I was walking with Claire on a mostly-deserted trail when we saw a man coming towards us. We moved to the side to let him pass and he asked, “Is that your family up ahead?”
About 30 minutes earlier, all three kids had been ready to quit the hike. There were so many mosquitos and everyone was really hot. Chris had done the hike many times before, and kept trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to encourage the kids to “just keep going!” Finally, in a fit of desperation, Austin ran ahead, though Claire refused to do the same. Chris volunteered to catch up with Austin. He was also carrying Tommy on his shoulders, and every once in a while when we came to a long, open stretch, I’d see both of the boys with him. They seemed content, finally, so I was happy to stay back and chat with Claire.
I had forgotten at that point that we might see other people, so when the man asked if my family was up ahead, I just said the first thing that came into my head. “Yes, that’s the rest of them.”
“I thought so. I saw the family resemblance!” he said, gesturing at Claire.
He walked by us, and Claire smiled. “Does he think that Chris looks like me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but he probably assumes that Chris is your biological dad. Interesting, huh?”
She turned her head to the side, as she does sometimes when she’s pondering something, but quickly resumed our conversation from before. It was still really hot, so we were also intent on keeping up a good pace and reaching the end of the hike.
Claire and I walked and talked for about 30 more minutes. Then, up ahead, we heard Tommy’s high pitched voice screaming with joy. “I think they got to the ocean!” I said.
We ran ahead. Sure enough, around the corner was the ocean. We were so far north that there was no one else around. All three kids jumped up and down with excitement as we got them in their wetsuits. Before we could tell them much else, they ran toward the waves.
We tried to set up our picnic near the ocean, but it was really wet, so I had to move us back towards the path. “I’ll watch the kids,” Chris said.
I backed up about a hundred feet and covered our food so the seagulls wouldn’t get it. The wind whipped my hair and I couldn’t hear much of what was going on down at the shoreline. Eventually, I decided to walk down to the waves.
As I got closer, I could see the side of Chris’s face. His gaze was fixated on the kids in the waves, but he was smiling, too. He was home in Maine, showing Claire, Austin and Tommy one of his favorite spots from his childhood – and I could tell how happy he was. I walked up to him and put my arm around his waist.
“They’re loving this,” he said.
I smiled up at him. He looked at me briefly, and then returned his gaze to the kids. “I’m going to go in with them,” he said.
I watched as the kids cheered when he ran into the water. Then I watched him dive with the big kids in the waves and carry Tommy when his little legs gave out. I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying because the wind was so loud, but it mostly sounded like “Chris, watch me!” over and over.
Back by the trail, I saw another couple emerge. There was no one around, and I saw them look at me and then at Chris and the kids, clearly understanding that we were together.
I wondered what they thought of us. There are so many assumptions that I make on a daily basis about other people’s families. I just never thought that much about it until I became a widow.
But what does it matter, really? Chris doesn’t share DNA with the kids, but he motivates them to finish really hard hikes and he plays for hours with them in the ocean and he watches over them like any other parent watches over their kids.
There’s no family resemblance between Chris and the kids, or at least none more than any random white guy would have with Claire, Austin and Tommy.
But maybe what the man on the hike noticed wasn’t the way the kids looked – because they actually look a whole lot like Shawn. No, I think what he noticed was the way that Chris was with the kids. The way that Chris slowed down when they needed to slow down, listened to them when they needed to tell a story, and carried them (sometimes literally) when they couldn’t go on.
Sometimes, the DNA doesn’t matter at all.