Truth and Precipices

I'm not a big fan of heights. Sometime I will lay in bed at night and imagine myself on the ledge of a skyscraper so high, I can barely make out the people and cars below. The thought of this sends a surge of adrenaline through me that forces my eyes to pop open. Honestly, I don't know what scares me more, the sight of my bloody body splattered on the pavement like a human paint-gun pellet, or having no control over the inevitable after I've fallen off. Either way I wouldn't classify my aversion to heights as a full-blown, debilitating fear.

At the Army's Airborne Training Course, you can count on heights; it's kind of the point. For two weeks you do nothing but perform gazillions of push-ups, roll around in sawdust and fling yourself off apparatuses that get progressively taller each week, all in preparation for the culminating event: jumping out of perfectly good airplanes for no damn reason. Simply put, if you plan on graduating from the course, then plan too on overcoming your fear of heights because whether you want to or not, someone with a very powerful voice and a very large boot will be there to help you with this problem. Consider them as a sort of therapist.

Airborne School is where I encountered my first real test with heights. It was during a session on the thirty-four foot tower. It's a half-bungee cord, half slide-for-life contraption that catches students after they simulate exiting from an airplane fuselage mounted on the top of the tower. Thirty-four feet doesn't sound too bad looking up; thirty-four feet looking down at the ground is a different story (actually, it's about three), which is why I hesitated before I leapt, turning me into a flailing mass of arms and legs as I fell ever so gracefully. The Airborne Instructors said (yelled) that I looked like "a dope on a rope having a seizure," and they made me repeat the jump over and over and over. They did this, not just to ensure that I would get it right, but also to force me to trust the equipment meant to keep me safe. Once I developed that mentality, flinging myself from a plane twelve-hundred feet up was a breeze--literally. Sometimes, though, people don't always have that assurance when they need it.

During 911, I remember watching news footage of a guy trapped on a burning floor in one of the Trade Center towers. The news anchors tried to disguise their lament before erupting into hysterics as the man slid out onto the twisted metal and started to climb down the side of the building. For the next forty seconds, I think everyone watching that broadcast cheered harder than they ever had before, hoping this brave guy would somehow make it to safety. Sadly, however, he slipped. As I followed his descent, it was hard not to wonder what was going through his mind as he fell. An intense lingering sadness came over me, and I could only console it with the thought that at least he tried to do something. If heights terrified him, he brushed that fear aside choosing to scale the wall rather than let his fate be determined by the flames.

For me, my aversion to heights is rooted in what I alluded to earlier about the loss of control, and it's an issue that's been churning in my brain of late. Right now there's a lot of negative circumstances impacting my kids--circumstances my wife and I have no control over, and despite our best efforts, we can't prevent them. To some extent, it feels like people are standing on a tall ladder and dropping our fine china while we scurry back and forth, diving to catch as many tea cups and saucers as we can to prevent them from shattering on the floor. Yet for every acrobatic save we make, the people on the ladder keep dropping plates, faster and faster.

My wife and I realize we will never be able to dictate the situations that impact our children, but it's frustrating when these situations have nothing to do with the kids and yet they have to deal with the fallout anyway. It's this frustration that forces me to contend with a different loss of control, namely in how I react.

No parent can stomach seeing their child hurting, which is why an angry lump forms in my throat when I meet with the therapist, and we strategize methods for helping my stepdaughter to cope with the self-centered decisions and manipulation inflicted on her by the adults in her life who are supposed to be watching out for her, not themselves. It's the same lump that chokes me when my ex-wife uses the boys' wellbeing as her excuse for not letting them stay with me for the summer; meanwhile, I can hear the desperation in their voices over the phone as they ask when will we see each other again.

These are the moments when I find myself at the brink. With everything in me, I want to explode on these people. I want to grab them by the shirt and show them the truth of what they are doing to my sons and stepdaughters. I want to scream at them. I want to pound my fist. Freed by the justification to protect my children, I want to step off the edge of the cliff and let fly in their direction my every thought and emotion.

But sliding my foot forward, I kick a few pebbles into oblivion, causing me to question whether or not this is the best way to handle things. Will letting go result in me making a big bloody mess on the sidewalk? Is this a situation where I just need to trust my gut and step into the breeze? Or should I crawl out onto the wreckage because it's better to do something rather than nothing? Sometimes it's hard to know what you're jumping into, and sometimes it's hard, knowing what you're jumping into.

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