Falling Off a Bridge
My childhood … I suppose I had to go there. For the sake of my memoir, if nothing else. This one is about one of my earliest memories, and nearly my last: when I had a small misunderstanding with a tall bridge.
This one costars my mother via email — completely without her permission, I’m realizing at this late hour. I don’t know if she wanted me to share our conversation so publicly. Stay tuned for the blog where my mom rakes me over the coals for this.
It also depicts my late father from a less than a happy perspective, although I will vindicate him with realizations in a future piece. We all do our best with what he have to work with.
Meanwhile, my misunderstanding with the forces of gravity began . . .
One of my earliest and fondest memories is the day I almost ended my already short life. As usual, I was trying to catch up with my sisters—a recurring theme in my life that I’m still dealing with today—running after them on a walk in the park with my parents. I realize now that I was too distracted before and after the event to pay the actual tragedy much mind. Nor was I much aware of the minor miracle that helped me survive it.
From my Mother’s email on February 2nd, 2010:
“Great Falls, Maryland – a beautiful park on the edge of the Potomac, near the C. and O. towpath – where there is a large area of rocks and waterfalls. There is a path that leads thru the woods, over some rocky ravines by way of a walking bridge, and on to the rocks that border and overlook the river. We were all there – the [older] girls were running ahead (I don’t think Jim was with us-just a baby) – and you were running, too. When we got to the bridge and started across, you tripped and started to roll. It happened very fast. You were over the edge and hanging on with just your hands. Your Dad moved so fast I was amazed. He was in good shape then and strong. He grabbed your arms and lifted you right up and back on the bridge. I looked down into what looked like 15-20 feet of ravine – rocks below. The fall would have killed you. You were very young – probably around 3-4. The whole thing happened in less than a minute – but it could have been a disaster. Not long after that, and the next time we were there, they had installed wire along the sides of the handrail – it would not have happened if that wire had been in place before. I am sure the memory has triggered some nasty nightmares and a fear of falling. It sure gave me the creeps for a long time.”
I was a child dangling from the edge of a bridge, my tiny, weak three-year-old hands somehow miraculously holding me from certain death, rocks and white water visible miles below my tiny feet. I believe any normal person would have earned a healthy case of acrophobia to share with their therapist from this, but somehow the death-by-great-heights issue fell off the bridge without me.
The truth is that I have had no nightmares at all. I love heights. Tall buildings, cliffs and bridges excite me, while climbing lofty antenna towers and flying tiny airplanes were among my simplest pleasures.
The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Instead of discomfort when I recall my near-death experience, the memory only seems to warm my soul. It only took my father’s premature death and a long spell of tearless mourning on my part to figure out why.
My Mom’s reply email on February 25th, 2010:
“Interesting that you are not afraid of heights – I hate them. Remember when we went up on the cable car in New Mexico? I nearly died of fear that day. I don’t like tall ladders even. Maybe my mother dropped me (or threw me – I wouldn’t have put it past her). I am glad you can do all these things and continue to be active and try new stuff.
“The wire on bridge ??? – I am not sure what made them add that. I imagine your father told someone what happened. He was pretty upset – it was a near thing.”
To think that my father was upset for me… I could sit for hours racking my brain and completely fail to remember a time when my father was ever remotely excited to talk to me, or had a significant conversation with me. It was a habit he completely failed to break himself of the rest of his life. But at that moment in my life, after the wrench in my shoulder as he pulled me up over the lip of that bridge, I saw the look on his face. It was the most emotion I had ever seen in my father’s face.
It was concern. For me.
I’m not sure, but I think I held onto that memory—the look on my father’s face—holding it far above the significance of the near-tragedy, because it was such a rare and awesome thing for me. I’ve held onto that moment the rest of my life, because it was not soon to be repeated. Perhaps I might have gotten used to it, this absence of my father’s attention, except for clues that this was not business as usual for my father.
My mother, once more on the subject, March, 3rd, 2010:
“As for your father, I don’t think his inability to relate was particularly aimed at you. He was not very good at “relating” to anyone, really. He was busy with his own interests and I don’t remember that he was really very fatherly with any of you. He was not at home much and often went out in the evening by himself. Hanging around playing with us was not really his thing. We had Fran for that, thank goodness – he filled many spaces in our lives. I miss him, and Eleanor, too, very much. “
She may have a point. My siblings and I were well into adulthood, sharing fast food in a plastic booth, when the subject of relative age came up. We were all shocked to realize that both of my parents were barely seventeen when they perpetrated there first big “mistake”, culminating in my oldest sister. Neither of them were ready to be parents, especially when three more mistakes happened in the next six years. I guess my father took it the hardest, but he still did the right thing, in practice: he married the first woman he had ever been with, despite his libido, and stuck around.
But did he take out his regrets equally on everyone?
I remember playing in my father’s driveway on one of our post-divorce visits. I was probably eight or nine. My father was happily talking to Russel, the neighbor’s kid, while he had spent the last hour with me without so much as a word. Fast-forward to my adulthood, visiting with my brother or sisters at their homes. When he was there he became easily enthralled with their life, their families, while openly stoic about my own. I envied this attention and acceptance over the interim of years, wondering what I would have to do to earn some for myself one day.
It was not to be.
He died weeks before I had finally planned to talk to him openly about it. I’ve since realized what an anomaly I was on his radar. My shyness around him was not the culprit, as I’d often assumed. That was merely a symptom of the differences he may have gleaned about me, but not understood. How can I blame him if it took so many years to understand my own idiosyncrasies (i.e., my queerness). By that time my father was gone, my original plans to talk to him would have been premature anyway. And would it have made any difference to him?
I’ll never know. I only hope that wherever he is now, understanding went along as part of the package. But in life, my father and I never really knew each other.
My grandfather—my dad’s dad—was another story. He always believed in me, seeing me more for my intelligence and potential in life than the way I looked or acted. He and my grandmother took me in for a year after I graduated high school. He was the one who played chess with me every night, pushed me to find my career during the day, talked to me about my intelligence and potential in life. Like my mother, I remember him as a intensely positive force in my life.
My parents parted ways decades ago. So to hear my mother say she misses her in-laws after all this time is to find out something I never knew about her. It makes me realize that instead of regretting a connection I never made, perhaps I should be getting to know my mother a little better—while she’s still in a talkative mood. =)
We now return you to our regularly scheduled program of silliness and current events. Please exit the memoir to the right after it comes to a full and complete stop. Thank you for riding around in my addled mind. Come back soon!