Midnight Hole is exactly as I remember it as a child, not any smaller or any less mysterious. The water of Big Creek roars off a ledge at one end in a thick white foam that eventually settles into a pool that is darker and deeper seems possible for a humble mountain stream.
Opposite the waterfall, the pool comes gently up to a bank of small stones only knee deep underwater, and on the hottest days of summer this bank is lined with people, knees knocking together and feet slowly surrendering to numbness as they wait for the courage to dive in.
I made my first such dive as a child of seven or eight and I thought I must certainly have died. My lungs refused to draw breath and my limbs would not heed my frantic pleas: Do something, anything! After a desperate and ungainly scramble I found myself at the other side, and when I looked back at the shivering row of bathers, it was as though I was looking back with brand-new eyes.
This bright morning in April, baby Joseph and I arrived at Midnight Hole to find it empty of such swimmers. The sun had just risen over the ridge and poured into the clearing, lighting up the leaves and branches still hanging heavy-jeweled with the night’s rain.
On the dark sandy soil of the bank, there was a flock of yellow striped butterflies, basking their wings in the sunlight and drinking dampness from the ground with long dark curved tongues. I set Joseph down on to watch, and in surprise or perhaps delight, the butterflies lifted into flight, circling him in their erratic and weightless silence, yellow wings flashing in the sunlight.
As they flew around him for what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, he sat, completely absorbed in the wonder of this spectacle, his baby hands paused mid-gesture and little pink mouth hanging open, and as I knelt in the dark sand watching him I thought This moment redeems all the other moments in which I have failed. If I have done nothing else good as his mother, I have at least given him this one gift, this one experience of real magic and beauty of life.
There have been a thousand-and-one failures. The failures that we do not like to talk about – the times I was not patient, when my arms lost their gentleness as I paced up and down and up and down the driveway rocking Joseph to sleep, or when I was not close enough to catch him when he fell. A thousand-and-one times when I did not have my sh-t together, when I forgot to pack us lunch, when I let the dishes pile and pile and pile or the laundry sat clean and unfolded in a heap on the bedroom floor for a week.
The whole chain of events that led us to Midnight Hole was one such failure: we were supposed to fly to Canada to visit Joseph’s Aunt Lizzie. We got up before dawn and Rose drove us to the airport in the dark and as I stood there in the fluorescent light in front of the ticket counter, my sleepless nerves jangling loosely inside my skin, the grey-haired woman in her drab airline uniform shook her head as though at a child who had asked an adorably ignorant question: You can’t fly into Canada without a passport for the baby, ma’am. You might be able to walk across the border, but you just cain’t fly.
My self-loathing was deep but short-lived. My: What kind of idiot doesn’t think to ask if the baby needs a passport? Quickly gave way to: Well, now I have the next 5 days free, what are we going to do?
A brief stop at home resulted in my tent, sleeping bag, and some hastily packed food provisions thrown in the trunk, and a vague plan forming in the haze of my mind. A few hours later after one long detour across the North Carolina border, a helpful conversation and a free map from some sweet ladies at the North Carolina Welcome Center, we found ourselves finally in the gravel parking lot of Big Creek Campground, and the next day we stumbled upon this perfect wonder of Midnight Hole and the Yellow Butterfly Magic.
To be certain, I will continue to make mistakes. I will fail and fail and fail again. The best I can ask for is resiliency in the face of failures, the ability to forgive myself for what I did not know until I knew it, and faith that somewhere along the way, no where close to where I thought it would be, I might find a little magic, or a deep green swimming hole, or a few yellow butterflies.