I went camping with my niece near Indiana Dunes State Park in August. Pulling in to the campground, we made our way along the winding road to look for the perfect campsite. Around the first bend, we saw a most unusual couple zipping down the road towards us. The woman appeared to be in her late 50s, her soft, ample body adorned in a loose fitting summer dress. The also-50-something man was tall, fit, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and roller blades. He was singing to his partner as he propelled and guided the wheelchair she sat in at a clip fast enough to send the wind blowing through her thinning straw blonde hair. She was leaning forward, gripping the armrests of the wheelchair as they zoomed by us. What caught my eye and touched my heart was the huge smile on her face, a look of pure bliss and total delight. She appeared to be having the time of her life. What made it even sweeter was that he looked like he was having a ball too.
Carmen and I found a lovely campsite tucked behind a gentle berm of trees and, after wrestling with ridiculously long tent poles and carefully coaxing the edges of mosquito netting to stretch beyond what seems possible to finally zip together around the canopy, we created what would be our outdoor home for the next three days. After dinner that night, I left Carmen to build a campfire while I cleaned dishes. My thoughts went back to the wheelchair-roller blading couple. I wondered what added challenges they might face camping in the woods with whatever disability she had that kept her from walking. I admired them for making it work. And even though I’d only caught a glimpse of this man and woman together, I was struck by the strong, loving bond between them.
My niece built a fire that danced, crackled and sometimes smoked for hours while we talked about many things. Top on the list was relationships. Both of us were nursing tender hearts from recent breakups with men we still hold dear. We tried to make sense of how something so good could ultimately become not good enough. What happens when insecurities, unhealed wounds from the past, differing priorities pull things apart? What’s the kind of love that lasts?
As the fire mellowed into glowing red coals and the nocturnal insect symphony began to play a raspy lullaby, we crawled into the tent, ready for sleep, eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s adventures.
The next day we took a long walk in the woods, came back to our camp for lunch and then prepared to spend the rest of the day at the beach. I stopped in to use the facilities before Carmen and I headed out. The campground we stayed at was not a backwoods rustic site. We had access to a bathhouse with indoor plumbing, five or six toilet stalls, sinks, mirrors and electrical outlets for charging cell phones. It also provided refuge for teenage girls glued to mobile devices, clearly unhappy about being stuck in the woods with family. It appeared that I was alone at this hour of the day, but as I chose my stall, I noticed that the handicapped one was occupied. A few moments later, I heard a woman call out. Then a knock on the bathhouse door and a man’s voice, asking if there was anyone else in the bathroom and was it okay to come in.
I told him there was someone else here but that it was fine to come inside. I waited in the stall to give them at least the semblance of privacy. I suspected that this was the couple I had seen the day before. Now here I sat, witnessing one of those challenges they had to face every day. She couldn’t get off the toilet by herself. She needed more humbling help making sure she was clean. I could hear the apology in her voice even though she never spoke those words. Her gratitude for this man in her life was also unmistakable. His voice was gentle and reassuring, “put your hand here on my shoulder, let me get around there. Okay, I’ve got you.” Then, in the midst of their awkwardly intimate maneuvering in that bathroom stall, I heard the most unexpected and beautiful thing. The man took a deep breath and proclaimed “I love you!” with such joy in his voice that it brought tears to my eyes. He spoke as though he had just now realized what a treasure he held in his arms. “Love you too,” she replied, tenderly. Then they got back to the task of transferring her to the chair. I waited for them to leave before I came out of the stall, deeply touched by what I had been privy to.
While Carmen and I sat on the beach, marveling at colors and patterns in water-smoothed stones, I shared what had happened in the bathroom, how moved I was by this man, the true delight and devotion I heard in his voice, his “I love you,” celebrated in the most unromantic of moments. That’s what true love sounds like. I wondered if the universe, having overheard our previous night’s pondering about the nature of love, had gifted us with this vignette. Carmen found a few heart-shaped stones that we used as a base for the tiny rock cairns we were creating just out of reach of the lapping waves. Even though we didn’t say anything out loud, I believe we both dedicated our cairns to finding love, the kind that comes singing on roller blades no matter what, the kind of love that lasts.