It was the eighties, and my high school BF had long shaggy hair. We were the most unlikely couple. I was graduating at16 with an advanced matriculation diploma with early admission to University and had completed the first of my two degrees by twenty years old, while working nearly full time hours as a security guard, studying between rounds. He was on his fourth round of grade 12. I went running and tried to get my friends to let me teach them my aerobics routines, he reached for a joint with his breakfast beer and sold tiny squares of hash from his mother’s basement to dozens of random strangers. But I seriously loved this boy. I wasn’t angry at my wealthy neglectful parents and exacting revenge by publicly defiling my pedigree and innocence. Neither were they rich nor was I angry. I met him at a party, and he was nice to me and he asked for my phone number, and I fell head over heels and then he stopped being nice to me, so there is that but it was too late. Today I won’t tell you about all of the not being nice that ensued and what I learned from it. Rather, I will tell you about the time he took me on a vacation to Penticton, and we went cliff diving.
Now now now, I am sure many of you know that I don’t like heights. I do not. I have never dived off a cliff, and I am not going to start anytime soon. In fact I have an entire story to tell you about the time I was 11 and I froze on the high diving board at the local pool, and the entire pool of kids rallied around chanting with encouragement and the lifeguards stood by with a large yellow noodle promising that I would not drown. Silly lifeguards I was not afraid of water, drowning or death at age 11, I was bloody terrified of falling, the wobbly feeling of the ground buckling beneath me. I could at that stage of the fear have jumped if there had been a solid stable concrete wall under foot, but I did not know friends just how bouncy that long strip of board would be until I was half way out, and realized the only way to make the world stop collapsing from under was to freeze. I think after a very prolonged period of all the yelling and gathering and kindness of strangers, sadly having the reverse effect of putting pressure and attention on my abject terror and failure to move, I did somehow eek like a tiny caterpillar, one inch at a time to the edge and flung myself through the unforgiving air into the pool without incident.
I knew better by 16 than to negotiate with heights and so I managed expectations. There will be no diving by moi I informed my BF and his posse of friends. It was already an act of bravery that I agreed to sunbathe on the side of the cliffs where the boys were jumping. Both because of the dizzying heights but also being seen in a bikini. I think my paramour was impressed that I didn’t just wait in the car. Ya, I’m badass, lol. So there I am sunbathing, a little nervously, but with some decent outcroppings of rocks to edge between me and the lake below, and enough grabby surfaces to steady myself, sipping the occasional sip of BF’s beer, when something catches my eye and then my ear. Across from our cliff, where BF and a few of his guy friends are taking turns jumping off and climbing up, is another cliff, that doesn’t look like anyone should be messing with it. Along the upper edge a few young men are scattered, fooling around, kicking rocks and passing over what is obviously dangerous terrain. I can’t truly close my eyes to relax in the beating sun, because my brain knows that I am on a rocky formation teetering on the edge of a fall to the lake, so I am peering through my lashes in a half focused haze, like a drowsy cat snoozing with one paw resting on the gun, when I see movement, an entire picture frame below the boy strangers. My eyes snap open and I sit up. And there he is, one of them who has veered off course and found himself STUCK. Not because there is a wobbly diving board beneath his feet, but because he is straddling a ridge of rock that doesn’t safely extend beyond the face or the ground at the edge of the water. Were he to jump there would be a strong likelihood of hitting rock on the way down or landing with a Ker splat in place of a splash.
At 16 I would not have told you that death was an illusion, though I may have had a strong suspicion. But it was and is one of my least favourites, as illusions go. And even worse, I have a thing about watching suffering. I don’t. I’m like one of those driven to help people, you might have figured out. But sometimes it is extremely difficult to help.
Like the day before yesterday when I was on my run and I came across a little mole. If you don’t know moles, well they are kind of like a mouse with a long nose and the cuteness factor of a hamster, if hamsters were to run free, which somewhere they must but certainly not in the icy hinterland of Alberta where we drive dog sleds to school. We don’t really drive dog sleds to school but when I went to school in the US for a year at age 12 I was asked that question often. I was also asked to use “eh” in a sentence and pronounce “math book” with my British accent. Narrator *she didn’t have a British accent. Back to moles, this mole was rolling across the asphalt running path, in very very bad danger of getting squished by a cyclist. I did not know what to do. I did not want to pick him up, in case he was a baby mole and then his mother would eat him or some gross outcome like that because of a threatening human scent. I did not want to scare him to death either, which (see my blog When I was rescued) happened in my twenties when I tried to save a baby duck. But I didn’t want to leave him suffering or to die a gruesome death, so I phoned a friend. I managed with some coaching to protect him long enough to steer him back to the grassy field. I couldn’t tell what all of the rolling was about but he seemed to have a hurt foot. More likely he was just trying to burrow back into the earth, who really knows. I called Fish & Wildlife, expecting to be laughed at, because some consider moles to be pests, and were they going to like send out an officer for something that tiny? I left a long apologetic but insistent message. I did not hear back. I strongly considered jetting out to the store to pick up a hamster cage with a view to keeping him comfy until I could get him to a better outcome, let’s just say, and if I did it again, I would do it differently. Like DUH friends I could have googled what to do and maybe tried digging him a hole to burrow back into. I have regrets. But I left him for a while on the grass while making my calls and when I came back to see how he was fairing he was back on the pavement and seemed to have expired. Gotten dead, as we say it in our family because we all need a little humour when it comes to travel in and outside of the body.
So I whispered a little prayer, you know to the god of moles about his peaceful transition out of body back into spirit, and that was nice. I didn’t pick him up because of mole disease, which might not be a thing but if it is I’m pretty sure it’s not how I want to go, and then who will pay for the children. You see?
On the cliffside in the 1980’s a young man had climbed down too low and he was stuck. He couldn’t jump, he could not get around the jutting rock face above him and back safely to the top. My BF’s friends and the kid’s friends seeing his panic began yelling at him. Not words of encouragement such as I had in my frozen dive board moments, but taunting him to JUMP!!! JUMP!!!! JUMP!!! Calling him a chicken shit. His agitation was palpable. I could see it, feel it from the distance. I yelled over them. Don’t listen to them. It’s okay. I’ll get help.
I searched the landscape for someone I could petition for help, scared to run for it lest the jeering boy crowd scare him into leaping. THERE WERE NO CELL PHONES.
I told the boys on my side to shut the eff up.
Sometimes there is only a moment. And then time (the other illusion) is up.
In that moment I tried to silence the aggression and fear.
I tried to encourage from afar.
I looked around, you know in case there was someone in a position of authority.
Someone with a rope.
I did not feel very effective.
I felt rather helpless.
And then –I heard it.
No the real Spiderman, guys. I’m not high on Easter chocolate.
The real Spiderman, like the Easter Bunny, was nowhere to be seen.
The boy began to sing the Spiderman theme song wildly, as he moved his feet with tense caution, one after the other, holding onto an edge, maneuvering around loose rock as if walking a tightrope, but with no net, and no lust for entertainment. Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can, spins a web any size, catches thieves, just like flies.
Shutting out the jeering crowd, shutting out the voice of fear.
Is he strong listen bud he’s got radioactive blood.
And up he went.
I was there with him. Holding my breath tight in my chest. Singing without breath.
Reaching for dusty rock face.
Can he swing from a thread?
Take a look overhead.
And he made it. After a slip or two. I bit my lip. I buried my face. I caught him with an imaginary rope.
My BF was not one of the yellers. Though he was awful enough in our four years together.
But he did laugh at my distress over this boy’s distress.
I didn’t think it was funny.
Kids do stupid things.
People do stupid things.
That day could have ended so much differently.
A news story. An investigation by family into the bullying of a young man in his final moments.
A mother bereft for life.
Fear is a funny thing. Not funny haha.
I’m sure those young men weren’t murderous in their intent.
I’m sure that my BF’s laughter was a coping mechanism.
Years of feelings are bad and men don’t cry, blah blah we’ve heard it all before.
But their fear response was cruel. Fear makes you weak. Don’t be weak.
They reached for safety by ridiculing.
Vulnerability was scarier for them than bloody death on a rock.
Which tells us a little bit about how some folks are going to behave in a relationship.
When they are seeing flying dirt and feeling the earth come out from beneath.
I believe one of the most powerful things we can do for those we love, those in distress, those teetering on the edge of a cliff, or a swimming pool, is to ease their fear.
It doesn’t feel like a lot.
It doesn’t feel like enough.
I mean there are times I want to have a stern talking to those a-holes that break your heart.
I want to take you home and wrap you in something fuzzy and keep you safe in hamster cage.
I want to get on my dogsled and drive all the way to your state, so I can stop them from throwing away all of those years together, because they are afraid.
But I don’t get to do that.
I will form a human shield for you while the cyclists rip by.
I will stay up late and take calls on Easter Sunday while eating my chocolate eggs and wine for dins.
I can keep it under control until Spiderman arrives at the scene. The inner superhero who is always there when we remember to sing louder than the fear.
But sometimes the minute is up.
And whatever I gave has to be enough.
Whatever we give has to be enough.
A softer ending.
A better way forward.
A hand holding your tiny mole paw, reminding you that you are holy.
P.S. If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling sometimes a few sessions of support can make all the difference. Reach out and we’ll find the solution that is right for them.
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