protect each other
We walk across a plank bridge, our feet thickly thumping, and a thin brown leaf drifts from the overhead canopy and twists down down in the breeze, grazing my arm. In tiny, hidden places, anticipated Autumn begins to set the woods on fire, just barely. We pause to admire a smoldering swatch of delicate auburn leaves, to admire the dappling of dying light, to notice the delicious variability of progress. This last path today, and then we’ll settle in to rest.
From a distance behind, Adam calls, “Twenty-three more minutes and then finished.” The rich, dark syllables drift, carried by the wind.
“Yes,” I call back, measuring his distance from the rest of us. Reluctance burdens his feet, and he’s slower for the heaviness. He walks on the opposite side of the path, so that he can view of the journey uninterrupted by our long shadows.
Riley reiterates, but with more reassurance. She gets him; she always empathizes with his thoughts. “I know you’re ready to be done, Adam Jones,” she says. “Just a little bit more. Twenty-three minutes and we’ll be finished.”
Naturally my most cautious child, Zoe carefully protects. “Adam, come on,” she urges, curving and sweeping her arm toward him like a hook. “Run!”
His sisters encourage differently, as befits their own particular gifts, but both encourage.
Typically, Adam resents Zoe’s interjections, rebuffs and dismisses what he defensively interprets as a patronizing tone with a bold “no,” and sometimes, “Zoe, stop annoying me, please.” He’s older; he doesn’t need her help. But today, he smiles, interpreting her correctly, an admonishment rather than a rebuke. She wants me with her. And he runs, his lean body a thin line, his legs bending in long, graceful angles. Quickly, his stride closes the distance between us, and as if by agreement, we all let out a congratulatory cheer, clapping our hands.
Adam’s smile dissolves into laughter, trills of victory in his throat. He is jubilant, bright-faced like the fractured orb of sun slowly fading in the sky. It’s as though our fanfare lights his eyes. “Thank you, running,” he says happily, and for a stretch and a curve we saunter on together, a knot of pony tails and tennis shoes, until gradually he drifts away again, bogged down by how much of the journey remains.
I look back, tracing him, and Zoe throws up her arm, as though casting an invisible net to reel her brother in. “Come on, run, Adam Jones,” Riley calls enthusiastically, and already he squeals. His glee twists down, crowning our heads. This time, he begins from a position of strength. He runs, gloriously free, the wind ruffling his hair. His grin is a beam of living sunlight.
We cheer him in, a pilgrim audience, sipping water from the thermal bottles that dangle from our hands as we travel. Over a bridge, he stays beside us, rounding out the circle of us until our shadow on the weathered wood looks like a formidable beast with many bobbing heads. And then the shape changes as we lose a part, and Adam’s carried voice faintly notes, “Twelve more minutes and then done.” But this time though, by the time we turn our heads toward him, reaching to gather him back yet again, he’s already running, already obliterating shadows with that smile, because he knows we want him with us. He anticipates our encouragement as our heads begin to turn, looking for him.
In every group there’s a drifter, a sheep losing the way, some soul alienated by warfare none of the rest of us can see, and as I watch Adam’s victory fullborn even before he finds his way back to us, I recognize how it could be if we never stopped encouraging, if we carefully tended to the distant. Encourage one another daily, Word says, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:13). It’s that last part we leave off of the verse-a-day calendar, those words we now hate to say, the threat to which we’ve grown numb. Sin will slow you down and drag you lonely. It will cement your legs and stop you still until you’ve lost sight of love. And the thing we do for each other to protect our mutual progress is to encourage—with words flung far and our arms hook-tossing a gathering embrace.
Because if we actually believed that Adam would be okay without us, if we let his reluctance anchor him to the earth, we’d eventually lose sight of him all together. He’d stop trying to be with us at all. Eventually, we’d stop appreciating the way our shadow falls when he’s a part of it. And rather than softened by joy and bright as the sun, his face would become as dark and hard as a stone.
But of course, we love him too much to let that happen.