Summers at the Lake: Why We Talk About Leaving

It seems we ask about plans for leaving mid-bend and swing on the summer’s first cannonball off the wooden dock. We’re handing over the SPF30, Can you get my back?, and it has yet to soak in before we ask, And when are you leaving?, condensation barely pooling on our defrosting cans in the North Carolina heat, freckles barely appearing on our noses. 

We talk about leaving as if we have the same amount of control as deciding whether Grandpa’s pepperoni rolls should go in at 5 or 5:15 to leave the oven in time to serve up hot for the hungry swimmers. But, you see, leaving never goes as planned—have we not learned this yet, after all these years of coming and going for lake adventures? Road blocks, storm clouds, and calls from home about a sick cat or a broken toilet can always interrupt our most thought-out plans.

I suppose we like to trick ourselves into thinking we’re in control of the leaving. We stamp it in ink on our calendars: when to hang up the last dripping swimsuit on the wooden collapsible drying rack. We tell the kids they have two more jumps off the new water trampoline, holding up two fingers, insisting only two more climbs up the inflated ramp and only two more jumps off the edge (but allowing for three).

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We announce it to the raft floaters and the noodle bobbers from the creaky rope swing on the edge of the dock, but really the whole cove hears our plans. Have to leave tonight or else there’ll be too many newspapers piled up in my driveway. Too many unread stories and emails waiting for us in the cul-de-sacs, it seems.

Why we talk about leaving proves more complicated than it first appears, much deeper than our wading into the muddy shallow end, tiptoeing delicately to dodge sharp clams.

Turns out, it’s the not knowing when they’re leaving that makes us swim an extra lap and bike an extra mile, or sip another gin and tonic, eat another bite of first birthday chocolate cake.

It’s the not knowing when they’re leaving that hurts the most.

So we try, we try, we try to control the knowing. We declare that this is the day for pulled pork and grilled asparagus and ears of corn, and then that is the day for trying a new made-up recipe for homemade apple cobbler. Come back after lunch, when we all need a break from the sun, to help slice the apple skins off, we tell the kids who we trick into thinking this sugar-free concoction will taste just like pie.

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We try, we try, we try. With seashells waiting in the sky, we watch three fireworks and decide it’s time to turn the boat around. It’s time to go home, we say to the trailing sea of red and green lights.

And yet, somehow, tonight turns into tomorrow—and we’re still there wandering to the dock with a new book, toughening our bare feet on the tiny stones. Oh, plans changed, we say to the flock of geese or lonesome turtle or whoever is out there listening. Still here. I’ll try to leave tomorrow.

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Just one more dinner around the table. Just one more jump off the dock. Just one more swim to the end dock. Just one more night with the lights off in the house, watching the fireworks from the sunroom as we contemplate life on Mars. Just one more golf cart parade, waving to the neighbors with red and blue pinwheels spinning in the chilly breeze.

We try, we try, we try.

Eventually, it’s time to go home to the people waiting, to all the sick and the broken that need fixing, to the sidewalks that know our names, and to all the unread stories that have piled up waiting.

But there’s just something about this place that makes you want to stay, even when we know it’s time to go home.

“Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.” -Shauna Niequist

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