It dawned on me as my 15-year old daughter drove through Ohio that this is probably our last vacation as a family. My son, 17, will be a high school senior next year and will be working next summer to help pay for college. After that, he’ll be busy creating his own life, working, trying to find his way in the world, certainly too busy to go with his parents on a family vacation. So it is fitting, in a sad way, that we’re going to the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, one of the largest and darkest mouths of the earth.
The choice of a music station in the van is crucial. We can’t listen to their music and they can’t stand ours, so we search for a new oldies station every 25 miles or so. It’s strange how the music of the 50’s and 60’s bridges the distinct listening gap between our generations. The Beatles and Motown and Elvis have eternal appeal. We know all the words and belt them out heading south on I-75, heads rocking back and forth.
As my son and daughter take turns driving us, my wife and I can’t help but remember them as babies. It seems like only last year, we were changing diapers, teaching them how to ride a two-wheeler, walking them to kindergarten. We can see them on their first T-ball teams or in their first soccer uniforms, running in a beehive toward the ball. We remember the litany of cuts and bruises and bee stings. We remember movie night. The tooth fairy visits. The ritual hiding of Easter baskets. The songs sung at bedtime. The dozens and dozens of stories read to them, snuggled in warm blankies on the couch.
After a long ten hour ride, we finally get to the caves and sign up for the two-hour Historic Tour. The Mammoth Caves are natural underground caverns stretching over twenty miles. Over a million years in the making, it is now a popular tourist destination. We start off with about sixty other visitors on a portion of the underground caverns. It’s a constant temperature year round, 54 degrees. With sweatshirts on, we weave through the caves with a guide who points out the landmarks and geologic formations. The guide tells us the story of one man, Harvey, who forgot his hat in the caves and went back by himself to get it. He wound up lost and was not found for three days. When they discovered him, he was sitting, banging two rocks together. “It’s not the darkness that drives you crazy,” he said afterward, “it’s the silence.”
We squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery, a crooked, thin rock path with a very low ceiling. At the end, it opens into a larger tunnel called Great Relief Hall. We look down into deep caverns. We get sprinkled wet in places where water seeps in from above the cave. We see bats hanging high in the crevices of the tall caverns. We read messages etched into the ancient stone walls.
At one turn, the guide shuts off all of the walking lights. He tells us to close our eyes and open them: no difference. Hold your hand in front of your face: absolutely nothing. It’s like womb darkness, we imagine, well beyond any possible man-made darkness.
After two hours and two miles of walking underground, we surface like moles, holding our hands above our eyes, stepping up into the warm air. The world seems to visibly grow upward and out as we gaze around. It has started raining lightly while we were underground. Our eyes adjust to the lush, new world in subtle stages as we wander back to the van.
In some profound parental way, we want the visit to the Mammoth Caves to touch our kids at their core. It’s a great metaphor for life: there are always paths and tunnels and passageways beneath the surface, beneath people, beneath good and bad intentions, beneath words. Our children need to know this to survive. While they’re walking on top of the world, there is movement below of which they are unaware. Whatever they see in life is simply a random snapshot, never the whole picture.
The cave becomes a symbol for their individual paths in life. There will be darkness and confusion. They will need someone to guide them, to light the way, to help them rise back to the surface. As they grow up and venture away from us, there will be many different paths. None are inherently right or wrong–each presents an opportunity. Each passageway leads to others where they will undoubtedly find themselves in trouble, uncertain, unsure, feeling stuck in Fat Man’s Misery. Yet after each calamity—whether it’s a death, an accident, a lost love—time will bring them to a certain calm, and they’ll walk upright into Great Relief Hall. Rarely is the pathway straight. It curves and turns and backtracks on itself. It narrows and widens and provides a dangerous view here, a light from the outside shining in over there. We want them to realize that there will be times in their lives when they will encounter a darkness so thick it will blind them. They will not be able to see the truth right in front of their eyes. They will feel completely alone. And there will be moments when the silence will seem unbearable.
This much we know: our children are growing up and away, as they should, and we have to let them go. We can’t force them back into the trusting bodies of toddlers. We can’t recreate the day when they fell asleep in our arms. We can’t protect them. We can’t save them from disappointment or regret. We can’t walk with them through the cave anymore.
But we’d like to believe we can keep a light on along the way. We can point them toward certain paths and away from others. Every now and then, we can break through the silence with our voices. And, most of all, we’d like to think we can be there, at least for awhile, at the mouth of the cave, ready to support and hug them when they find the surface, squinting, rubbing their eyes, breathing in the warm, moist air before going on without us.
Previously published on STAND Magazine
By: David James