We were guests at a Memorial Day celebration. Children ran around laughing and playing, and adults sat chatting and sipping cool summer drinks. Curiosity captured the crowd’s attention when a huge truck backed up the long, narrow driveway. As everyone watched, the drivers got out, adjusted some mechanical gadgets, and slowly raised a huge, portable rock wall.
The kids swiftly lined up to give it a try, and with the complete fearlessness most children possess, scrambled to the top and rang the bell of success. There wasn’t really anything to be afraid of since they were all belted into place, and three people could climb side by side and talk to each other, so gradually the adults tried it, too.
“Come on; let’s go get in line,” Neil urged. “No, you go ahead without me.” I had all sorts of good excuses: I don’t have the right shoes, I forgot my sunglasses, I have to help the hostess, but as I watched everyone else having fun, I gradually convinced myself to try it.
With all the nerve I could muster, I started the climb. The belt wrapped around me like a diaper so there was no way to fall. Yes, I thought, this is fun and safe! Concentrating on each foot and looking closely at the wall’s indentations in my path, I slowly made my way up. I specifically avoided looking down just to prevent any sudden panic and within a few minutes I made it to the top and proudly rang the bell.
“Woo hoo!” My daughters called up to me. “Way to go, Col!” Neil yelled. I enjoyed my success and the fabulous view of fields and farmland until I realized there was a line below me waiting for a turn. It was time to go down.
Oh dear, it was time to go down. It was one thing to look out at the world in the distance, but it was a whole other thing to look straight down at see how high I had come, and I was paralyzed with fear. I willed my hands to let go of the ripples in the wall but I couldn’t move them. I slowed my breathing and decided to work on my feet first. I wiggled my right foot, trying to find a safe hold without having to look. I couldn’t find one.
This is ridiculous, I thought. You climbed up, now just reverse the whole process and go down. It sounded so easy in my head. Taking another deep breath, I looked ever so slightly to the right. This time I spotted a foothold about three feet away and slid my foot into it. Unfortunately, now I was splayed out like a starfish across the wall. The children below recognized my fear and called up all sorts of recommendations.
“Move your right hand down three inches!”
“No, move your left foot first!”
“Just hold the rope and jump. You can’t fall!”
All well intentioned advice, but the fact remained. I couldn’t move.
I heard some commotion below and then suddenly Neil was next to me on the wall.
“Hi,” he said. “Need some help?”
“I don’t see how you can help. You can’t carry me down and I can’t move.”
“Of course you can. You just need to stop thinking about how high we are.”
“I know that, I just can’t do it,” I whined.
“Ok, then let’s just sit here and chat for a while,” he said. “Did you have any of that spinach dip? It was delicious.”
“Yes, it was good, but I really liked those honeyed melon balls.”
We chatted about the party for a few minutes, and then he said,” Col, brush that fly away from your head.” Without even thinking about it, I did, and the instinctively reached out for a different ledge to grab. I smiled, realizing that, of course, I could move. Over the next 15 minutes, Neil talked me all the way down, step by step. “Move your left foot a little to your left and then look over your shoulder. You’ll be able to see the apple tree.” Reach about six inches to the right and you’ll be able to see the kids in the yard blowing bubbles. So it went, and with each step he pointed out something lovely to distract me.
By the time we got to the bottom I felt great. I wasn’t anxious or stressed; in fact I was calmer and more peaceful than when I started out. It was great lesson in mindfulness. Concentrating on being stuck on the top of the wall paralyzed me from being able to move on. Focusing instead on all the good things I could see along the way down connected me back into the moment and distracted me from my fear.
In her book, “Healing After Loss,” Martha Whitmore Hickman tells a story about a young boy. Faced with the outpouring of food and kindness after his father’s death, he remarks, “There are so many good things, and only one bad thing.” I think about that story a lot since Neil died. I can’t let the one bad thing obscure all the good things.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I still feel paralyzed with grief and fear, but then I remember the day on the rock wall. I bring myself back to this one moment and treasure the blessings in it. Once I enjoy that single moment, I take a step into the next one, and discover the blessing there. All I need to do is take one step at a time, just like climbing down the wall. You can’t look to the bottom or you’ll lose sight of where you are. You can’t look back to the top, or you could lose your footing. You simply concentrate on where you are and then move to the next foothold, the next moment. And look around, because even when there is one bad thing, there are still lots of good things.