When I was a child, my parents would take us girls hiking in Sleeping Giant Mountain with the regularity of the devout. Weekend after weekend, without fail, we’d hike the same old wooded trails.
One afternoon, when I was maybe nine or ten, I scrambled off the trail and up a ruddy rock face. I craved a change of perspective. Why not go vertical? I liked the challenge of having to figure out where to place each hand and foot.
Did my mother call after me?
I’m certain she did.
I am just as certain I pretended I was too high up to hear her. I was higher than my Dad, and he was six foot four. That would put me pretty much on top of the world.
In my family, there was nothing more gratifying than eliciting my mother’s panicked call. The terror in her voice was always music to our ears. Typically the surest way to achieve this lofty goal was to scramble up all four levels of the “castle,” the stone tower at the summit of Sleeping Giant, and hang off the overlook as far as you dare, pretending to take in the view of far-off New Haven and maybe the distant sparkle of the Long Island Sound.
This particular rock face was at the base of the mountain, yet already I’d managed to stoke my mother’s fear of heights. Most excellent. I’d beaten my sisters to it. I half expected they’d be scrambling up after me, ostensibly to set things right.
Let them try.
It wasn’t all that easy, scaling a rock face. One false move, one careless grasp on a loose rock, and my little sibs would go tumbling down. Only I had the courage, only I had the brain power, only I had the grip…
Time slowed down for this humbling event, just as obstinately as Time speeds up for ice cream cones. Once I lost my grip, I didn’t bother to grab for an anchor to break my fall. I tucked in my chin, and curled up in a ball.
My highest priority was to protect my eyeglasses. By the tender age of nine or ten, my unassisted eyesight was already vague and amorphous, kind of Van Gogh Starry Nightish, but without all the detail. My eyeglasses meant everything to me. They were the essential component for both my physical survival and my complete social annihilation. This was the 1970’s. The fashion—I am using this term loosely—of the day embraced the notion of ‘bigger is better’ for eyeglass frames. This notion was wrong. Flat out wrong. But no matter how patiently the ophthalmologist explained that choosing bigger frames would result in thicker lenses, I adhered to this misguided trend. As a result, the lenses of my eyeglasses were easily half an inch thick along the edges, which meant my peripheral vision was absurdly distorted. Even with the distortion, seeing through glasses as better than seeing hardly anything at all. So no, I wasn’t about to lose those odious looking glasses. Not in this fall.
Down I tumbled, curled up tight, and tucked myself in with all of my might. I rolled over rocks, roots and mosses alike. What was a little bump…or a big bump…a little scrape…or a tear…just so long as my glasses were spared?
I was not the type of child to tumble down a rockface and let a pebble go unnoted. I must have registered every indignity allotted to me on my journey down. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally found my feet after my fall…and discovered I had somehow lost my glasses in the process.
Now that made me sore.
My father was crowing, “Congratulations! That was perfect! You really know how to take a fall!”
My mother was cooing and pulling the leaves from my hair. I wasn’t looking for praise, or even consolation. I was looking for my glasses.
“Where are my glasses? Has anyone seen my glasses?”
My sisters sprang into action, vying for the chance to save the day. My mother plucked my glasses off a sprig of mountain laurel. I snatched them out of her hand, and immediately tried them on. There was a scratch on the right lens.
“There’s a scratch!” The lens would have to be replaced. I had failed.
My father said, “One lousy scratch. And only on your glasses.” I didn’t understand. Shouldn’t he be upset? He’d have to pay the optician. “You’re gonna do well, kid. You’ve got what it takes. The trick to getting through life is knowing how to take a fall.”
In the sixteen years since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my parents have since seen me face many a fall.
Scaring Mom just isn’t fun anymore.
I can offer my parents one consolation. They can think back to that afternoon on Sleeping Giant. Their oldest daughter knows the trick to getting through life. They can be certain I know how to take a fall.