All the world we could ever want rose and fell before us, atop the Upper Falls at Graveyard Fields. This part of the southern Blue Ridge heaves and rolls, like linen sheets on an unmade bed. Mountains are tributes to the beauty that patience can create.
I turned to my son and said, “I wait all year for this.’’
He said he knew the feeling. “Best days of the year.’’
Kelly is 29 now. When he was 14, he and I made our first trek to these fine old hills. Back then, I referred to him in print (and occasionally in person) as The Kid Down the Hall. The label was supposed to be funny, but not lacking truth. Fourteen is not the kindest age for boys. It’s not the greatest time to be a parent, either. Mutual tolerance is the best everyone can expect.
We saw him at dinner and occasionally on the weekend mornings he didn’t sleep until noon. Kelly lived in that middle distance familiar to adolescence, a world apart from his mom and me. I joked that I couldn’t always recall his name. Hence, The Kid Down the Hall.
I’d made the trip to mountains by myself for several years by then. I liked it that way, a few days clambering around in the deep woods, just me and my head. Hiking solo can be cleansing, if you don’t mind your own company. Kerry my wife suggested I take Kelly with me.
“Absolutely not,’’ I said.
The last thing I wanted on that trip to contemplation was a moody companion to worry about. I was selfish enough, even the notion of it annoyed me. “No way,’’ I said.
Kerry suggested it would be good for him and possibly for both of us. I won’t say she used the unfortunate term “bonding’’ – we aren’t wood glue cementing table joints – but that was the idea.
Wonderful, I thought. Two people who didn’t especially like each other’s company, forced to spend 72 hours together. What a great idea.
I agreed to it, reluctantly, because the part of me that wasn’t always mad at Kelly wanted very much to connect with him again, to rejoin his life. To be where we both were just a few years earlier, when I was Dad, a pretty smart, cool guy.
“OK,’’ I said. “I’ll take him. But he’s doing everything I do, when I want to do it.’’
The first year wasn’t great. One day it rained, so I ended up taking him to the mall in Asheville: A fate worse than death. Kelly had his earbuds and his GameBoy. He brought his silence with him.
The second year wasn’t much better. When we got back, I said to Kerry, “We didn’t say 10 words all weekend. I’m not taking him next year. He doesn’t enjoy it.’’
She said that was wrong. “He loves it. He tells me all the time how much fun he has with you.’’
You could have knocked me over with a rhododendron twig. “He what?’’
“Yeah. He raves about it to me,’’ Kerry said.
I knocked on Kelly’s bedroom door, Down the Hall. “You like going to Montreat with me?’’
“Yeah, Dad,’’ he said, in that weary voice 14-year-olds use to fix the boundaries between themselves and their clueless parents. “I really do.’’
You don’t say anything, I said, lamely.
“I don’t need to. The time down there speaks for itself.’’
One, I was stunned that a 15-year-old could fashion such a poetic tribute to how I felt about those precious few days. Two, I was floored that it came from this particular 15-year-old.
OK, I said. Same time next year.
It got better after that. We’d mention the trip on the hardest of winter days. We’d plan the hikes. We fussed about the music in the car on the way down. We spent lots of time conquering trails and saying nothing. Meaningful silence, because the time down there spoke for itself.
Every year got better. Gets better. Kelly snapped out of his kid funk (they all do) and has become a man in full. I like to think I helped with that, but I know most of it was just a matter of evolution. And, possibly, three days wandering the mountains every year. Another tribute to the beauty that patience can create.
What does this have to do with Jillian, or with raising any child with a disability?
A lot, because you don’t want your other kids to suffer from the time and energy you devote to your special needs child. Kerry and I were steadfast about this. We expected Jillian to do everything around the house that her older-by-three-years brother did. We accepted nothing less.
If we did something special for one child, we found something special for the other. Kelly’s upbringing wouldn’t suffer for the extra time we spent with his sister. Partly as a result, they remain close, and Jillian has gained an independence similar to his.
Meantime, Kelly and I still share the simple solace of tromping trails. (And these days, drinking local craft brews and listening to local roots music.) What a joy we found, 15 summers ago. What started as a way for a dad to try to connect with his sometimes wayward and unreachable son has become one of the highlights of my life. And I hope his.
Sometime in January, when the days are pinched and hard and summer seems a rumor, I will close my eyes and see the perch we occupy atop the Upper Falls at Graveyard Fields. Sun on our backs, all the world we want. Feeling the need to do nothing. Connecting, the way the mountains connect to the sky.
And I will smile a grateful smile.