by Libby Lazewnik
It should have been the most wonderful vacation Rafi had ever had. They had spent long enough, the three of them, dreaming about it, and planning every detail. The three of them. He and Mommy and Daddy. How happy he'd been thenin those last few weeks before his whole world turned upside-down.
What long hours they spent talking it all over, and then over again. Their discussions usually started during dinner, when Daddy was home from the office and Rafi's homework was out of the way. Rafi would dash to the kitchen and back as quickly as he could, eager to help his mother clear off the table and serve the dessert. His round face grew even more pink-cheeked than usual, partly from the effort, but mostly from excitement, and the pale freckles stood out on his nose. And then, finally, the way was clear for the three of them to plunge back into their favorite topic: their vacation trip to Yosemite National Park.
They were going for a whole week! They would be camping out in a tent, with hikes along the forest trails during the day and charcoal fires at night. Rafi's eighth birthday was coming up in July, and they were going to celebrate it in California. That meant a long, long drive in the caralmost another whole week in itself. But that was just part of the fun. Elbows on the table, the three of them pored over the huge maps spread out before them, trying to decide on the best route to take.
Daddy wanted to take the scenic roads, which would take longer. Mommy wanted to take the main highways to California and get there faster, so that they'd have more time to spend in Yosemite. Rafi didn't care. Either way, it was going to be the best vacation he'd ever had. Or so he thought....
Sometimes Mommy lost all track of the time, and it was only the chiming of the antique clock above the piano that reminded them how late it was. Then Rafi would be sent upstairs, way past his bedtime. Mommy always put on a worried face, and Daddy shooed him up to his room in a very no-nonsense way, but he knew they weren't really upset. They were as happy as Rafi himself, and nearly as excited.
The night before the big trip, Rafi hardly closed his eyes. He just couldn't sleep. He kept repeating to himself, "By this time tomorrow, we'll be in Topeka. By this time the next day, we'll be in Denver...." The names of all the thrilling, faraway places he'd seen on the map danced before his eyes. The Rocky Mountains! The Grand Canyon! Sleep never seemed farther away.
His door opened. Mommy came into the room. She didn't seem at all surprised to see him lying there, wide awake. She came over and perched at the edge of his bed.
He sat up.
"Can't sleep, Rafi?"
"No, I'm too excited. Just thinkby this time next week, we'll be in Yosemite!"
"I know. I can hardly believe it myself. For so long I've wanted to take a cross-country trip like this. And this year, you're old enough to really enjoy it."
"Waddaya mean, Mommy? I was old enough last year, tooand the year before that!"
She smiled. "Of course you were. What I meant is..." she paused. "Well, eight is a special birthday, isn't it? You've left the baby years behind for good. You're old enough now to understand things that you couldn't understand when you were younger...."
There was an odd note in her voice.
"What things, Mom?" he asked, puzzled.
She hesitated. Then she patted his hand and stood up. "Oh, this and that. We'll talk more on the triplots more. You try to get some sleep now, okay?"
"I could always sleep in the car tomorrow."
"What, and miss all the sights?" She laughed.
"Oh. I forgot about that. Oh, well," he shrugged, and fell back on his pillow, "it won't be easy, but I'll try."
"Good. You do that. Sweet dreams, darling."
The sight of her smiling at him in the pale wash of moonlight was suddenly the dearest thing in the world. "G'nite," he mumbled. He was drowsy. Somehow, all his restlessness had settled down into a warm, soothing glow. Talking to Mommy always did that to him. He could sleep now.
The first week passed in a blur of new places and new sights.
They passed cornfields and forests and cities with skyscrapers. Daddy was wonderful. He drove and drove, never tired, never complaining. He whistled cheerfully through everythingeven when they ran out of gas just before they reached the Grand Canyon, and when the motel where they had reserved rooms in Fresno turned out to be all booked up. Nothing, it seemed, could dampen his good humor.
Or Mommy's, either. Both of them chatted with Rafi in the highest of spirits all through the long, interesting drive. But there was something almost too cheerful, too bright in their manner. It was as if they were thinking of something else all along. As if they were hiding something. Rafi found it puzzling.
But there was so much to see, and nothing, after all, that he could put his finger on. So he pushed his questions away, and told himself over and over how lucky he was. How many kids got to have a vacation like this one? None of his friends back home, that was for sure. They were just staying in the city, or else going to the same boring old bungalow colonies, or perhaps spending a few weeks in some camp. None of them were getting to see practically the whole country like this.
On the morning of the last leg of the tripthe drive that would bring them at last into vast Yosemitehe woke up in his motel room just about exploding with happiness. Even before he davened or had his breakfast, he ran to find his parents. Beaming up at them, Rafi said, "I just want you to know what I've decided!"
"Well?" Daddy prompted, raising an eyebrow.
"I've decided that you two are definitely the greatest parents in the whole world!"
His parents looked at each other, and then smiled down at him. Strangely, there were tears in their eyes. But Rafi didn't see them. He'd said what he'd been bursting to say. Now for his breakfast...and Yosemite.
His parents were subdued as they finally drove up to the huge park. But Rafi made up for their peculiar lack of excitement. He bounced around on the back seat of the car, moving from one window to the other in an effort to see everything there was to see. There was a long, careful drive up a snaky road. They asked directions of a man in a forest ranger's uniform, and found the camping grounds. It was mid-afternoon by the time they had set up their tent. They ate some sandwiches for lunch. They davened minchah.
"Want to spend the rest of the day resting?" Daddy asked. "Or do you feel up to a little hike?"
Mommy looked undecided, but Rafi needed no time to make up his mind. "A hike!" he shouted. "Come on, we didn't come all this way to rest, did we?"
At that, his parents laughed. "Okay," his mother said. "Let me put a few things together, and then we can go."
They took one of the most popular trails first, though Daddy promised that later in the week they would explore the lesser-known spots. The trail they followed took them high, high up, to a perfect view of the most amazing mountain, straight across the valley. Or rather, half a mountain! Rafi gazed and gazed. It was a huge, white mountain split straight down the middle. Rafi knew that Hashem had created many wonderful and unusual things, but this was unlike anything he'd ever seen before.
Other groups of tourists were standing around staring, too, and snapping pictures. Rafi and his parents stood together in a warm, happy silence for a long time.
"Boy, what a great park," he said enthusiastically as they turned away finally and started along another twist of the trail. "I can't decide which I like better, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon."
"The Grand Canyon was pretty grand," Daddy remarked, "and very awesome, too. Big things always are."
"I like it here, though," Mommy put in. "It's shady and pleasant here in the forest, and I like hiking."
The three of them continued the discussion as they walked along a less frequented trail that ran parallel to the valley below, and then plunged back into the green shade of the forest. After a while, Daddy looked at his watch. "It's getting late. I don't know exactly what time the sun goes down here, but it can't be that far off. What do you say we head back to the campsite?"
"Wait," Mommy said. Rafi looked up. There was a queer look on her face as she met her husband's eyes. "It'll be noisy and crowded back at the camp. It's so peaceful here. Let's...let's sit down here on some rocks...and talk."
Daddy and Mommy stared at each other a long moment. Then Daddy said quietly, "All right."
"What is it? What's going on?" Rafi asked anxiously.
"Sit down, Rafi." Daddy's voice was gentle.
Rafi stood undecided, watching his parents find places to sit on some broad rocks set beside the trail. The trees cast a darker shade now. The sun that flickered through the leaves was deep gold. It was almost evening. There were no other hikers along this way. It was very quiet.
Rafi didn't understand why his feet dragged as he approached the spot where his parents sat. He seated himself reluctantly beside them. There was dread in his heart, he didn't know why. His parents looked at him in a strange, intent way.
Mommy broke the silence. "It's been a wonderful trip so far, hasn't it?" She sounded nervous.
"Sure. And it isn't over yet." Rafi felt nervous too. What was going on?
"Your father and I have dreamed of this trip for a long time, Rafi."
"Eight years," Daddy murmured, almost under his breath.
Rafi stared. "You mean you've been thinking about coming here that long? Ever since I was born? Wow," he joked weakly, "talk about planning ahead!"
"Yes." Mommy was serious. "We've waited eight years to come here. And not only because we thought it would be a nice vacation trip."
"Why, then?" he demanded.
When Mommy fell silent, it was Daddy who answered him. "Because we have something important to tell you, son. We've planned and pictured how we'd tell you. Long ago, we decided to wait until you turned eight, and to take you someplace special. Because what we have to tell you is very special."
Rafi remembered his mother's strange words, on that last night in his room at home. You're old enough now to understand things that you couldn't understand when you were younger.... Was this what she had meant? But what was it that he was supposed to understand?
A powerful premonition of disaster fell across his heart. Something awful was about to happen. Something that would explain all the odd things he'd noticed these last daysthe overly bright chatter of his parents during the long drive; the sudden awkward silences; this solemn meeting in the heart of the forest. His knees felt trembly. Whatever it was his parents had to tell him, he didn't want to know.
He looked up. "So tell me," he said.
"Well, son, it's like this." Daddy tugged at his collar as if it had suddenly grown too tight. He glanced across at Mommy, and gave a rueful little chuckle. "It wasn't supposed to be this hard," he told her.
She smiled. "Let me."
Mommy turned to Rafi. "We love you very much, Rafi, and we always have. Ever since that wonderful day that you came to live with us."
"Huh? What are you talking about? The day I was born, you mean." He stared wildly at his parents, his heart pounding hard in sudden terror. "Don't you?"
"No, Rafi." Mommy spoke even more softly. "You see, when Daddy and I got married, we hoped and prayed to have children some day. But the doctors told us that we probably never could have any. We were very, very sad. Then we made a decision that made us so happy. We decided to take a little baby into our home, and raise him as our very own son. And that's what we did."
There was a tiny silence. Rafi felt as if something heavy had fallen on his head. Stunned. He was breathing hard, and his eyes stung. At last he found his voice.
"D-do you mean that I'm...I'm...."
"Yes, son," Daddy said, gripping his hand and patting him on the back in a kindly way. "That's it. You're adopted."
"Adopted," Rafi whispered.
Rafi saw nothing of the way back to camp. It was nearly dark by then, and they had to hurry. They had continued to sit and talk for a long time after his father's quiet wordsthe last he remembered hearing. The rest had meant nothing to him. He smiled and nodded his head like a puppet, while they talked at him. They talked on and on, his parentsearnest, serious words that bombarded his ears without making any sense. So many words. And the only one that he remembered, that meant anything to him, was the terrible one. Adopted.
Somehow, he managed to say something to assure them that it was all rightthat he understoodthat he was perfectly happy. He even managed to accept his mother's goodnight kiss, later, in his little tent. It was only after she'd gone back to the larger tent, to Daddy, that the numbness began to wear off. It was only then that he allowed himself to think.
Adopted! I...Rafi Mandel...am adopted.
It was unbelievable.
The air felt oppressively hot. He couldn't breathe. With a savage kick he threw off his blanket, rolled over and poked his head through the tent flap. Some people were still wandering around. There was quiet talk nearby, and muffled singing from somewhere at the edge of the campsite. His parents' tent was secured for the night.
Quickly he dressed himself, and slipped out of his tent. He had to move, to walk, to be anywhere but in that cramped tent with nothing but his unbearable thoughts to keep him company. His thoughts were like hovering ghosts that mocked him, and laughed at him....
He stumbled to the edge of the camp and started along a trail that led deep into the woods. He didn't mind the dark. He wanted the darkness to cover him so that no one would be able to see him, ever again. He wanted to be alone.
He felt betrayed. All this timeeight years!he'd played and ate and slept in the big, yellow house on the corner, secure in the knowledge of who he was. And all this time, it had been a fake. His whole life was a fake, a phony, hollow thing. He was not really Rafi Mandel, son of Mr. and Mrs. Mandel. He was a nameless waif, picked up at random from among a hundred other parentless babies. The people he had called Mommy and Daddy were not really his parents. They were strangers. They bore him no ties of blood. They were strangers to him, the way the nameless people in the other tents were strangers.
He didn't belong to them, not really. He belonged to no one. He was alone.
The trees thickened, obscuring the moon. Cheeps and whistles and thin cries came to him from the underbrush. He kept his eyes fixed on the trail beneath his feet, lit occasionally by a faint gleam where the moon penetrated the leaves. He belonged here in the dark, like the night creatures that lived in the woodscreatures without names, like himself.
All those times Mommy had kissed him, and held him, and soothed himall a fake. She was only pretending to be a mother, to a make-believe son. All the times Daddy had tossed a ball with him, and made him laugh at a funny jokephony! He had no father. He felt as if he would never laugh again.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed. The darkness remained the same, thick and unchanging. His feet grew tired. He felt around among the underbrush for a slab of stone, and sat. To think that only a few hours before he had sat down on just such a rock as this, beside his parents, still secure in who he was, still safe. He wasn't safe anymore. He would never be safe again. He was alone.
He must have dozed off, because he was startled into sudden, fearful wakefulness by some new sound. It wasn't the usual hidden cries of the night animals. There was a rustling back along the trail on which he'd come, and the faint, yellow stab of a flashlight. He rose swiftly and crouched behind the boulder he'd been sitting on. The steps came closer, and the beam of light, too. His mouth felt dry with fear and exhaustion.
He thought he was well hidden, but the flashlight picked him out at once, effortlessly.
"Oho, so you're here, are you? Come out, little fella, let me see you!"
He had no choice. He didn't care anyway. Dully, he came out from behind the rock and stood facing the man in the ranger's uniform. The ranger was middle-aged, with a grizzly crew cut and a shapeless blob of a nose. "It ain't such a good idea, you know, roamin' around these here woods at night. Aren't you scared?"
The boy shook his head. He was not afraid. He would never be afraid again. You were only afraid if you had something to lose. He had nothing. His life wasn't precious to him any longer. He was alone.
"No? Hmmm, brave kid. Well, looks like you've done enough moonlight hiking for the night, eh? Come on, I'll get you back to the camp. Your folks are frantic about you."
The ranger looked startled. "Eh? What's that?"
"I'm not going back."
The ranger paused a long moment. Then, slowly, he brought the beam of his flashlight up to Rafi's face. Rafi squinted. "What's the matter, kid?" asked the ranger. "Running away from home? Is that it?"
"I have no home."
"Now, what's that supposed to mean? There are two fine people back there at the camp, waiting for you to be found. Your mom and dad. They're `home,' ain't they?"
"No." The boy gulped back a sob. He was so tired. So tired.
"Leave me alone." Rafi growled. "Just leavemealone!"
The ranger looked stern. He pointed at the big rock. "Sit down, kid. You'n me are gonna have us a talk."
Rafi had an insane urge to laugh. Another talkanother talk! He'd had enough talks to last him the rest of his life. "Please...leave me alone. Please. That's all I want."
The ranger pointed. "Sit."
Rafi shrugged, and sat.
"Now then. What's on your mind, son?"
"I'm not your son."
"Huh? Come on, it's just an expression, kid. What you might call a figure of speech."
"I don't care."
The ranger peered at him. "What's this? Seems to me you got a mighty big chip on your shoulder, kid."
Rafi stared sullenly at the black trail. A thin pencil of moonlight caught a pebble, making it glitter. "I'm nobody's son," he muttered.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" demanded the ranger.
"It means," Rafi suddenly screamed with all his might, "that I'm adopted! Adopted! ADOPTED! Is that clear enough for you?"
Silence. Close by an owl hooted a question: "Who? Who?" Rafi waited. He felt empty inside. Screaming had felt good, but now that it was over, he was left with nothing. Not even anger. Nothing.
"Adopted, eh?" the ranger said comfortably. He folded his arms across his chest. "Well, I'd say you're a pretty lucky kid."
"Lucky?" Rafi snorted. "Aren't you getting a little mixed up, mister?"
"Now, now, there ain't no call to be getting disrespectful, is there?"
Rafi looked down at the ground. "Sorry."
"That's better. Now then, where were we?"
"You said I'm lucky." Again, Rafi felt a crazy desire to laugh. This was ridiculous, having a conversation about the most personal thing in his whole lifewith an absolute stranger, in the middle of a forest, in the dead of night!
"That's right. Lucky is what you are. There's heaps of little kids livin' in miserable orphanages, cryin' their eyes out and wishing they were as lucky as you. There's lots of other kids being shuttled around from one foster home to another, never knowing where they'll be from one year to the next. Yep," he nodded his grizzly head in the dark, "lucky is certainly what you are!"
How could he make this man understand? It wasn't that he didn't feel sorry for all those poor orphans. Compared to them, maybe he was lucky. Buthe wasn't the boy he'd thought he was! His whole life wasn't what he'd thought it was!
"Everything they did, everything they said to meit wasn't real, any of it!" he burst out. "It was all a fake! Don't you see that?"
The ranger tilted his head to one side, and scratched his grizzled gray scalp. "Well, I don't know about that. Seems to me I left a pretty upset pair of folks back there at the camp. Your mom was crying so hard she couldn't hardly get a word out of her mouth that I could understand; and your dad's reading something from a little black book and mumblin' to himself. I'd call that `real,' wouldn't you?"
Mommy was crying. Daddy was saying tehillim. They were frightened that he'd gotten lost, or hurt. His heart hurt. But he couldn't let himself carehe couldn't! They weren't really his mother and father. He wasn't their real son. He was adopted. He could never allow himself to forget that. Adopted.
And suddenly, the pain in his heart overflowed, and he was crying. He hadn't cried at all, before. All evening, and all through his endless hike tonight, he'd been dry-eyed and stony-faced. Now, he cried. The tears spilled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin and the end of his nose. He didn't bother to wipe them away. He just cried and cried, his shoulders heaving and shuddering.
"There, there. It wasn't easy, was it, kidfinding out so sudden, like that? But I guess your folks couldn't break it to you any other way." He patted Rafi on the back. "You go on and cry if you want to. Do you good."
Rafi didn't have much choice: he couldn't have stopped if he'd tried. After a long time, though, the tears did begin to lessen. The sobs came fewer and farther between. At last, with a final shudder, he bent his head, and was silent.
"There, that's over. Feel better now?" The ranger's calm, practical voice reached Rafi's ears and made him lift his head.
"I guess so." Rafi wasn't sure if he felt better or not. Mostly, he felt tired. He wondered suddenly why this man was willing to spend such a long time with him. Surely he had other things to do at this late hour. He probably wanted to be in his bed. Instead, he was sitting here in the woods, listening to a boy cry his heart out. It was nice of him. "Th-thanks," he said in a low voice.
"Thanks? For what?"
"Just for listening."
The ranger waved a hand. "Oh, don't thank me, kid." There was a pause. Then he asked, "You're Jewish, aren't you?"
"Well, I don't know much about your religion, but I do know that Jews believe there's a G-d, right? A G-d who makes things happen?"
"Well, if I was you, I'd feel pretty darned proud of myself."
"Proud?" Rafi echoed blankly. He narrowed his eyes to make out the grizzly ranger in the darkness. "Why proud?"
"Proud that G-d, who I'm sure has a lot more important things on His mind, took the trouble to make your family happen. To make your folks go and choose you, out of all the other kids they could've picked."
Rafi thought about that. It was true, his rebbe back home had told them so. Hashem really did make everything happen, every little thing. There was a reason why everything happened. And that meant there was a reason why he, Rafi, was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Mandel. Hashem had brought them together.
His rebbe had told them that Hashem is a third partner with every mother and father who have a baby. It's Hashem who makes families happen. So Hashem was also a partnerjust like the ranger had saidin making his family happen....
He was so tired. He wanted more than anything to lay down and sleep, a deep dreamless sleep.
No. There was something he wanted even more than that. He wanted them. He wanted his mother to hold him. He wanted his father near him.
Mommy was crying, the ranger had said. And Daddy was saying tehillim. They must be feeling awful. They were probably scared, and angry at themselves for making him so miserable. Slowly he got to his feet. "I guess I'm ready to go back now."
"Great. Just follow the flashlight, now. Watch out for those rocks. Easy, kid, easy...."
Rafi picked his way carefully. His parents would be upset if he came back hurt. He thought about his parents as he trailed after the ranger. He was tired and confused, and his thoughts came in short, disconnected spurts. He knew he'd have to take the time later to think about the whole thing more seriously. Later.
But now, following the thin, yellow beam of the ranger's flashlight, a million little memories came back. Daddy helping him with his math homework. How they'd giggled together over those slippery fractions that never came out right! Mommy watching his face as he tore the wrapping off his birthday present. Once, in the kitchen, the three of them had spent an entranced few minutes watching a tiny, rainbow-colored soap bubble that floated up from the sink and, for the longest time, refused to pop. Just as they had stood shoulder to shoulder today, the three of them, gazing at that oddly shaped mountain.
Hashem had split that mountain in half. Hashem splits things apart, and Hashem puts them back together. Hashem had put his family together.
They loved him. He belonged to them. He wasn't their real son; but in another way, he was. He'd never be the same again; and yet, he wasn't really any different than he'd been yesterday, or the day before. How confusing it all was. Maybe, in the end, it didn't really matter either way....
Half an hour later, they reached the rangers' station building, where his parents had been waiting all these long hours. The ranger handed him over with a wink and a grin. "So long, kid. And good luck to you."
"Thanks," Rafi said shyly. "For everything."
The ranger saluted, winked again, and disappeared back into the night. Then Rafi was enclosed in a warm circle: his mother on one side, and his father on the other. His family. They didn't speak; there would be plenty of time for that later. For now, they just held each other tight.
He might have been a thousand miles from home, but he knew he was exactly where he belonged.