On Saturday we went for a hike with two other families on a warm West Virginia afternoon. The trail was two miles long, uphill, and steep in places. Wally accomplished the second-half of the distance in 50-foot bursts, chasing me with a stick.
The stick was his magnet, and when he’d catch me he’d jab it through one of my belt loops. “I magneted you,” he’d say, and hold me fast in place, until others in our group caught up to us on the trail. Then I’d push the “detach” button on the magnet and run up the trail, Leo on my chest, Wally cackling and coming up fast behind me.
We had lunch at an overlook, drank water, lay in the sun, took a group photograph, headed down. Much of the way back was on an old access road, which was covered in large rocks and loose gravel. Wally, freed at last from the torture of walking uphill, only wanted to run. Instead of chasing me, he pursued an older boy, an eight-year-old who hopped easily over rocks and roots. Watching Wally careen down after him on his little, little legs, I knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
So, I told Wally to stop running, and the father of the older boy told his son to stop running, too. But neither child listened. Less than a minute later, at full-speed, Wally lost his footing and pitched forward onto the ground.
I was about twenty feet up the trail behind him. I waited for Wally to cry, or to bounce up, or to otherwise let me know if he was hurt, but he did none of that. Instead he lay twisted on the ground and looked up the hill toward me. He made a pained grin, let out a high-pitched, nervous laugh. “Hahahahaha,” he said, “That’s funny. I’m OK. Hahahahaha.” I couldn’t tell what was going on. He laughed again. “Hahahahahaha, see nothing’s wrong,” he said, even as he remained down on the ground, his expression teetering between that weird, forced grin, and tears.
Finally I reached him. He wouldn’t let me help him up. Instead he got to his feet himself and went and stood by the side of the trail with his back toward me. I’d never seen this kind of behavior from him before and couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. Then he started to cry. He told me his knee was bleeding. All the false bravado from a moment ago was gone and I started to understand he’d been trying to cover up how he really felt.
I asked him if he’d like a piggyback and, still crying, he said he would. So with Leo asleep in front, I hoisted Wally on my back, and down the trail we went. After a minute Wally said to me, in that same desperate voice, “It only needs a band-aid. You were wrong, Dad, I can run.”
I said back to him, “I know you can,” and though I tried as hard as I could, I’m not sure I was able to make him believe me.