A grandson learns lessons for life from an unlikely source.
by Marcia McGreevy Lewis
When my grandson Jake turns 13, I take him on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Luminous sunshine warms our ten days in August.
Jake is tall with a cute sense of humor and big feet. When he isn’t on a lacrosse or football field, he is on the basketball court, so I am grateful to sneak time into his schedule. He cruises through his Christian education without giving it much thought and isn’t bothered by much, except winning games. He doesn’t anticipate the challenge he is about to face.
We reach Guayaquil, Ecuador, and meet the eight grandparents and six grandkids ages, 12-15, with whom we will travel. Tight as the ages are among the teens, there are vast personality differences.
Luke, the smallest, has the biggest personality. Brad looks like he would rather tackle you than smile, but it doesn’t take long to discover how engaging he is. Natasha, 15, is a striking blonde who finds her way to Jake’s side — frequently. That flummoxes Jake enough that he encourages Liam, 15 years old like Natasha, to respond. Liam steps right up and sets the Natasha-Liam magnetism.
It happens fast. We close our first day with dinner, and afterward the teens troop off to the pool. Marco Polo seals the bonds of friendship — except with Fred, who is on the spectrum and avoids eye contact and conversation.
We are on the sun-drenched beach before heading out to dinner when I ask Jake, “Do you think the kids are including Fred?”
“It’s his own fault.”
“Fred doesn’t know how to communicate like you do.”
“He hides,” says Jake, itching to get to dinner.
“It will take some work on your part to understand what it’s like to be autistic, but for the good of the group, you might want to try.”
“The group does fine.”
“Part of the group does fine. Fred is part too. It will take the group’s compassion to integrate him. You could initiate that.”
“Why me?” Jake asks with resignation.
“Because I know what a kind person you are. At the risk of going overboard, may I quote Romans 15:1? ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’ (NIV). You’re strong.”
When Jake asks Fred to sit with them at dinner, he is there in a shot.
Our first encounter with the ubiquitous iguanas is at Simon Bolivar Park in Guayaquil. We can pet these two-foot-long creatures. Since nowhere in the Galapagos are we allowed to touch the animals, we get our fill of their crackly skin and razor-sharp spines.
The next day we head for Santa Cruz Island. We stay on different islands, rather than on a boat, so we can learn firsthand about the flora and fauna of this intriguing area.
At El Chato 2 Ranch Turtle Reserve, where giant tortoises saunter by, we learn the mandate of the Galapagos: animals rule. Tortoises own the land, sea lions take up as much space on the benches made for people as they wish, and iguanas are the island’s speed bumps. Sea lions, turtles, and penguins cavort with us in the water. Flamingos, pelicans, egrets, and herons are among the birds that abound, and yellow warblers snatch our scrambled eggs.
At dinner in Puerto Ayora, the teens improvise a poker game using napkin shreds for chips. The next day they swap the napkins for shells, and it’s game on.
Fred doesn’t understand poker, so his grandparents teach him, and the teens include him.
When they go body surfing without Fred the next day, though, Jake finds him crying. When he gets to the beach, he tells the kids, “We included Fred in poker, and now he’s crying because we left for the beach without him.”
“Why didn’t he just come?” asks Luke.
“He bugs me, too, and maybe I should apologize for pushing the issue, and but he needs encouragement,” says Jake.
“He’s a pain,” says Brad as he kicks sand into the water.
“He’s our pain,” says Jake. “He doesn’t know how to integrate. I know you guys don’t want to bother with him, but he’s part of our group.”
“You sound like your grandmother,” says Brad.
“Go get him, Jake,” says Luke, heading for the water.
Lunch on Isabela Island finds Jake and Brad having a contest at lunch to see who can down the hottest sauce. In my opinion, neither wins. Fred, who is fairly regimented in his outlook, is indignant at their childishness, evidencing who may be the most evolved teen here.
The teens, including a restrained Fred, race around the beach after lunch, listening to music and throwing sand at each other — appropriate behavior for 13-year-olds. The 15-year-olds sit on the beach chairs, amused. Too soon, Jake will be in those chairs.
Sickness at sea
Brad falls asleep on Jake’s shoulder as we cross from the Galapagos to Port Arrayo. Many of the teens get seasick.
“I had ginger tea. Did anyone else?” asks Fred of the fuzzy-eyed teens.
“Quiet, Fred,” says Brad with his head over the edge.
“Fred offered all of us tea,” says Natasha. “He’s looking pretty chipper compared to the rest of us.”
“It’s a little late now,” says Fred.
“He studied the situation. We could have done that too” are the words that emerge from Jake’s lolling head.
“Good boy, Fred,” says Brad.
Another boat takes us to Baltra Island, and from there we fly back to Guayaquil. By now Fred is chatting with the teens, and those remarkable kids include him.
“What a great group of teens,” says Liam’s grandfather.
“Their learning went beyond the agenda,” says Fred’s grandmother.
“Ours too,” says Luke’s grandmother. “We all learned from Jake how to look out for each other.”
“Not something he’d anticipated,” I say. “I think he surprised himself. He’s taken his Christian upbringing for granted, but he unwittingly drew on its depth when he needed it. He’s a stronger person than either of us realized.”
Faith in action
We spend the night in Guayaquil before our trek home. The teens cling together, reluctant to depart.
In the Guayaquil airport, Jake says, “Being here makes me realize how much of the world I haven’t seen.”
“This is just the start, Jake,” I say. “You’ll see so much more. What you did see here was that Fred needed to belong. Good job in integrating him. You learned to look past his insecurity to accept him. That led the other kids to do the same.
“You may be tired of my quotes, but here’s one that applies to you from James 2:14: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’ (ESV). You have both. I am so appreciative of the man you’re becoming. I suspected the power of your faith, but am so pleased to see it in action. Your response deepened my walk with God, and it may have done the same for you.”
“Yeah. Fred acted pretty haughty sometimes. He tried to hide how much he wanted to join in.” This delightful individual comes in an exceptional package. Sometimes they do.
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Marcia McGreevy Lewis is a retired feature writer for a Washington newspaper. She has been published in literary journals, such as Life in Lit, Freshwater, and F3LL Magazine. She has also been published in the Saturday Evening Post, Idaho Magazine, Today’s Christian Living, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and other publications. Marcia lives in Seattle, WA. Reach her on Facebook and Instagram: marcialewis25, Twitter: @McGreevyLewis, and Linkedin: marcia-lewis.