I was downstairs making dinner when I heard my children screaming. This, in itself, is not a unique experience, as any parent can tell you. But they were hysterical, so I went upstairs to investigate. Claire met me first. “BEAR!!!” she screamed, unable to say anything else.
I came into the room where the kids were gathered with their cousins, and their screams overwhelmed me. “BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” they all yelled at the same time.
I looked out the window and couldn’t see anything. Yes, we were staying in a cabin in the woods in Virginia, and yes, it was pretty wild out here. But….a bear?
My brother-in-law went outside to investigate and reported back that yes, there was a bear outside. It was a black bear, and it ran away quickly. Still, the fear and excitement lingered that evening, and the kids spent much of the night talking about what they would do if they ever saw a bear in the wild.
That night, Tommy asked for a “wonder story” which is what he calls a story about a real event in my life. “Actually,” I said, “I have a story about Daddy and a bear!”
They all snuggled around me, and I told them this:
Right after Daddy left the White House to join CNAS, he took a few days off to go hiking by himself. (Claire: “Alone??? In the woods?”) He got paper maps and made a plan about how he would hike and camp and eat for the whole time. I wouldn’t want to do something like that, but your dad loved nature, and he loved challenging himself. Of course, he had a cell phone, but there wasn’t any service on the trail, so I couldn’t communicate with him. He told me later that he saw lots of bears, but they ran off as soon as he came near. However, one day he was hiking and turned a corner…and right in the path just a few feet from him was a HUGE black bear. He knew the bear wouldn’t hurt him as long as he didn’t try to hurt the bear – it wasn’t a grizzly bear, after all. But he needed the bear to move. So he put his hands above his head and clapped them over and over, while shouting “whoop! whoop! whoop!”
I imitated what he looked like when he did this, as he’d shown me when he returned. The kids howled with laughter.
“You see?” I said. “Dad was funny – but he was also smart! That move got the bear to run back into the forest.”
The kids tried their own versions of clapping and yelling “whoop! whoop! whoop!” before I made them go to bed. It was a special moment, sharing that story they didn’t know.
Later that week, we returned back to DC. I had a few days left before I had to go back for staff week at my school, and I was cleaning out the basement garage. At some point, I decided to go through some old bins marked “outdoor” and quickly realized that a lot of the stuff from that hike Shawn took was stashed in the bottom of it. There was a map of hiking trails in the Shenandoah and freeze-dried food, among other things.
At the bottom of the bin was a book. I pulled it out and turned it over. It was Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau. The book was warped, as though it had gotten wet and then dried out, and I awkwardly thumbed through it. Inside was a stiff notecard with “The White House” at the top. Below the heading Shawn had written two things: “oatmeal + AAA batteries.”
Seeing his handwriting is always like seeing a piece of him. I didn’t know why that notecard made it into the book, but I like to think of him prepping to leave his job at the White House while also thinking about his solo hike in the woods. Shawn was like that – a deep thinker who nonetheless enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.
But he also couldn’t get too far away from pondering the big questions in life. One page of the book was folded down, and I turned to it. “But, to speak practically and as a citizen” Thoreau writes, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” It was from his essay Civil Disobedience.
What was he contemplating out there in the woods? He wasn’t just chasing bears, though that makes for a great story for the kids. Days later, they were still shouting “whoop, whoop!” and clapping their hands above their heads. But his trip was about much more than that moment.
That night, I told the kids about the book. “Want me to read a piece to you?” I asked them. They happily agreed, though they understood very little.
After everyone was asleep, I put the book up high on a shelf. Maybe someday, I figured, one of them will read this book in school and they can reference their dad’s copy. Or maybe someday one of them will go walking in the woods and find out a bit of themselves as they read the same words that their dad did many years before them.
For now, I smile every time one of them comes in a room and shouts, “whoop, whoop!”