The idea comes to Milt in the middle of dinner: they should each say one thing they are grateful for that day. “It can be just a little thing, like, ‘I’m grateful Mom made my favorite potatoes,’ or ‘I’m glad it rained.’” Milt has read that, with deliberate practice, gratitude will make a person happier.
Tina is grateful that the breakroom vending machine was fixed. Finally, a diet coke!
Their younger son, Georgie, is grateful for Harry Potter. He wants a friend like Hermione, but so far none of the girls in his 4th-grade class are Hermione material.
When it’s Ricky’s turn, Milt bites his lip.
Ricky shrugs. He guesses he’s grateful for Call of Duty – it’s taught him how to be a better killer.
Milt is grateful for the family therapist, who has assured them that Ricky says outrageous things to test them. “Just don’t take the bait,” he’d said.
The next night, Ricky is grateful that Jacob Morris shared his weed with him in the bathroom.
Tina puts her fork down. “Are you serious?”
“What? It’s legal.”
“Not for 14-year-olds.”
Milt knows he will say all the wrong things, so he is grateful when Georgie interrupts. “You idiot. You’re wrecking your brain.” Georgie tells them he’d read all about the teenage brain in The Scientific American. He’s worried that when he turns 14, he’ll go weird and crazy, too.
“You’re already autistic,” Ricky shouts. “Can you get any weirder?”
“You’re grounded,” Tina says, stabbing a piece of roasted chicken. When she glares at Milt, he realizes he’s supposed to say something.
“No TV, no internet, and come directly home after school.”
Ricky smirks. “Whatever.”
Milt watches his son take his plate to the sink. At least he didn’t leave it on the table. At least he didn’t break it. Milt is beginning to understand gratitude. Notice the small things. That’s the key.
The next week, Ricky is full of gratitude: for the fire alarm, which went off “mysteriously” three times in one day; for the geriatric substitute who was so out of it he didn’t realize kids were vaping in the back row; for Susanna Rocha, who sat one seat diagonally across from him giving him the perfect side view of her rack; and for Mrs. Fadiman’s cancer – she’ll be out for the rest of the year, so from now on they can kick it in English class.
During these moments, Milt keeps his expression flat, placid as a pond in summer. Think of the sun setting, he tells himself, think of snow falling, fish cutting water, leaves falling, anything to keep from slamming his fist onto the table, which is what his own father would have done. Milt is determined to be better – do better.
The problem, Tina tells Milt privately, is that they need to say two grateful things, and end with a wish, a hope for the future, so that Ricky, who might be depressed, at-risk, Borderline, Oppositional Defiant – who even knows anymore – will see all the possibilities of life.
That night, she goes first. “I’m grateful for this family and for the three-day weekend. I wish we could spend a week at the lake.”
A week at the lake? Tina’s wish disappoints Milt. Twenty years ago, she would have wished for something grand – a Parisian getaway; or something adventurous, rafting down the Colorado, hiking the Grand Canyon. But can he blame Tina, he asks himself as he considers his own wishes and the way life has diminished what he once thought was possible.
Georgie reminds them about the flesh-eating bacteria in the lake, and the mutant, three-legged frogs hiding in the reeds. He wishes he could have a Hippogriff so he could fly away.
Ricky has nothing to be grateful for, not one single thing, but he does wish that Georgie would shut the fuck up about Harry Potter already.
It’s the way he says “wish,” the word oozing disdain, that undoes Tina. Tears well and spill over, and Georgie, who doesn’t understand tears, yanks and yanks his hair until Milt wraps his arms around him.
“Apologize!” Milt shouts, but Ricky only leans back, arms crossed. That smirk again! Milt wishes he could slap it off Ricky’s face, shake him, force him to apologize, to be sincerely sorry, but he has been in therapy long enough to know that he can’t force Ricky to do anything. He has more power over the family goldfish, who after a week of training, will follow his finger around the rim of the bowl, in exchange for a speck of food. Or maybe the goldfish has trained him.
They stop doing the grateful thing at dinner. Over the next few years, it will be all they can do to sit together, the four of them, without someone making a scene. But as Ricky gets worse, far worse than Milt could ever have imagined, gratitude will come to Milt at unexpected times.
It will come to him at Ricky’s hearing in the juvenile court. After the judge delivers his verdict – two years – in the few seconds before shame and guilt take up permanent residence in his chest, gratitude will flood through Milt. Two years when he doesn’t have to worry if Ricky will sneak out, steal the car, or worse, hurt someone again. Ricky will be someone else’s responsibility.
Later, when the woman Ricky paralyzed sends a letter, Milt will tremble as he reads and rewords her words. Every night, she prays for God’s love to enter Ricky’s heart. And though her husband believes Milt and Tina should have hidden the car keys, considering Ricky’s history, she doesn’t blame them. Anyone could see they were exhausted. She is a Quaker and forgiveness is part of her spiritual practice. Milt will start the first of many letters, none of which he actually sends, but that all begin the same way: “Dear Rachel, Thank you so much for…” It’s how he finishes the sentence that changes: for not hating Ricky, for not blaming us, for understanding, for your kindness.
But sometimes gratitude will elude Milt. When he picks Ricky up at the detention facility for a trial weekend at home, Ricky’s shaved head will shock, and then anger him. Had Ricky become a skinhead? A Neo-Nazi? On top of everything else they’d already endured? He thinks about canceling the whole weekend, but then he remembers that Georgie spent the last week making a Welcome Home, Ricky sign and he doesn’t want to imagine Georgie’s face if he pulled into the driveway alone.
On the quiet drive home, there will be a pale half-moon still low in the sky, and to Milt’s surprise, Ricky will point to it. “Haven’t seen the moon in so long.”
Milt will wait for Ricky to reveal more, and when he doesn’t, Milt will consider telling Ricky that, in a burst of excitement, he and Tina and Georgie drove 200 miles just to watch the lunar eclipse, the three of them huddled together in the sudden darkness. But he decides against it. Ricky doesn’t need to know that they carried on without him, that they’d kept on living. Milt will stick to something neutral – how they repainted his bedroom a soothing baby blue.
But his son, his eyes fixed on the horizon, will hold one hand up. “It’s Rick now.”
Maybe if they kept their communication simple, to nouns and pronouns, they would understand each other. Or maybe they could go back to the baby signs Tina had taught Ricky so that he could tell them what he wanted instead of screaming. Cat, dog, milk, hug, more. More, his favorite sign. He’d always wanted more. He’d wanted things he couldn’t have, like the moon. With his adorable, chubby finger, Ricky would point to the moon and then to himself – moon, me, moon, me. “One day you can have the moon,” Milt had promised, as Ricky settled into his chest those long-ago nights when he couldn’t sleep.
Ricky had been a good baby – Milt is glad to remember this now. And Milt had been a good dad, attentive, loving, full of wonder at everything his son did.
Then, he will remember something he’d forgotten. On another night, Ricky had reversed the order, pointing first to himself and then the moon: me, moon. Me, moon. “Oh! You want to go to the moon?” He pretended to launch Ricky into space, lifting him high over his head as Ricky giggled. More, Ricky signed, more! This time Milt made the sound of an engine revving. “Blast off!” he shouted, swinging Ricky up and down again, and pretending to catch him an inch above the ground. “We got close that time, didn’t we, buddy?”
Ricky’s signing was almost frantic – more! More! More! And Milt was happy to comply, higher and higher he lifted Ricky, even as his arms began to ache.