“What name this one is it?” asks Luke, in his unmistakable, stilted voice. He’s pointing at an older woman walking towards him, on the opposite side of the trail. He doesn’t take his eyes off her, this woman in the distance, even when he addresses Tim. “What name this one is it, Grandpa?”
Tim struggles to close the gap that separates him from Luke, his hurried footsteps spraying gravel and dust. He squints as he tries to bring the woman’s blurry outline into focus, swallows flecks of dirt as they mingle with the humid Texas air. I shouldn’t have let him get this far ahead of me. Gracie told me to stay right next to him at all times. But what does she expect? She knows what a nightmare a walk with her son can be.
He can’t help but feel defensive, having spent the last half hour suppressing his frustration as Luke zigzagged from one side of the path to the other, scratching his nails along the coral granite, pricking his fingers on the low-lying cacti, and eating bits of dehydrated brush. The walk to the lake should take fifteen minutes at most, but they’ve never made it in less than thirty-five. A straight line. That’s all I’m asking for. For once, just walk in a straight line.
They follow this same trail every Saturday, but have yet to fall into stride with one another. Luke can’t walk more than several steps without stopping to tap the ground with his hand or sit in the dirt. Sometimes his face darkens, and he tilts his head as if straining to hear a faint noise. Other times he laughs, his giggling pure and infectious, but the joke is never shared. “What’s so funny, Luke?” Tim always asks, as hope, foolish and obstinate, whispers to him: maybe this time.
It’s useless to try and set the pace by walking ahead. Luke doesn’t try to catch up. “Come on, Luke, we’re almost there. You can do it,” Tim will say, using the exaggerated inflection typically reserved for toddlers. Or, using Luke’s substitute phrase for swimming, “Don’t you want to go to the water?” But Luke holds his ground without fail, waits for Tim to double back and push from behind.
On straightaways, Tim doesn’t mind. It’s fun, watching Luke run, then stop short, giggling in anticipation of the next push. But uphill is exhausting. Luke makes him do all the work, makes it harder even, by leaning backwards, stiff and uncooperative, as if he were a dolly that could be rolled. Downhill is problematic as well. Luke doesn’t understand why Tim won’t push him as hard, will scream “more push” until he’s hoarse. “But you’ll trip. I don’t want you to get hurt,” Tim will say, pantomiming a fall, but this explanation never satisfies Luke.
Once, Luke’s screaming wore Tim down, and he gave the boy a shove. Not too hard, just enough to prove his point. But Luke, caught unprepared, tripped over a rock and skinned his hands and knees. He’d looked up at his grandfather, tears welling, and Tim, choking on guilt, had wanted to wrap him up in his arms, ease his pain, and yell “I told you so” all at the same time.
“That’s Miss Wendy, Grandpa! That’s Miss Wendy!” Luke is pointing at the woman with certainty, barely able to contain his delight.
Tim doubts that Luke knows her, but hopes his instinct is wrong. He knows what’s coming next, and sees that he won’t reach Luke in time to stop him. Luke steps right in front of the woman, forcing her to come to an abrupt halt.
“Hi, Luke! Hi, Luke!” Luke says, his hands flapping in excitement. He leans in and sniffs the collar of her lime-colored sweatshirt, his nose reaching her collarbone.
Tim catches up in time to see a combination of confusion and fear on the woman’s face. It’s clear that she doesn’t know Luke, although his enthusiasm hasn’t been lessened by her expression. He’s still standing far too close to the woman, who has backed up several steps and is now attempting to walk around him. Tim guides Luke away as he begins the delicate process of apologizing.
He starts to explain Luke’s odd behaviors, incompatible with those of a typical eight-year-old, but she waves away his explanations. “Someone needs to teach that child some manners. My goodness, no one teaches young ones how to behave anymore.” She flashes both of them a disapproving look and continues on her way.
Rage courses through Tim, disproportionate to the woman’s mild intolerance. He knows that Luke is at fault; he’s yet again failed to follow the social rules learned by all though never taught. Gracie has told Tim that he needs to develop a thicker skin, but he still can’t seem to staunch this primal response the way his daughter can. Or says she can. He still sees her flinch at judgmental stares and bruising words. At any rate, he isn’t convinced that Gracie is right. It’s almost comforting to focus all of his anger on this stranger for a moment, to define the enemy. An enemy can be defeated.
He turns to Luke, knows that his grandson is unaware of the emotion that this small exchange has dredged up from within him. Once again he’s struck by the relative insignificance of words. Until they’re draped in gestures, expressions, and inflections they’re worth little, like a Christmas tree without ornaments and lights. The most critical information is conveyed without words, he’s come to realize, and all of it eludes Luke. He aches for how much his grandson will never understand.
“I don’t think that was Miss Wendy. Is Miss Wendy someone you know from school?” Not a teacher—none of the staff in his class photo look a day over thirty—but maybe an administrator, a therapist, a nurse?
Tim wonders if this answer is reliable. Luke defaults to “yes” when he doesn’t understand the question. Sort of like being in a foreign country. Sometimes it’s easier to just agree. People will leave you alone if you agree with them.
They walk in silence for a moment, and then Luke offers, “Miss Wendy green shirt Burton School.”
Tim pounces on this jumbled bit of information, and fishes for more. “Did that woman have the same green shirt as Miss Wendy?”
He knows their conversation will end here, that he doesn’t know enough of the specifics of Luke’s daily life to fill in the blanks. There’s something he’s supposed to say now, some type of choice he’s supposed to offer Luke to keep him engaged. Gracie even reminded him about it this morning, but for the life of him he can’t—
“Water,” Luke says.
“Yes, Luke, we’re going to the lake. You can go swimming with Amanda. Are you excited?”
“Yes. Luke’s going water Amanda. And?”
“And we’ll see Josephine, too,” he says, although he knows that Amanda’s much older sister holds far less appeal. To be fair, Luke thinks of Amanda as family. He probably can’t remember a time before he and his mother shared a roof with her childhood friend. But Tim doubts that Luke would have felt this rare connection with Josephine even if the situation had been reversed, and Amanda had been the able sister.
“And that’s it. Just Luke, Grandpa, Josephine, and Amanda.”
“We’re gonna go to?”
“We’re going to the water, Luke.”
“You know who we’re going to see.” Tim’s voice is bright, but he dreads how often he’ll have to answer these same questions on their walk. Most days, he continues this circular conversation with Luke eight or nine times before giving up and ignoring him. He longs to connect with his grandson, to answer the same questions Gracie asked him when she was young, to tell him stories, to explain the rules of football. But this repetitive back-and-forth isn’t really conversation.
“Grandpa.” It’s a comment, not a question. Luke isn’t even looking Tim’s way. There’s no upwards tilt of the head, no curious gaze, no look of anticipation.
“Do you need something?”
Tim says nothing, hopes that Luke will be appeased, at least for the moment, with these four “Grandpas.” There are rare days when four or five rounds of this nonsense will be enough for him. Not responding is risky, though, because more often Luke will react to silence by repeating himself louder and faster, like an engine revving, gritting his teeth and clenching his fists. Sometimes he’ll lean into Tim, pushing him off balance, or grab his forearm and pinch him hard enough to leave a bruise. Tim gives in then, every time, and lets Luke drag him back into the loop to keep the peace.
Luke spies a lizard and stops, watches it scurry across the path and disappear behind a rock. He picks up a chewed piece of gum next to the rock and puts it in his mouth before Tim is able to wrest it away from him.
“No, Luke, no! That’s yucky.” He forces his grandson’s mouth open, removes the gum, and throws it far into the brush. He wipes the spit off on the sides of his bathing suit, cringing at the thought of the germs that Luke has just swallowed.
Luke looks up to the sky and giggles, and, as usual, Tim can’t pinpoint why. Is it the lizard that’s so funny? Or being naughty by eating the gum? He follows Luke’s gaze, looks upward into the cloudless sky for a clue, but finds none. He can hear the giggles turn to hiccups, but in between the spasms Luke still manages to ask, “We’re gonna go to?”
Tim doesn’t answer. Instead, he sighs and waits, wishing they were already there. He can feel the sun burning the tops of his ears and the back of his neck. Every Saturday Gracie lectures him about his fair skin, but he doesn’t even own a tube of sunscreen. He hates the gluey feeling of it on his skin. At least I still have my hair. I can’t imagine having to glop that stuff over my whole head.
Luke’s hiccups are subsiding, and he’s focused on breaking twigs off of a branch as the spasms become farther apart and his breathing begins to steady. Then, without warning, he screams, “Water! More water! More water!”
Tim feels a bolt of adrenalin surge through him, jarred by this unexpected outburst. “We’re going to the water, Luke,” he says, irritated. You’re the one holding things up, not me. If you didn’t stop for every rock, lizard, and chewed up piece of gum, we’d be there already.
Luke grits his teeth so hard that Tim worries that he’ll chip a tooth. “Luke, stay calm.” He tries to keep his voice neutral, like Gracie’s told him to, but he can hear how shrill it is. Luke stops for a beat, and Tim holds his breath, wondering if he’s been able to deescalate the situation.
Luke lets out a lone earsplitting shriek. “Let’s keep walking to the water,” Tim says, his voice and steps cautious, but he can see by the expression on Luke’s face that he’s somehow made a mistake.
The screams become louder still, interrupted only by the necessity of inhaling. Luke’s face is red with fury, and he begins hitting his head on either side with both hands. The sound is almost comical, quick rat-a-tat-tats, like a harried teacher clapping her hands for attention. Tim wrestles with him, tries to hold his hands down, but Luke manages to break free. He picks up a rock and throws it, just missing an oncoming jogger, and then flops to the ground, all four limbs flailing.
Tim doesn’t apologize to the runner, who has averted his gaze and picked up his pace. He has bigger fish to fry. He grabs Luke by the hands and tries to pull him up, but is no match against the combination of his grandson’s uncooperative seventy-five pounds and gravity. Gracie has told him that showing anger during one of Luke’s tantrums only gets him more riled up, that it’s essential to remain composed. But he’s aggravated, tired, and hot, and doesn’t care that he isn’t following her stupid, endless rules. And isn’t it important that the boy learns to respect authority? “Luke,” he hisses. “Get up now. We can’t go to the water if you won’t get up. You’re too big for me to carry.”
Luke is covered in dirt, still struggling, and Tim releases him and sinks to the ground next to him. His screams are replaced by whimpers as he tries to clear dirt from his right eye.
Tim softens. “Here, let me help you.” He pulls out a tissue and opens his thermos to dampen it. Luke bolts up, lunges for the thermos, and guzzles down its contents in one extended gulp.
Remorse floods Tim as he realizes his mistake. The poor kid. No wonder he screams and throws rocks. “Luke, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand. I didn’t know you were thirsty. I thought you were talking about swimming.” He stops, realizing clarification will get him nowhere. “Are you hungry, too? Do you want a snack?”
Is he really hungry, though? Or just repeating what I say? He decides that it’s safer to assume hunger, and walks over to a low boulder to rest his backpack on it. As he hands an apple to Luke, he hears the familiar ding of a text:
Running 15 min late. Don’t want D-Day #2. Take the long route.
He smiles, grateful that Josephine understands. Every contingency must be planned for with Luke.
“D-day,” or “Dock Day,” as Josephine has dubbed it, occurred the one time that she and Amanda were late. Tim had followed Luke to the old, wooden dock, thinking they would spend the time looking at fish and dipping their toes in the water while they waited. But Luke had sprinted down the dock before Tim could stop him, picking up speed as he reached the end rather than slowing. “Get him! He can’t swim by himself!” he’d yelled to the lifeguard, who blocked Luke just as he reached the edge. The result was a full-blown tantrum, far worse than he’d ever seen.
Luke had flopped down on the dock, his screams putting an abrupt end to the cheerful splashes and chatter of surrounding families and causing three lifeguards to come running. Pulling him back into a sitting position without wrenching his shoulder, risking splinters, or dragging him through bird droppings was impossible. The only solution was to pick him up, each person holding a thrashing limb, as he tried to hit and kick whoever was closest.
As they reached the shore, he turned his head towards the lifeguard supporting the right side of his torso, and bit her arm. She pulled it away, an instinctive withdrawal, and looked down in shock at the circle of white indentations etched in her inflamed skin. His shoulder slammed into the packed sand, causing him to cry out. The pain fueled his rage further, and he writhed and screamed for another twenty minutes before giving up, spent. Tim had just finished wiping sand from his tear-stained cheeks when Josephine and Amanda arrived. Luke heard them first, and ran to Amanda, laughing, as if nothing had happened.
Tim knew that he shouldn’t allow Luke to go swimming afterwards, but what could he do? Four people had struggled to carry him from the dock to the beach. There was no question that Luke would melt down again if he were to attempt to take him home now, and there was no way that he could get him all the way down the trail to the car, even with Josephine’s help. Besides, Luke was finally calm. Tim didn’t have the energy to deal with a second round.
“How did it go?” Gracie asked over her shoulder, when he dropped Luke off late that afternoon. Already she was on patrol, following Luke as he discarded sandals in different rooms, turned on the TV, and rummaged through the freezer for a Popsicle. She squatted to pull his wet bathing suit down, and as she did, he ripped open the wrapper and let it fall, the syrupy residue clinging to her hair as the plastic floated past her. He wobbled as she tried to lift his foot from the mesh lining, then regained his balance and pushed by her. Bathing suit around his ankles, he shuffled over to the table and dropped his Popsicle onto it before she could slide a plate underneath.
Tim bent over and pulled Luke’s bathing suit up again, hid behind him so she couldn’t see his face. He’d planned on telling the truth. She deserved to know. But if he did, she wouldn’t allow their Saturdays to continue. She’d have no choice, which left him with none, either. He couldn’t let her give them up. “He was great.”
She’d paused, and Tim could tell that she was deciding if she should believe him. But then the creases in her forehead had released, and she’d turned her attention to Luke, smoothed his hair and told him how proud she was of him as he stared out the window and wiped his sticky hands on his bathing suit.
Tim unscrews the thermos, hopes Luke has left behind a sip or two. He can feel his shirt sticking to his back, and he peels it from his skin, fans it to let the air dry him. He wonders, now, if he’s made the right decision. The past few weeks have been peaceful, so much so that he’d begun to dismiss D-Day as a one-time incident. But maybe not. Today has gotten off to a rocky start, that’s for sure. He can’t take Josephine’s suggestion, though. The long route isn’t an option. What she forgets is that it involves passing Hornsby’s Peak, the summit of a massive outcropping of rock that juts out over a deeper portion of the lake. It’s a popular hangout for teenagers on the weekend, filled with boys diving in to impress their bikini-clad girlfriends.
“You can not take him there, Dad, for any reason,” Gracie had said, prior to their first Saturday outing. She’d enunciated each word, as if he was a child. “He’s fast, he’s strong, and he could kill himself.” Her condescension had irritated him, but he’d bit his tongue because he knew that she wasn’t exaggerating. The boy had no concept of danger.
His attention turns to Luke, who’s eating the apple’s core, flinging away its stem. He has an insatiable appetite, and the sturdy frame to prove it. Tim digs through his backpack, and settles on a huge bag of carrots. Better to stall him with more snacks than continue. He passes them to Luke, who crunches into them as he stares at the surrounding hills, green and incongruous with the parched shrubs on the trail.
Now that Luke’s occupied, Tim can feel his heartbeat return to normal. He musses Luke’s hair, the once-blonde waves that refuse to be tamed, and is consumed by the torrent of emotions that overwhelm him every time he’s with his grandson. Love, of course: fierce, primal, and boundless. But enmeshed within are frustration, anger, and above all, fear. Although he’s only fifty, he already feels the constraints of time, knowing that he’ll leave this world long before Luke.
He remembers Shayla’s words when Gracie was tiny, maybe one or two. “Isn’t it amazing, that all of our hopes and dreams are tied up in that tiny body of hers?” Those words had stuck with him all of these years, even though it was an offhand comment made on an uneventful day. He can’t even remember where they were when she said it. But the memory is laced with innocence, with the unflagging optimism of youth. Back then there was no reason to expect that any of their dreams would be buried. After all, they’d confessed their sins; they’d accepted Christ as their almighty Lord and Savior. Tim had even received the calling to spread His Word, and they’d dedicated their lives to serving Him.
It wasn’t until Shayla was gone that fear first snaked its way into Tim’s thoughts. Who will help me take care of Gracie? he worried, and he prayed every day that God would forgive him his failings and provide him with the wisdom to guide Gracie towards a life devoted to Jesus.
It was the chaos of everyday life that allowed him to keep the fear in check for so many years. There wasn’t time to be paralyzed by it. There were Bible study groups to be led, sermons to be written, church members to counsel; there were meals to be cooked, bills to be paid, dance recitals and soccer games to attend. There was never enough to time to think further ahead than the next Sunday.
Then he realized that the fear was simply biding its time, content to wait seventeen years to strike. One chilling word—autism—forced him to feel the weight of his mortality for the first time. Lord, when I’m delivered to your glorious kingdom, I pray that it will be Your Will to send Gracie a husband who will cherish her and Luke, and that they, in turn, will serve you selflessly. These words became an unconscious refrain that ran through his mind so often that he sometimes felt his lips moving before he realized what he was saying.
During difficult times he’d find himself bargaining, just as Jacob had when he ventured eastward to his Uncle Laban’s home. Of course, God sets the terms of an agreement, not man; this he knew. Yet he couldn’t control the immature, feral urgency that would leak into his prayers. Please Lord, I beg of you, give me a sign that you’ll take care of Luke after Gracie and I are gone, and I’ll do whatever you ask of me in this life and the next. Anything. There is nothing You can ask for that I won’t do, I promise you.
And the Lord had responded and provided Keith, a gentle Christian man who loves his daughter and, remarkably, his grandson. His pleas had been heard, his lifetime of service had been rewarded. Or so he had believed until recently.
How to tell her? Over the countless weddings he’s officiated, he’s always thought of Gracie, of the enormous blessing it would be to preside over hers. But now that the time has come, he finds himself unready. How can he, a pastor without faith—a fraud—sanctify the union?
Already he’s waited too long. Telling her now would cast a shadow over her wedding day, just two weeks from now. Unburdening himself at the expense of her happiness would be selfish. She should be worrying about seating charts and florists, not about how to explain to her guests that her father isn’t leading the ceremony.
But keeping his secret would be selfish, too. What kind of father would be willing to invalidate his daughter’s wedding in the eyes of God in order to spare himself rejection? What possible explanation could he give her for sullying her wedding, should she find out?
He thinks of Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians, words he’s used when counseling many times over the years: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
His second wife, Jane. His friends. His flock. He’ll lose them all if he admits that he no longer believes, because a biblical response is the only one a true evangelical is allowed. He’ll lose his life’s work, and then what will he do? How will he support himself?
It’s exhausting, though. The lying. It isolates him, strips all that is genuine from his relationships. He’s desperate to be done with it. But every time he musters up his courage, every time he convinces himself that he’ll manage, he’s stopped by the thought of the one loss that’s intolerable: Gracie’s. What if she were to shut him out of her life, out of Luke’s? Just thinking about having to spend his days near them but without them is enough to make him feel bitterness at the back of his throat.
Tim is pulled out of his fevered thoughts by the sound of Luke digging through his backpack, looking for more snacks. He wipes away the remnants of carrot left on Luke’s face with a gentle swipe of his thumb and lets him continue, knowing that his best course of action at this point is no action. Josephine and Amanda will catch up with them soon enough.