By: Adam Sutton
“Cheerios are good for the heart. Adam! Adam! Cheerios. They’re good for the heart!”
I’m trying to read my morning paper, but Ralph is prairie dogging over the top of my page. Every morning some variation of this is our routine. Ralph gets off the bus. We chat. He tells me everything that happened since he got on the bus yesterday afternoon. I play some trick on him. Most times, we end up late to breakfast, the last folks to come inside. Today, with every jump, I hear my name. Jump. Adam. Jump. Adam.
His energy is infectious. I’m scoffing, grunting, and feigning that I don’t hear a thing, but that only makes him jump faster. I’m encouraging a more energetic prairie dog.
I rise from my bench and fold my paper. I wonder aloud, “Why is Ralph’s bus late today? It’s never late.”
He’s in full fledged panic mode, bouncing rapidly inches from me, not touching me, but close. I’m looking straight over his head.
“Adam.” Jump. “Cheerios.” Jump. “Can I.” Jump. “Have.” Jump. “Them.” Jump. “For.” Jump. “Breakfast.” Jump. “They’re.” Jump. “Good.” Jump. “For.” Jump. “The.” Jump. “Heart.”
I start moving inside towards the cafeteria still refusing to acknowledge him until, suddenly, I scream, “Ralph, your face! It’s green! I didn’t recognize you! Ralph’s got a green face!” I yell to no one. We’re outside alone, again.
“No! Not again! I couldn’t talk for 20 minutes last time! You had to soak my face with wash clothes. It was torture! I can’t go back! Please no!” he freaks.
Ralph doesn’t stop talking. Ever. So, last week, I was a little tired, and he wasn’t, so I told him the green balls in the gym dyed his face green. The only way to get it off would be for him to sit absolutely still with cool wash clothes on his face, and we had to do it ASAP. We only had 25 minutes, and his face had to soak for 20 minutes. If he moved the wash clothes, his face would be permanently green. He bought it, and I got 20 magical minutes of silence! I’m going to straight to hell, but it’ll be worth it.
“Nah. I’m just messing with you. Remember, we put that special cream on your face to keep it from happening again. That creams still good for a couple weeks.”
“Whew! My mom said if you let my face turn green again, you’re in BIG trouble Mister!” he shouts as he starts bounding like a kangaroo crooning about Cheerios and green dye and heart health. The only thing his mom was pissed about when he told her—nothing is ever a secret—was that I thought of it before her. She knows her kid.
The weather today is perfect for our school field trip, full of hiking and swimming and playing, to Taughannock Falls. The planning has been in the works for weeks. Ralph has been full on excited. We’d looked at maps of the trails, pictures of the falls, and discussed erosion all in preparation for the trip.
Ralph learned the Rim Trail went to the top of the falls. So, he is hell bent on making the 4 mile round trip. He learned all this last year, but he might as well have not because going over it all again, it was anew to him. I loved the idea of heading to the top of the Rim Trail again because as long as I could tune out his banter, it’d be quiet. A lot of the other kids are wheelchair bound, so steep, rutted, rugged trails aren’t their thing. The other kids who could make it have aides with 2 pack a day habits, count candy corn as a vegetable, and jolly ranchers as fruit. Essentially, my work today is to go hiking.
We boarded the bus, and I helped a few of the new aides secure some of the wheel chairs. The training we get doesn’t quite meet the muster of real people in real chairs.
As we settle in and the bus pulls off, Ralph is talking about what it’ll be like as King of the Falls and how only a God can be King of the Falls. I’ve gotten good at nodding and telling him to shut it for 5 seconds. In truth though, if I were him I wouldn’t stop talking either. It’s a defense mechanism. Ralph is dying. We all are, but Ralph is dying in that way where it’s conscious and the shadow of the future is short. He’s 12. He stares death in the face every day. He’s got a twin, Rob. They both have some rare heart ailment, Cardiomycro…something. Essentially, their heart valves deteriorate over time. Ralph is lucky in a sick, perverse way. His heart is deteriorating slower than Rob’s. Last year, Rob did the Rim Trail with us. But, lately, he’s been weaker with paler skin, and he is wheezing a little. Ralph will die second, and he’ll have to watch it too. If he’s still talking, he’s not dead.
The bus stops, and the door opens. Ralph is like a con starting a 3-day furlough; he’s out the door in a flash.
I catch him 2 steps off the bus and scold him as he just about took Jenny’s leg off. She’s a nice girl who uses a walker to get around, and her leg had lingered into the aisle. Ralph didn’t mind.
No sooner had I turned back to the bus then I hear, “It’s Vinny!” When I turn around, I see Ralph bolting across the parking lot. My instincts are to yell, but it wouldn’t stop him. So, I just check my pocket for my cell phone. If a car clips him, I want to be ready.
Vinny and his dad didn’t seem terribly alarmed as Ralph rushed into their space all aflutter. I saunter over as Ralph breathlessly explains in sentence fragments, “Vinny home school. Church goes to mine. Lots fun.”
Vinny’s dad and I shake hands quickly before I turn to Ralph. “What did you cross to get here?”
“Me? Cross? Ummm. I know it’s a question. I don’t know the answer.” He’s genuine. He can’t lie. His brow is wrinkled as he pours over the question looking for an answer. He has no clue he just ran across a crowded parking lot with moving cars and busses. He has tunnel vision.
I turn him around, point to our bus, and try again. “Ralph, what is between us and the bus?”
“Uhhh….cars. Lots of them.”
“Yes. Are any of them moving?”
“Couple. Yea. That one! It’s red! I love red! It’s my favorite color!”
I take a deep breath. “I know it’s your favorite color. Now, did you just run where all those cars are?”
Still oblivious, Ralph replies, “Yes. I saw Vinny and his dad. They are really fun and funny. The go to church where Rob and I go. They are great. I wanted you to meet them.” I imagine in a bygone era Ralph would have made a great radio announcer with his choppy, fast speaking cadence. Still not stopping to breath, he continues, “This is Vinny and Vinny’s dad. This is Adam. He takes care of me at school. He thinks I did something wrong. I don’t know what. But, I wanted you guys to meet. We’re hiking the Rim Trail today. We’ll look for signs of erosion.”
Vinny’s dad interjects for a moment to tell Ralph him and Vinny are hiking the Rim Trail too. It’s part of Vinny’s Physical Education requirement.
Eventually, I separate Ralph from Vinny to assemble with the others. We exchange pleasantries and hope to see each other on the trail.
After helping unload all the food supplies and kids from the bus, Ralph and I grab our backpacks and head for the trail.
Watching Ralph bound up the trail is impressive. His pure, unadulterated joy is contagious and mesmerizing. How could someone so completely shut out every other emotion? He can’t stop talking about how excited he is, and how slow I am going, which isn’t making him mad as much as it is delaying his getting happier. Every step closer to the top, Ralph got happier.
I panic. “Adam bees!” he shouts. I look up to see a few bees on the edge of the trail. Ralph loves bees. He’s not allergic. He’s allergic to peanuts, so I have an epi pen I wouldn’t hesitate to use. But, the bees are doing their majestic thing in a grove of wildflowers which, imperceptibly, seem to grow right out of the gorge’s bottom. It is as if they hovered in midair just past the trail’s edge. Ralph wants to be as close to the bees as possible and doesn’t pick up on imperceptible things. I reach deep into my chest, and scream, “STOP!” I’m not thinking. It is pure fear. It scares us both. He cries. Right there in the trail.
I try to hug him. Console him. He is scared. I let him be a moment and take out a Rice Krispies treat.
Ralph and I have been together almost 2 years. I’d never scared him quite like this. But, his mom helped me out a few months back. Ralph will do just about anything for a Rice Krispies treat. Sure enough, within a minute, Ralph is at my elbow. I hand him the snack and wrap my arm around him. I explained how I had been afraid he’d topple over the lip of the trail.
“Would I have died? I’m going to die? Would I have died if I fell?”
I hate talking about death, and I hate talking to a 12 year old about his fear of impending death. It makes me crumble. “You didn’t fall, and we all die eventually,” I say.
“But, I’ll die soon, right?”
“Big guy. I love you, and we will all die someday. That’s why, today, we’ve got to get to the top of this thing and make the best of our time, right?” I get up before he can respond. Unbridled happiness has quickly morphed into crushing sadness.
We trudge on in relative silence. Ralph is whispering about his favorite cartoon characters, The Paw Patrol. He makes up stories and adventures. It is part of his coping mechanisms.
After trudging along like this for some time, I look up the trail to see a sharp left turn. We were hiking parallel to the lip of the gorge, and it was steep. I was dripping sweat, putting my hand on my knee with every step to give myself a little help. I look back to see that Ralph had fallen a few yards behind. When I look back up the trail, I have a start as I spot Vinny from the parking lot. He is standing on the uphill side of the sharp corner about 10 yards ahead of me. He appeared out of nowhere.
No sooner had I seen him, when he jumps from the high part of the corner to the lower portion of the switchback and yells, “Hey guys!”
He must have landed on a rock or something uneven because his body pitches forward. He plants his left foot to stop his forward movement and for a split second I relax before lunging at him. His head is moving into the gorge, and his legs are moving skyward. As I dive, my hands grasping his calves and pulling down hard. In front of me, all I can see are tree trunks. Like the wildflowers, the earth that moored them is nowhere to be seen.
My arms extend in front of me. I am flat on my stomach. My hands like vice grips on Vinny’s calves. But, I am still moving forward, towards the edge. My momentum is going forward and ever so slightly seems to be picking-up speed. I realize Vinny’s torso is starting to move parallel to the tree trunks in front of me. My toes start to lose contact with the earth even as I press down harder on Vinny. Moving closer to the lip of the gorge, I try feverishly to push both our bodies into the ground to stop our skid. It isn’t working. I let go. I dig my fingers into the earth as firm hands latch around my ankles.
“Adam, is this what it’s like to die?”