It’s been almost a year since Joe met Mary. Almost a year since his whole world changed, because he loves her. And because she brought Eddie into his life.
Eddie is now 8. Joe never expected to have kids. Never even wanted to have kids. Kids cost money and Joe’s very frugal. Kids take too much time and they are always in your space. He’d been single a long time. Then married. Then divorced. He’d dated some. A single guy in his 40s with a good job is much in demand on the singles market, which is why he chose NOT to be on any online dating sites.
He met Mary at a New Year’s Eve party in the home of a mutual friend. She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, and he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, which is probably one of the things that drew them together. They both landed in the kitchen cleaning up while the party was going on, because they’d grown tired of small talk. They just regular-talked.
They discovered they had some important things in common. Both love to cook gourmet food. Both love hiking. He invited her to join him on a hike when it warmed up in the spring, and she told him she had an eight-year-old boy she didn’t want to leave with a babysitter for a whole day. He said, “So. Bring him along.”
He couldn’t believe those words came out of his mouth, but he was even more surprised that he meant them.
The hike came on a day in March. Joe both dreaded it and deeply looked forward to it. He wanted to see Mary again. But what if he failed to connect with Eddie? What if he didn’t like Eddie? What if Eddie didn’t like him? He really didn’t know what to say to kids. Joe and Mary had been in touch by phone and email since the party, once talking nearly 2 hours. He felt his affection for her growing.
On a Saturday morning Joe picked them up and they drove down to the Red River Gorge. Typically, Joe would hike along the ridges, but he worried about taking a boy up where there were steep drop-offs. Instead he took them on Rock Bridge Trail down to the waterfall. Long enough and a little challenging for an eight-year-old, the trail’s turnaround point at the falls was a perfect place to stop for the picnic lunch Joe had packed.
The weather cooperated, cool and clear, with some of the trees just beginning to bud out. Joe had hoped to see deer along the trail, but it wasn’t to be, since Eddie talked loudly and incessantly during the entire hike. But Joe didn’t mind. Eddie was very entertaining.
Eddie had been hiking many times with his mom, and he told Joe what she’d taught him about being in the woods. “Kids can get lost in the woods,” he said. “Mom has three rules. Rule one is to stay together no matter what. You’re always safer together. Rule two is to watch the light. The direction of the light helps you figure out where you are. And if the light starts to fade, get yourself back to where you started. Rule three,” Eddie continued because he hardly stopped talking at all, “is to mark the important parts of the trail. That’s how you know where you’ve been. Remembering where you’ve been helps you find your way home.”
At a couple of spots on the trail, when they made a turn, Eddie built a cairn of rocks as other hikers had done before them, so they would remember this spot and know where to turn toward home on their way back. The trail was well marked, but constructing the cairns was fun, and Joe helped him look for just the right rocks.
That was the day Joe fell in love with both Mary and Eddie. He slept not at all that night, because his love terrified him. Eddie’s father hadn’t seen the boy, written, or called in six years. Eddie was obviously looking for a dad, and Joe was afraid he’d disappoint, that Mary wouldn’t want him. But Mary and Eddie fell in love with Joe, too.
After that day the threesome spent nearly every Saturday together, doing things from cleaning out the garage to going to a park.
When Mary and Joe decided to get married, they didn’t wait long. There didn’t seem to be any need for that; they just knew it was right. Eddie started referring to Joe as “my dad” at the wedding reception.
Things have changed so fast. So fast. Joe is different. He thinks about Eddie when making choices about almost everything, from which trails to hike at the gorge to what television shows to watch, from where and how to invest his money to where and how to spend his money.
Joe’s sleep patterns have changed. He goes to bed much earlier than he ever has because he is very, very tired. He gets up early on Saturdays because Eddie is up early. They let Mary sleep in while they eat Honey Smacks on the couch in their PJs.
Work has changed for Joe. He doesn’t work 65 hour weeks these days. He was offered a promotion that would involve a move, and declined it without a second thought . He wouldn’t even consider moving Mary and Eddie from the job, school, and friends they love. He takes time off for things that a year ago he couldn’t have imagined. A couple of times a month he meets Eddie at school for lunch. He took a whole day in October to go to the pumpkin patch with Eddie’s class. He has become the most popular dad in the third grade, because he’s the only dad who ever shows up for things during the school day.
And then there is Christmas. Joe never knew how different Christmas could be with a child. The excitement, the wonder, the laughter, the anticipation. Eddie taught him all their family traditions, told him the origin of each ornament, and every night they read Christmas stories together. The beauty of the past was surprisingly important for someone who was only in his ninth year.
Joe wanted to get just the right gifts for Eddie and Mary on their first Christmas together. He has rented an RV for a hiking trip on spring break. He gave them guide books to state parks so they can all plan the trip together.
Then there was Eddie’s gift to Joe: three washed rocks. He collected them out of a local creek and washed them three times in bleach solution and scrubbed with a brush. “Mom made me wear rubber gloves and she poured the bleach into the bucket of water,” he said. “It was hard work.” Three flat rocks of decreasing size. “I know how you love to hike, and maybe this will make you remember some of the fun hikes we’ve taken,” Eddie said. As if Joe could forget those great times of talking, hiking, becoming a family.
Joe was unable to speak. He gave Eddie a huge hug and used the stones to build a little cairn under the Christmas tree.
Joe has experienced deep transformation over the past year. What a whirlwind it’s been.
Not just one moment of new understanding and growth, but thousands of moments. He feels as though his heart is being expanded. The memories and experiences are piling up like stones, each one with meaning and significance.
One night the family read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew, and Joe thought about it a long time afterwards—about how Joseph wanted his life to go in a certain direction, but a woman and her child changed all of that. And how God was in it.
The week after Christmas, when the family was putting away decorations, Joe took his three washed rocks and placed them on one end of the fireplace mantle where he could always be reminded of Eddie’s heart and wisdom.
Sometimes you just wander aimlessly, Joe thought. Or you feel as though you’ve lost your way. Remember those three things the rocks represent: stay together, watch for the light, and make sure you mark the most important turns in the trail.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… [from Matthew 1]