visibly upset. The screen behind my steering wheel estimated that I had 77 miles left in my tank, and the navigation app on Allison’s phone told us we had 76 miles to go. I decided we’d risk not stopping, we needed to get home.
Time passed. There had been no discussion in the car. The kids weren’t even watching their screens, at least not as much as they normally do. I knew how they felt—angry. Not able to focus on anything except for how someone did something wrong to you. They were thinking about me, I knew. I knew they were repeated thoughts in their head, like, Why is Dad so mean? Or, How could Dad be so cruel to drive us all day to the beach, just to keep us in the car?
Perhaps too they were thinking about that family playing on the beach. How nice it looked. All the fun they were having. When you see someone has exactly what you want, it’s hard to get that image out of your mind.
“You’re always thinking about something, Dad,” Lizzie said, cutting into the silence. “What is it this time?”
“You.” I smiled.
Not too long after that, we turned into our driveway and our car ran out of gas. Well that was lucky, Allison’s eyes said. I’ll fix it. I said.
The kids were excited to be home, and they seemed to have let go of what had happened. I, on the other hand, had not. I was still thinking about how I had taken my kids on this trip, how I risked having to stop for gas, how we saw that family out in the water. Perhaps I should just be like them?
No, I thought, for Liz’s sake, no. I had made the right choice.
Later that evening, I was in my study when a knock came at the door. I had picked up my copy of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and I was on the third page. I did not like to be disrupted, but I said, as always, “Please, come in.”
It was Lizabeth.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m sorry about today.” She said.
“What do you mean, Lizzie? What for?” I said, not knowing whether I did not want her to feel sorry or I was prompting her to be more specific.
“I . . .” she was trying to find words, “I was mad. At you. I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you. Lizzie, that’s very sweet of you to apologize.”
She turned to leave. Then turned back again.
“I know you forgived me, but . . .” she searched again, “I still feel bad.”
“Ah,” I started, “you are just like your dad.” I smiled.
“Do you still like being my dad?” She asked.
“Honey, yes, of course. That will never change. Ever. No matter what.” I insisted.
She came and hugged me, asking, “Are you sure?”
“So sure, Liz. So sure.”