The Wall Walker
The following is a piece I was asked to write about what it feels like to be the father of an autistic child.
When I wake, I am curled up under a somber and overcast sky. It is the same colored heaven that I lived under yesterday and the countless days that have come before it. I stretch out on the brown grass for a moment to piece together my reality. It only takes me a few brief moments to remember my job. I have to walk the wall…just like I have done the past 11 years.
I sit up and take a deep breath. I hold it for a moment while I close my eyes. This is one of my favorite moments of the day. I keep my breath inside and pretend it is some sort of medicine. I imagine that it is an inhaler of courage that once I release it I will be able to begin my day with at least a somewhat stronger constitution. I exhale slowly-pushing every bit of air out of my lungs. I always do that in hopes that any negative feeling or emotion that I have packed in from the previous day’s walk will get exorcised from my heart.
Opening my eyes, I force myself to stand up. Every morning my body aches more and more. As my form cricks and cracks while I push up off of the ground I am reminded of how immensely tired I am. Even though I sleep, I never feel like I rest. My body never really relaxes during slumber and my mind never turns off. I am always thinking of my job and the wall that I walk.
It takes a minute or two but I am finally up and standing. Now comes the hard part…I have to turn around and look at it. With both of my hands running through my hair, I pivot my feet so I am now facing it.
I am standing outside of a giant ashen concrete wall. It towers over me and stretches to my left and right for as far as my eyes can see. The surface of the wall is worn and cracked and there are some indications that people have tried their best to chip away at it before they surrendered their efforts. A part of me is convinced that I was the one who left these marks on this part of the wall. It is hard to tell if this is my work or not. I eventually make up my mind that I was not the one who tried to get through it from here. My attempts are not nearly as organized. The person who attacked this area worked it with a plan. When I try and break through the wall, I leave much more random marks. I have never been able to quite exactly determine how tall the wall is – On the top of this hard barrier there appears to be a band of thick barbed wire that I believe serves as a deterrent to any idiot who decided to try and scale its smooth surface. Once, a long time ago, I tried to climb it. That was a very bad idea, and it cost me days of walking while I recovered from my fall.
I decide it is time to walk the wall for a bit to try and finally find a break in its divide. With the sun obscured by the deep gray sky above me, I am unable to figure out exactly how long I walked. By my best estimation I must have walked about an hour or two before I concluded it was time for a break. Throughout all of my strolls along the wall, I have never discovered any opening or weakness in its structure. Today was no different. There has never been any variation in how it looked. There are no towers, doorways, windows or anything else that I could use as a reference point. It is steely, grim, and endless. I convince my legs to keep moving. This time as I walk with the wall I run my fingers against the concrete. This is a ritual that I have begun to do more and more often. Since I cannot tell if I have walked around the entire perimeter of the wall I am always curious if my fingers are tracing over a same part of a wall that they have already visited.
I know what you are thinking. I know because I think the same thing every day. You are thinking that it is time for me to quit walking the wall. It is time to give up trying to get through it. It’s time to do something else with my life. I need you to understand something. I can’t quit. I have to find a way through this damned wall. I have to. My son is trapped on the other side. He is alone and he needs me. Now, you’re asking me how I even know he is still over there. I know because every once in a while I can hear his voice bounce off and over the wall. He is asking for help! He is asking me to find him. To help him! Granted I can go days and weeks without hearing from him, but I know he is in there. I know it. He wants out…and I won’t stop walking the wall until I find a way inside.
There was a time when I did not walk this wall alone. I used to walk it with my wife. She was just as desperate as I was to get him out of there. Somewhere along the way she gave up and did not want to walk anymore. She said she was tired and she just wanted to rest. I told her we need to find a way in. She said that there must be another way of looking at this wall. That perhaps we were doing this all wrong. I told her that if she was unwilling to walk with me that I was going to go it alone. She begged me to stay. I didn’t. There must be a way in…and I was not going to be like her and quit. The day I kept walking and she stayed behind was the most difficult day of this whole damned thing. I don’t like to think about it much anymore.
A day does not go by where I find myself wishing I was a stronger man. If I was I could smash my fists against this stone partition and make it to crumble down in a cloud of dust. Then I would scramble over the rumble to see my boy standing there waiting for me to scoop him up and rush him away from this place. Believe me I have tried punching through this wall before only to be reminded that the bones in my hands are a helluva lot softer than the rock that binds this wall together
My days of walking the wall bleed into each other. It is often very difficult to differentiate one day from the next. There is a pattern that exists in all of them. It begins with my morning ritual of scraping myself off of the ground, then I walk for miles and miles looking for a way in, then I collapse as the sun sets, my heart aching that I have once again failed.
I am nearing the end of my walk today. I am exhausted. I slump down to the ground with my back against the gray wall and I do what I do every day at this time. I sob. I am not talking about one of those macho cries that you might see a man do – with one single tear running down his cheek and his jaw clenched tight. My cry is more of a howl and without any dignity or pride. It is the cry of absolute helplessness. All the pain and grief that I bury during the course of the day rolls in like a tide of unstoppable emotion. I am flooded with despair.
Tonight this tide of emotion feels a lot more potent. I am a mess. The tears that seep from my eyes follow a groove that their watery ancestors have formed before, however there are a lot more of them ever tonight. There is a new feeling tonight. For the first time ever, I doubt. I doubt that I will ever find a way in, under, or over the wall. I am too small of a man to find a way to the other side of it. I will never save my son. I am cursed to be separated from him. With my body still leaning against the barricade I find myself screaming obscenities and a litany of filth into the ether. I am so filled with rage. My anger is exploding from me like unfocused shrapnel! I am angry at whoever built this never-ending wall! I am angry at myself for not being able to solve its riddle! I am angry at God who has determined my purpose in life is to spend it walking this terrible partition! I am angry at my son for being caught on the other side of it! I am angry at my heart for still beating! It would be so much easier if I did not have to wake up in the morning and continue on….
I scream and rant until my voice becomes raw. I am now in shadow as the sun has begun to set on the other side of the wall. Soon I will be surrounded by darkness and, I am feeling much more hopeless than I ever have before. I am at my wits' end. I am nearing the breakdown I always knew what coming. Maybe tomorrow morning I will leave the wall….perhaps tomorrow is the day I give up. No more walking. No more searching.
I close my eyes and get ready for the night to drape over me when I hear the first confirmed voice I have heard in years…
It was like a whisper coming from the wall behind me. My eyes pop open, and I spin around to face the stone. I am now kneeling in front of the fence waiting for another sound.
Nothing comes. Just silent stone.
I place my hand on the wall and I break the quiet. “Hello?? Is there somebody there?”
“Hello!!??” I shout. “Please say something again! I just heard you!”
Now I am frantic and even though my throat feels stabs of pain every time I shout because of my previous temper tantrum, I continue to yell out.
“Say something!! Please!! Hello? I am right here! Daddy is right here!!”
My mind must have been playing tricks on me. I must be losing my mind. Is this the beginning of my madness?
Still on my knees I bury my face into the side of the cool wall and whisper “Please….somebody say something...”
I feel the hopelessness and the pain welling up again. The brief moment of joy was now fading because now it appears that the voice I heard was all in my head.
“Daddy!?” This time there is no doubt. It was not a whisper. It was a strong voice calling out.
“I am here! I am right here!” I yell. His voice sounds so close to where I am. Without knowing it right away I am now standing with my ear pressed against the wall. “Where are you?” I ask.
“Right here!” his voice calls out to the right of me.
I turn my head to look and I see a small arm shooting out from a small hole the wall. I see a hand that is reaching out for me desperately. I run over and clasp his hand in mine. As our fingers interlock I feel a wave of relief pour over me. I let go of his hand and look at it. It is so small and it is covered in dirt and I noticed it is covered is small abrasions. His nails are chipped and there is dried blood over the tips of his fingers.
“Are you okay?” I ask through hole.
“Yes!” He shouts. My God his voice sounds so wonderful. “I just hurt my hand while digging through…I will be okay.”
Digging? Well, that of course makes sense. While I have been trying to find a way to break him out, he was working on his own way.
My son then tells me he is going to move his arm out of the hole in the wall so he can see my face.
For the first time, we look at each other. He is beautiful. His eyes and smile are so radiant. He is joy embodied. Suddenly my years spent walking the wall feel so incredibly well spent. If I were to die right now I would be content. Just to see him this one time has made my journey so worth it.
“Well hello there Daddy,” he says with a laugh.
“Hello there yourself!”
Then he says something that takes me back a bit. “I am so glad I found you!”
I am not going to spend my first real conversation arguing with him but I was the one who found him. I will leave this for a conversation later. So I simply respond with “Me too, buddy…now let’s keep working on the hole and get you out of there.”
He just stares at me with a confused look on his face. Then after a moment his smile returns. “Oh I am not going out there.”
What the hell does that mean? Of course he is. He must be in shock.
“Daddy. You are coming in here.” He said with a whisper. “This is where I belong.”
“What are you talking about?” My voice now rising with incredulousness. “I have been searching for you to save you from that place!”
“This is not about rescuing me," he says. "It’s about rescuing you. You are coming here.”
The only word that I muster is a very fractured and broken….“What?”
Then my son moves out of the hole and I finally see what was on the other side of the wall. It is bright and colorful. I see my wife and rest of my family standing a few feet back waving at me. I can feel the warmth of that land coming through the small tunnel in the wall and splashing across my face. My son's face returns to the opening and his smile is as bright as ever.
“You were the one who was lost," he says. "Not me.”
And then all at once we both start digging into the wall.
I'm so glad he found me.