I’ve never been able to adopt a cavalier attitude when it comes to heights. Ladders have always been a challenge to me. Back when I was in College my family lived in a small one and a half story house. I came home one day to find the doors all locked and myself without a key. I remembered my father mentioning that you could get in through the upstairs window which was accessible from the porch roof. I stood there weighing my options and finally decided that the porch roof wasn’t really all that high. I was reasonably certain that I could manage to get up there and climb through the window. Besides, the prospect of standing around in the yard until someone came home didn’t hold much appeal.
I fetched the ladder from the shed and carefully leaned it up against the eaves trough. I was halfway up when I realized I probably should have set the base of it a little further from the wall. It didn’t feel at all secure but I told myself it was likely my nerves that were making everything wobble. I gritted my teeth and kept moving upward one agonizing rung at a time. When I managed to crawl onto the roof it was with considerable pride in the accomplishment. Then I attempted to get the window open and discovered that it wouldn’t budge. I struggled with it for a good ten minutes before I gave it one final frustrated thump and ungraciously conceded defeat. I made my way back to the ladder but one look at the ground below convinced me that there was no way on earth I could bring myself to step out onto that precarious perch. I was going to have to wait it out after all. How humiliating! I spent the next two hours pretending that I’d climbed up there deliberately to get a suntan and do some cloud watching. I determined that from then on I would leave the roof to the birds and squirrels and keep my own feet on the ground. I wasn’t counting on eventually having a son like Jason.
I tried very hard in later years not to communicate my fears to my children when it came to heights. I must have been a little successful because Jason has always loved to climb. He was only in Grade 1 when he climbed the tree beside our house. When he got near the top the tree bent over just enough to allow him to jump onto the roof of our porch. Unfortunately, as soon as he let go it sprang back into its former position which was quite out of reach. He was trapped on that porch roof just as I had been on that long ago day when I failed miserably at my one and only attempt at breaking and entering. When his brother, Daniel, came to tell me what happened I had to fight to disguise my rising anxiety. I couldn’t let it get the best of me this time. There was no one else to do what had to be done. The only ladder I could find was a step ladder that was nowhere near tall enough. I pasted a smile on my face and climbed up to the top step. I was going to have to let go and reach up with both hands to where Jason sat waiting for me to rescue him. It just didn’t bear thinking about. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when one of your children needs you. I even managed to appear reasonably calm and matter of fact in a performance that should have won me an Oscar. At least Jason came out of the whole experience with no emotional baggage.
Eventually he got a job as a roofer to pay for his College education and I did my best to be supportive. Unlike me, he was completely at home on rooftops. He liked to entertain us at the dinner table by recounting some of his more hair-raising experiences on the job. Those stories convinced me that it was probably best that I couldn’t actually watch him at work. Hearing about a slide down a steep pitch when you’re sitting safe in your own home is much easier than watching it happen.
“Don’t worry Mom,” Jason reassured me. “We’re wearing a rope.”
I tried to imagine it. “What do you tie the rope to?” I asked.
He never batted an eye. “We tie off to each other and work on opposite sides of the roof.”
I froze, my fork poised halfway to my open mouth.