FALLING Jill Christman
FALLING Jill Christman
Leslie Jill Patterson Interim Editor
Katie Cortese Senior Managing Editor
Meghan E. Giles Managing Editors
The Long Story 2021
Jennifer Buentello Jacob Hall Maeve Kirk Sara Ryan
Associate Editors: Timilehin Alake, Emma Aylor, Caleb Braun, Emma Brousseau, William Brown, Jay Culmone, Andrew Gillis, Elizabyth Hiscox, Emerson Kurdi, Marcos Damián León, William Littlejohn-Oram, Courtney Ludwick, Brook McClurg, Zachary Ostraff, Catherine Ragsdale, Valerie Wayson, and Lauren West.
Copyright © 2021 Iron Horse Literary Review. All rights reserved. Iron Horse Literary Review is a national journal of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. IHLR publishes three print issues and three electronic issues per year, at Texas Tech University, through the support of the TTU President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Graduate College, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department. For more information, visit www.ironhorsereview.com.
There are so many ways to fall. We fall from trees, off cliffs, and out of favor. We might fall for a trick or down a rabbit hole. We free fall into nothing, and all too often we feel as if we have fallen short. We fall from grace. Sometimes we fall and we can’t get up—like a beetle on its back, or a drunk. After my first baby was born, I experienced such a tremendous fall of hair, I feared I might go bald. Our faces might fall or our weights on the scale, as might our stocks and our rankings. Our faces might fall after our stocks fall—in that order. When we are delivered the worst news, we fall to our knees. Have you done this? I have. The knees simply lose their capacity to bear the weight, the horror, and we fall.
Henry. My boy. He was always falling. In my dreams, night after night: Henry falling. The falling became a pattern, a trope. When I closed my eyes, I knew what was coming, but I never knew how to stop his fall or where to stand to catch him. I never caught him.
Before Henry fell over twenty feet from the sugar maple, I had watched him plummet dozens of times in my nightmares, sometimes waking with the jolt of impact, feeling the jerk of his limbs in my own bones, sometimes seeing his broken body, unmoving, far below, and sometimes losing him altogether, the fall taking him down a tunnel or into black open air, the denouement of the dream all searching and running and screaming, Henry Henry Henry, until I kicked myself awake in sweaty sheets. In my Henry-falling dreams, there were only three possible endings: impact, breaking, or gone. When Henry fell from the sugar maple in his yoga teacher’s yard, because I’d seen this horror so many times before, I didn’t really know as I watched my son—falling falling falling—whether I was dreaming or if it was real. Or how Henry’s fall would end. He was eight.
Half a year after Henry fell, on June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold climbed the 3,000-foot sheer wall of El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. Gearless climbing—without, say, bolts stuck into cracks to provide a finger hold or a safety rope to catch you if you fall—is called free soloing, and Honnold is considered the best in the world. Because free soloing is the most dramatic kind of climbing—one slip on one day and you’re dead—he’s probably the most wellknown climber in the world, even though, as he’d be the first to tell you, he’s not the best climber. Honnold is playing a game few others want to play. When I was in my early twenties and deep into my reckless period, I used to hang out with river kayakers, big water, and I thought running rivers was scary. Back then, I thought my lean, tanned, muscled friends who lived out of their Subarus and had as many uses for a carabiner as a dance mom has for a safety pin were bold—and I wasn’t wrong. But I’ll tell you what: my kayakers, with their Class V runs over waterfalls with the kind of hydraulics that could hold onto their boats forever, rip off their helmeted heads, or spit them out to live another day, had nothing on these guys. Free soloists are another breed. Free soloists—more rock lizard than human—smear themselves up miles of granite cliff, and then, some of them leap over the edge in BASE-jumping wingsuits, deploying parachutes at the last minute and hiding in the woods from the rangers. Sure, you might clip a tree or another cliff edge on the way down and die, but if you don’t die, what a rush. What a quick trip to the ground. People do this. Every day, people do this. And sometimes they die. During my brief but intense obsession with people who choose to engage in sports that might kill them, I found a skydiving site that reported one death per five hundred wingsuit jumps. Not jumpers. Jumps. Those strike me as pretty poor odds for those people who would don a suit made of ripstop
nylon—a kind of high-tech flying-squirrel costume—and soar as high as eagles. And yet, since wingsuit jumping is illegal in so many places, I’m skeptical of the study’s capacity to track accurately the true number of jumps and, thus, the death rate. Watching a documentary called Valley Rising on the history of rock climbing in Yosemite, I learned not only that early climbing communities were real boys’ clubs (shocking, I know), but also that the first ascent of El Cap was completed in 1958 and took climbing pioneer Warren Harding and his team of merry men forty-five days over the course of eighteen months. The trip up was so long that Harding’s mother roasted a Thanksgiving turkey and sent the greasy bird up on ropes. There was much cheap red wine in gallon jugs. If you’ve never been to Yosemite but you have been to New York City and you need a visual for the route on El Capitan that Honnold scaled, picture two Empire State Buildings stacked skyward, foundation to antenna. In feet, that’s three thousand—or over half a mile up into the sky. You really have to crane the neck of your imagination. At a certain point, thinking about an extreme this extreme is like trying to comprehend numbers as big as the national debt or the distance to Neptune. Really far, really big, and really fucking high. And the most efficient—albeit illegal—way to get down off the summit once you’ve made your way there is to put on your bat suit and jump. As climbing technology, speed records, and communities in Yosemite shifted and evolved, ascents of El Capitan became so typical that a climber could run into traffic on the way up. Because everyone knew that the National Park Service rangers were on the lookout for illegal jumpers, flyers tended to make their jumps under the cloak of darkness or at least in the crepuscular light when their descents would be more difficult to track. Because of the need for guile, I’m guessing the number of jumps is way higher than the records show. Still, you won’t catch me in a wingsuit anytime soon.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Is it because I wish I took greater physical risks? Because I want to be the kind of mother who belays the climbing rope of life out a little farther for my over-protected children? Or simply because the capacity for a human being to overcome the natural fear of falling captivates me? Scaling the impossible, defying gravity, wingsuits. What do these climbers want? Do they crave that natural injection of adrenaline to the heart? Do they need to go a little higher and faster each time to get that rush? Like addicts, do they reach a point where nothing is high enough to give them what they need? Do they want to be superheroes? Something better—or just different—from plain old human? Or—and honestly, in my heart, I think this last one is probably closest to the truth—do they feel the most alive when they are walking the knife-edge of death? In the end, before the end, are they trying to make something beautiful?
I’m sitting on my back deck in the ridiculously flat state of Indiana, sipping that first morning cup and nudging words into sentences with my fingers. It’s summer, and we’re going to get a scorcher, but for now there’s cloud cover, and the daddy cardinal who’s made a nest with his much more subdued mate is on the highest of the power lines strung across our yard, overseeing both his redbud and the dogwood tree we planted a decade ago when our two big dogs died—the first of bone cancer and the next, soon after, of a broken heart. The cardinal is raising a racket: a rich, round, insistent whistle that repeats eight or nine times and is quite unspellable. Now another cardinal, a few yards over, sends back his reply, and—wait, listen—a third from the other direction. My boy on the wire with his red crest glowing against the green redbud and blue sky is one bird away from a barbershop quartet. He’s shivering with song: red on green on blue. Blue sky! In just the time it took for me to write my whistling cardinal, the clouds have divided, split the flock, and headed off for bluer pastures. Next door, the guys replacing the siding on my neighbor’s house have arrived. Her mother, Doris, died over the winter, and Kathy’s sprucing up the place in her grief. I have a puppy, a five-month-old Border Collie Australian Shephard mix, who holds up just one ear when she hears the hammering begin, but, like me, she keeps her eyes on the bird on the wire. Maggie is the only dog I’ve ever had who routinely looks up. When a plane buzzes over, she first raises an ear, then her nose, and then she follows the plane with her eyes until it disappears over the tree line. I find Maggie’s aspiration for something above and beyond her own beloved yard endearing. All this to say: I am sitting solidly in one chair with my feet on another, running my fingers over the keys of a laptop so old I’ve worn off the letters a, s, d, f, e, and n. My coffee is gone. I just swallowed down the final tepid dregs, letting the few grounds that snuck through the filter sand my tongue.
I feel perfectly alive trying my hardest to make something down here on the ground, and yet, like Maggie, I have my eyes trained on the wire. We all need something.
When Henry fell, my husband Mark and I were there, having arrived in separate cars but both pulling up at the side of the yard with the tree at about the same time. Kids’ yoga had ended, my class was about to begin, and Mark was there to bring the kids home. This was supposed to be an ordinary afternoon. After my own class, I would arrive home to the kids hanging out on the couch, the smell of Mark cooking dinner, a regular Sunday evening, together and safe. I swear I don’t take these moments for granted. I’ve been paying attention. I know everything, anything, can be undone in an instant. I remember. What I don’t know is how we all live with that knowledge every day.
A lot of people say I don’t feel fear, or that I don’t fear death, but that’s just not true! I have the same healthy hope of survival as everybody else. I don’t want to die. At least not yet. [Laughs] I think I just have more of an acceptance that I will die at some point. I understand that, but I don’t want to baby myself along the way. I want to live in a certain way, which requires taking a higher degree of risk, and that’s acceptable to me.1 —Alex Honnold
In dreams, when I need to scream because someone is trying to get me or one of the kids—some bad guy I need to scare away—I am notorious, alone-inmy-dreams notorious, for opening my mouth and having no sound come out. I fight for sound. I push air from my diaphragm, and all I get is a whisper or a gasp. Never a noise that will save anybody. But as I watched Henry fall, I don’t even remember wanting to scream. I don’t remember any soundtrack except my feet in their useless clogs crunching the leaves on the ground. I didn’t scream, but I did try to run, and the running was like dream-running. Running and getting nowhere. Running with cement shoes. Running in too much gravity, all of us being pulled toward the center of the earth.
Henry fell on the Sunday after the 2016 election. Donald Trump, a misogynistic reality TV personality with strange orange skin, no record of public service, and what appeared to be narcissistic personality disorder, had been elected to serve as the 45th president of the United States. Nothing seemed real. Into this dystopian political landscape, Henry fell, and when he fell, I didn’t scream. None of us did. Shari, the yoga teacher, stood unmoving under the tree, her face turned up and her arms folded across her chest. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but later she would tell me that she was talking to him the whole time, telling him not to hurry, to think about every step, but that she wished she had told him to kick off his flip-flops and come down in his bare feet. She was worried about the flip-flops, heard the unattached rubber shoes sliding on the bark, but she was trying so hard not to scare or distract him. When she’d come out of the house after yoga, he was already in the tree. Really high, she told me later. Really really high. I knew what she meant by that. Too high. Fall-and-don’t-survive high. Nobody screamed when Henry fell. Not Shari, the teacher. Not Mark, the father. Not me, the mother. Not Ella, the sister, who was up on the platform, facing our direction, watching her parents arrive, and therefore missing what Mark and I saw from our vantage point, fifty feet away: Henry falling.
Alex Honnold knows what he’s doing. On the morning of the El Cap ascent, he ate his oats, flax, and blueberries in his white van, a mobile base camp, put on his favorite red T-shirt and started climbing up into the pink light of morning at 5:32 am.2 With him, Honnold carried two pieces of equipment: sticky-soled climbing shoes and a bag of chalk hooked to his belt. Climbers need dry hands. Just thinking about that bag of chalk and why it was there makes my own palms sweat. Just shy of four hours after he’d curled his fingers into the first grip, Honnold pulled himself over the lip of the summit and stood under the blue sky. He had made it. He had defied possibility and made history. He was the first climber to free solo El Capitan. The granite cliffs of Yosemite must have looked amazing from up there, under the blue of the midmorning sky, and if Honnold believed in God, he might have given God a nod at that moment—a nod to the wonder that was the world spreading out beneath his climbing shoes, a nod to the fact that a guy like him, a skinny guy in a red T-shirt with a bag of chalk tied to his waist, could make it so high and live to tell the tale—but Honnold does not believe in God. Honnold believes in careful planning and meticulous training. Honnold believes in his muscles. He believes in his mind. He probably looked out over that breathtaking landscape, fully in possession of his own breath, and felt good: good to rest his arms and fingers, good to know he’d done something he’d been training to do for years, good to stand at the top. And then he might have thought, Wow. That was rad. What’s next?
Years ago, my mother rolled off a roof. The one on our house in the mountains. Three miles from the nearest paved road, off the grid. No phone, no cell phone. She was considerably younger than she is now—closer to my age, late forties—and she has always been daring, but she was alone, nailing shingles on a roof on a house in the woods where no one would hear her scream. The roof had a steep pitch, designed to encourage heavy snow to slide off in winter. Now it was summertime and the roof was dry, but my mother slipped, and as she slid inevitably toward the edge of the roof, she had what seemed like a decent amount of time to think about how she probably shouldn’t have gone up on the roof when she was alone and how she might prepare herself for the fall. She would stay loose, she decided, try to land on her feet, bend her knees to absorb the impact, and then roll out of it—all of which she did, and you know what? She was totally fine. I’ve done some research, and it turns out that my mother got it exactly right: stay loose and land on your feet if you can, and then roll roll roll. Fall like a drunken sailor. Fall like a cat who’s been hitting the catnip. “Stay loose. That’s the best way to fall,” I schooled my kids. “Just like Grammy did when she rolled off the roof.” “Ooh,” Henry said, “can I go up on the roof?”
I got that wrong. One person screamed when Henry fell. Henry screamed. Not while he was falling, but a few long seconds after he hit the ground. Henry’s scream was a herald of life. He wasn’t dead or even unconscious. A glorious sound, this screaming, but also horrible—an animal scream, a scream of pain.
I study Honnold’s face in the National Geographic photo, his olive skin against the red of that favorite T-shirt and his deep, calm chocolate-brown eyes. He is looking up: eyes focused like a monk in meditation, completely without fear, completely in the moment. Where will he put his hand? And then the other hand? And then foot, foot, hand, hand, foot, foot, and on and on, up the side of the mountain, always looking up up up. He knows exactly. Every move is rehearsed and memorized. Up up up. There is nothing but the climb. Honnold didn’t tell his mother before he made the climb, and before I began my own ascent into Honnold curiosity—what makes this guy, this antithesis to everything I feel in my own bones, tick?—I imagined him calling his mother right afterward. “Good morning, Mom. Are you having a good day?. . . Yeah, awesome. Great. Yeah. I’m so stoked. I just free soloed El Capitan. I’m the first, Mom.” And I imagined his mother might have stopped breathing—and then begun again. But now I know that climbing is simply Honnold’s life. Climbing is his job, and his mother trusts him. Neither mother nor son is possessed of a dramatic disposition. I’ve also learned that my what-does-your-motherthink thought is a top-three interviewer question for Honnold and his mother and that they are both completely bored by the fear projected onto them by the rest of the world, by mothers like me.
Would he be really alive, the way he is now? Or would he be biding time, like so many of us? Dying takes many forms. So does living. The hard part is recognizing them. —Dierdre Wolownick, Honnold’s mom
I love the sound of rain falling on a tin roof. The temperature can fall—as can my daughter’s hair over her eyes when she’s feeling shy. Darkness frequently falls, only rising when there’s evil going down in a place like Middle Earth or on the planet Naboo. Light and tides both fall and then rise again. A gaggle of geese might fall all over themselves to get to scattered grain. A group of girls might do the same with boys in a band. To protect someone else or ourselves, exclusively metaphorically (I think) in modern times, we might fall on our swords. I’ve baked cornbread and felt dismayed to see it fall apart. Emotionally, I have been known to fall apart. Psychologically, too. That’s life. Things fall apart, right? I’ve had cakes fall—you really shouldn’t stomp around outside the oven—and jokes fall flat. But I do not fall behind on payments. I am careful that way. When we first moved to Indiana, there was no daylight savings, but now our clocks spring forward and fall back just like most everyone else’s. It seems to me that in literature things are forever falling from lips: crumbs, wisdom, confessions, secrets, crumbs of wisdom, you name it.
Shari’s yard is a wonderland for boys—sprawling flower beds with rocks for jumping, a huge garden, mature trees, a train track running right behind the little woods, even a house for chickens—but all Henry sees is the tree, the biggest one. Before yoga that day, Henry had been excited to climb the tree to the platform, which is not exactly a tree house, but not exactly not a treehouse either. It’s a platform made of 2x4s and rough planks, about fifteen feet from the ground, with a square cutout in the center that frames the tree’s trunk but allows enough room for a child to squeeze through and clamber up onto the platform. A month after Henry fell, I asked Shari to tell me the story of the platform in the tree. She has lived in that house for nearly thirty years, and when she bought it, the maple was there, though much smaller and surrounded by spirea bushes. Shari told me that she’d had a second husband, a carpenter, with whom she could never really make a home—not at his house and not at hers: “We never could figure out how to be real partners.” One day, when they were in “the beginning of the good-bye years,” the carpenter came to Shari’s house, where her grandson was playing in the yard. He backed up to the maple with a truckload of wood and built the tree house. The carpenter didn’t ask permission, and Shari didn’t stop him. All that Saturday, he measured and cut, screwed and nailed, while the grandson played, and Shari wondered what was going on: What was he doing? Was he trying to make the marriage work for real? Would he build the garage she actually needed next? Not having been there, I can’t speak to the significance of this act, but Shari tells me it was loaded: He wasn’t himself a biological father, and this was his way of saying he was good-for-something. But I’d like to point out that the tree house was never finished. In fact, it’s generous to say he built a tree house. He built a platform fifteen feet up the trunk of a giant tree. No ladder, no walls, no roof.
When he finished that afternoon, the carpenter asked his yogini wife what she thought of the tree house, but she didn’t give him the approval he was seeking, and she didn’t feel grateful. This, she knows now, was the beginning of the end. She told him: “Well, I just hope no one ever falls out of it.” Until Henry, no one had.
The mothers I’ve known who’ve lost young adult sons knew the worst was coming. Shari is one of these mothers. For years, she watched her son Kai falling. She tried everything: tough love, gentle love, all the kinds of love in between. After the pleading and the yelling, the giving of support and the withholding, the trips to rehab and the late-night pounding on the door, her son moved beyond reach. He was either going to save himself or he was not. They had reached the point in their cycle of saving and losing where she knew the next fall might be the last. Sometimes, she told me, Kai would stand under her window at two in the morning and toss pine cones up to ting against the pane of her second-story bedroom window. “Mom, it’s your boy! It’s your boy down here.” When I was twenty, I was engaged to a boy who was twenty-two. His name was Colin. After he was killed in a freak accident—a backseat passenger in a work van, as seemingly random as tragedies come—his mother told me that Colin had told her the month before that he was going to die. He’d wanted her to know, and she had shushed him, told him he was wrong, but just to hedge her bets, had added that he should be careful, drive slowly, take precautions. Colin, she reported, had shrugged. His approaching death was a fact he wanted his mother to know, and indeed, after the accident, she had taken some comfort there, I think. He had known, and he had been okay with it. Even later, I learned that Colin had told my mother, too: Take care of her when I’m gone. From me, he had kept his secret. When my friend Sheryl St. Germain lost her son Gray in the year after Henry’s fall, she wrote a book of poems in the freshness of the grief she’d long feared was coming. In The Small Door of Your Death, I read these lines from “Christmas 2013” and could not breathe: He’s no longer a boy, but a young man with eyes that ask to be left alone.
I’m driving him to his apartment after two days of cooking, movies, holiday cheer. I don’t know, Mom, he says suddenly, through tears, what will become of me. The mothers I’ve known who’ve lost sons to any kind of fall will think about their lost sons every day for the rest of their own lives. I don’t know what those thoughts look like from inside their mournful brains. I pray I never have to know, and even having that thought feels like a failure of empathy, but I cannot stop the prayer—not that, please not that, not my son.
On the day Henry fell, it was fall. He fell in fall, the season for falling. I know the time exactly, just a few minutes before five, because that’s when the kids’ class ended and mine was to begin. The sun was approaching the horizon, and the light was golden. The moment could have been perfect—yellow, sunlight, air, yoga, family, tree—except Henry was way too high. He was wearing a white T-shirt that used to belong to his sister. She’d printed jagged designs on the front with a potato one summer in art camp. The white made him visible when I stepped out of the car and scanned the yard for him and, seeing no Henry, looked up and saw a wiggle of white in the tree. I knew about the potato prints of color, but all I could see through the gray branches and yellow leaves was the sparkle of white, like a flag of surrender, moving down. The tree is a beauty. A maple, the kind you might try to hug but not be able get your arms even halfway around. Her leaves were turning yellow, and she was wearing a skirt of those she had dropped, spreading in a bright buttery circle around her gray trunk. She didn’t mean to let Henry fall. I imagine she tried to hang on. What happened that day was an accident. I don’t blame the tree or the teacher or Henry. I don’t even blame myself, exactly, although I have thought a lot about how I might have prevented the fall. Now I am always thinking: How can I prevent the next fall? On that day, Ella and Henry had been Shari’s only students. They’d had a quiet class. Just the three of them doing cats and cows, warriors of every description, bridges, boats—and trees. If your tree feels sturdy, maybe you want to grow some branches. I imagine the maple tree was all Henry could think about while Shari led them through the poses. It’s okay if your tree sways in the wind. Swaying is how we don’t break. He loves that tree, and he loves to climb.
I don’t think being afraid ever crossed his mind. Ever since he started climbing, if he could find a branch above—something to grab, a foothold—he wouldn’t look down, only up, only up to the next branch of possibility. As if he doesn’t even think of what’s below him. Only what’s above.
I try, I do, but I can never forget about falling. Thus, no mental exercise can bring me inside Honnold’s mind. After the oats, flax, and blueberries—which I can imagine—and the red T-shirt—okay, fine—I can’t make the leap to that yearning to climb. Where does he feel it? In his mind? His heart? Or maybe a kind of tingling in his fingers and toes? A feeling that says: go up, go up, go up. This feeling takes him to the places as unnatural as any place a human could choose on this planet—say, over three thousand feet up El Capitan, the height of those two stacked Empire State Buildings, without a rope. Go anywhere, the amygdala screams. Do anything, but not that. Where does Honnold keep his instinct for self-preservation? Does he lack that instinct or is this other desire, the need to climb, that much stronger?
I am terrified of heights. My natural fear of death by plummeting is strong. Before my children were born, I was afraid of the multi-story escalators at the Mall of America. I’d grip the sliding handrail and think how easy it would be to vault over into all that empty, glittering air. My intrusive thoughts were comprehensive: I would imagine myself all the way down down down, and then join the other horrified shoppers as they gathered around to view my broken body, arms and legs unnaturally akimbo, unmoving. “I’m not afraid of heights,” I had explained to Mark, “but I am afraid I might jump.” And Mark shook his head at me. “Honey, that’s what being afraid of heights is.” Oh. After Ella was born, my fear got worse. When she was two, we took a trip to Louisville. Our hotel was an Embassy Suites. Honestly? Hilton people, what are you thinking? Have your lawyers failed to explain liability? Our room was on the top floor. We took the glass elevator up. A glass elevator?! We whooshed past the parrot in its cage and the trunks of the tropical trees growing in the atrium until we could see their tops. Up and up and up we whooshed, until the tops of the trees shrank to the size of mop heads. And when the doors of what Ella called “the alligator” slid open, she took a few toddling steps onto the carpet, just feet from the railing, and I snatched her up, clutching her to my chest and sliding along the interior wall where the doors to the rooms were. Across the column of open air, across certain death, I could see some big kids leaning over the railing, calling down to their friends far below. Sweet Jesus.
The fear of falling, like that of loud noises, is classified as one of two simple fears—in other words, we’re all (supposed to be) born afraid of falling. We can see this innate fear in babies when they first learn to crawl. I once watched a PBS special with footage from a baby lab: experimenters encouraged their baby subjects to crawl along a countertop covered by a black-andwhite checked cloth—so, babies in onesies crawling on long checkerboards—and the babies were pretty chill until the testers replaced a section of the counter with plexiglass so the crawling babies could see the drop to the floor. Some of the babies would reach out a tentative hand and test the glass, and some of the babies would just sit back on their diapered rumps and wail. Precious few babies took the crawl across the glass. The babies would stop crawling at the edge of their countertop precipice and scream. Next, the experimenters tried kittens: the kittens clustered in a mewling pile as far from the plexiglass as possible. Finally, they tried baby ducks. The ducks waddled happily across the gap. Ducks can fly. There’s no reason to be afraid. If I could fly, I might be able to free solo El Capitan. I mean, if I happened to be living in a body with the strength, skill, and inclination to do that kind of thing. It’s a lot of ifs.
Next to Shari’s sugar maple, there’s a makeshift slide with a wooden teepee frame and ladder. Getting onto the platform in the tree involves climbing this structure and then making a pretty big stretch to pull yourself through the hole around the trunk and up onto the platform. Once on the platform, all the giant tree’s generous branches are within reach. Before this year, Henry wasn’t tall enough to make it from the slide to the platform, so we had to listen to him cry in frustration as the bigger kids made it to the platform, but we didn’t have to worry. This day was different, Shari told me: “When I realized that Henry was not in the house, I stopped mid-sentence and got my shoes to go out. I saw him at the top of the tree from the back door. I was afraid. I walked to the edge of the yard and said as quickly but quietly as I could that he should make his way down very slowly. I said, Think about every step, and he said, Why?” By the time I pulled up in my car and saw that flash of white T-shirt that I knew must be Henry, he’d been on his way down for some minutes, and he was still halfway up the tree. He had been at the top of the tree? Holy. “I’m really sorry that your little boy fell from my tree. I feel as though I should have known how to prevent it.”
Nine months after Henry fell from her tree, Shari lost her thirty-one-yearold son Kai. His heart had stopped beating, and she got the call she’d feared would come. Her son was dead.
Some days, I feel so afraid. I realize I’m plumbing the extreme, but if Honnold can send away fear from higher than birds, shouldn’t I be able to raise a couple of kids without the constant feeling that I am trying to swallow my own heart? Honnold is a climbing machine. Physically, he’s as lean as a weasel, as taut as a wire pulled between two towers. Studying photos, I notice his toes. They’re crazy long, finger-like, as if they could hold a pencil or cling to the edge of a cliff. A pencil width is sometimes the entire depth of his next hold when he’s climbing. His van is outfitted with a special cliff simulator for doing pull-ups—two arms, one arm, just the fingertips. For someone whose flex-arm hang during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test stands as my deepest elementary-school humiliation, this level of ninja-like agility and strength is fascinating, but if we line Honnold up with the other elite climbers in the world, what sets him apart? Physical training is a thing that can be done, but it’s Honnold’s brain that makes him the best free solo climber in the world. “With free soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way,” he said. “It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.” I just set it aside and leave it be. When I read this alone in my room, I snort. Just set it aside. Oh mother. Could it come down to physiology? Scientists have scanned Alex Honnold’s brain, and it’s true: his amygdala—the corner of our brain that leaps out of those brain shadows to shriek, Get away from the edge! You’re too close! It’s too high! You’re going to fall, you crazy fool!—is small. What of mine, I wonder? Is my amygdala bulging? Crowding out the other, more rational, parts of my brain like the nervous chubby girl at the lunch table I once was?
Henry had fallen before. He had a history of falling. When he was one, he was running for a rusty metal whirligig, the kind the big kids hang onto, spinning faster and faster, until someone falls off or vomits. This one was empty and still, but Henry was new to self-locomotion, and running headlong—in the that way toddlers do, always a millisecond from tripping—he lost purchase when his foot hit the deep groove worn into the packed dirt by decades of running feet, then lurched forward, and caught himself with his forehead on the rusted rim. There was much blood, and, later, a generous smear of medical glue to hold his scalp together. He pulled a similar stunt a year later on the corner of the living room rug, tripping and plunging forward into the sharp corner of the end table. Instinctively, he held his hand over the wound, covering his left eye, eyebrow, and part of his forehead. Thick deep-red streams of blood ran from between his small fingers. It was like a horror movie. I was certain his eyeball had been punctured and that when we pulled back his hand, we’d see something ghastly. At first, we weren’t sure. He couldn’t open his eye. Too much blood. But when we wiped the gore away with a cloth, we found, to our great relief, that the gash was at the top of his eyebrow and the blood was running into his eye, not emerging directly from it. He escaped with a half-inch scar, hidden in the scruff of his eyebrow. All blood, nothing broken. “Head wounds bleed a lot,” my brother-in-law, an emergency room doctor, assured me. Just the year before Henry fell from the tree, he tumbled down the entire flight of wooden stairs at our house. Fresh from the bath, wet and slick as a seal, he slipped. I was downstairs, and I saw the flash of pale skin from between the bannister rails, heard the thumping of flesh and bone, and waited for the scream. He was totally fine. We couldn’t even find a bruise the next day.
He said he had ninja rolled. No problem. “Why do you have that look on your face, Mom? I’m fine.” Henry’s older sister, Ella, has never had a significant fall that any of us can remember. She’s cautious. Always has been. Poor thing. She’s her mama’s girl to a fault.
When you experience hunger your body is giving you a signal that you need to consume food, but you set that aside and eat when it’s convenient. But with fear it’s fight or flight, your pulse quickens, your vision narrows, and you’re like, oh my god I’m feeling fear, oh my god, oh my god, and then it cascades out of control and you lose your ability to perform. So why can’t we set our fear aside like we can with hunger? —Alex Honnold
Why indeed. Then again, when I’m hungry, I eat.
Here’s something weird. Since Henry fell—so far, and for real—I have not dreamed a Henry-Falling dream. Not one. I suppose my conscious brain is doing the work, and my unconscious can take a break. Naturally, I looked up falling on a dream interpretation site and learned all the usual meanings: falling dreams signal that the dreamer is feeling somehow out of control, vulnerable, or overwhelmed. You think? Join the party, fallers of the dream world. But I wonder, what if the dreamer isn’t the one falling? What if the dreamer’s boy is falling? What if he is always out of reach? What then? And as soon as I ask, I hear my friend Pat’s voice in my head: Everybody in your dreams is you. Everybody. Even your fourth-grade teacher. Even the dog with his paw caught in a trap. Even that kid who looks exactly like the boy you named Henry. I can never quite wrap my mind around that concept. I’m working on it. Still, the dreams are gone, vanquished by Henry’s real fall or by all the attention I’ve given to falling since. The fall didn’t change Henry. He is not afraid. When he finds a good climbing tree, he climbs as high as my fear allows. Sometimes, I turn around so I can’t see. I let him go as high as I can bear, and then I just can’t. “That’s high enough,” I croak through the crack in my fingers. “Mo-om!” he always yells down to me. “Mom! This is not high.” “High enough.”
In the tense hours after Henry’s fall, when the emergency room was triaged until basically the next day, we decided to wait it out at home and get X-rays at the orthopedic center first thing in the morning. We didn’t yet know what injuries Henry had sustained in his fall, and we were trying to keep him comfortable. His right leg was hurting badly, and he couldn’t put weight on it, but his head seemed fine. His back seemed fine. Henry has an incredibly high pain tolerance, so it was hard to tell. He seemed kind of sore all over. We set him up on the couch with pillows and gave him a couple of Tylenol and some juice. He wasn’t hungry. I handed him the remote and told him he could watch TV, anything he wanted. Despite the fact that this kind of electronics carte blanche is practically unheard of in our house, Henry flipped around the channels without interest, his mind somewhere else, his lips sealed. “Oooh!” I said enthusiastically, pointing at the menu on the screen. “What about Treehouse Masters?” All three of my family members’ faces swiveled toward me as one face, horrified and disgusted, but only Mark spoke: “Are you crazy? He doesn’t want to watch Treehouse Masters.” Right. “Oh, no. No. No! Oh my god. I’m sorry.” All evening, I Googled feverishly and texted with my sister’s ER doc husband, and the latter, who is typically chill, reported that anything over ten feet was too high. “Bring him in,” he advised. Of course, it all depends on how you land. People fall out of chairs and die all the time. Henry’s head never hit the ground. I watched him fall, and his head never hit the ground. That night, I woke him every few hours to ask if he had a headache and to check if his pupils were dilating normally—he didn’t and they were. Nevertheless, it was a long night.
Henry’s orthopedist told Mark and me that if we had fallen as Henry had, we would have been laid up for a year. Compared to brittle, old grown-ups, Henry virtually bounced. He was on crutches for a mere two months (forever in kid time), but still, after the first day, he never even asked for a Tylenol. That morning, the X-ray we viewed together at the orthopedic center that morning was otherworldly and strangely beautiful, the glowing white of Henry’s pelvis looking like a luminescent butterfly or a supervillain mask, the outside edges arching upward and into a point before meeting with the straight run of the femurs and heading down into Henry’s legs—both of which were unbroken. The pain was coming from a break in his pelvis, a straight line all the way through the bone on the bottom of the butterfly’s wing.
Many people use the words ‘death defying’ or ‘death wishing’ when they talk about wire walking. Many people have asked me: ‘So do you have a death wish?’ After doing a beautiful walk, I feel like punching them in the nose. It’s indecent. I have a life wish. —Philippe Petit, wire-walker
By the time we left the orthopedic center the day after Henry’s fall, it was almost lunch time. As we drove home, I could see Henry’s face in the rectangle of the rearview mirror. He looked intense and depressed. “Are you okay, little buddy?” “Yeah.” “Does it hurt? Do you need some medicine?” “It’s fine.” Gritted teeth, blank expression. I could feel the adrenaline of the previous eighteen hours calving into the streams of my veins and going wherever adrenaline goes when it’s done helping us survive. “Let’s go to McDonald’s and get you a Happy Meal! Would you like that?” “Sure,” Henry said flatly, as if I’d suggested we stop at the grocery for some broccoli. Henry, I thought, Henry, are you in there? The magic bag, which all less-than-perfect parents such as myself turn to in times of trial, crumpled in Henry’s hands in the back seat as I pulled into a spot and cut the engine, peeling back the plastic nose on my coffee and shoving it into place so I could take a slurp through the triangle. What a day. Out loud, I said, “I need to relax. Phew! You’re okay. We’re okay. It’s all okay. The most stressful part is over.” From the back seat, something in Henry blew wide open. “The most stressful part?” he yelled. “The most stressful part?!” Whatever he’d been storing up since the fall was coming out now. “The most stressful part was over as soon as I was done falling. When I was falling through the air, that was the most stressful part.” I was looking at him through the space in the seats. He looked small back there with his new crutches, holding a single French fry in his fingers like a
tiny wand. He pointed the fry at me and let his words sink in. Without realizing I was doing it, I’d been making Henry’s fall all about me: my fear, my stress, my near-miss with unthinkable loss. And here was Henry. Right there. Since the fall, he’d been uncharacteristically quiet, almost wordless, shaking his head yes or no. Does this hurt? What about this? Close your eyes for me. Okay, now open them. Swallow this. Are you okay? How are you doing? Are you okay? “He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Mark kept saying. “Leave him alone.” “Oh, buddy,” I said, reaching through the seats to touch his knee, “that must have been really, really scary.” “When I slipped and fell, I thought, Oh no, but then I hit the wood and thought, Oh good, and then, Please don’t roll off, please don’t roll off, please don’t roll off, but I kept rolling and I went over the edge and it seemed like I was in the air for a really, really long time. Way longer than it seems like it would take to fall.” “Oh, buddy.” I wanted him to keep talking. He was breaking my heart. I knew what he meant about the time he was falling seeming like a really, really long time. “Did you have time to think anything else? When you were falling?” “I don’t know. I was just thinking, Pleasepleaseplease. Because I didn’t know what would happen when I hit the ground. I didn’t know what would happen.” “Oh, buddy,” I said again, “that’s so scary.” “Yeah,” he said, pulling the chicken nugget box out of the bag and popping open the cardboard lid. He looked me right in the eye. “Yeah,” he said, “it was.”
Even now, I play the fall in my head like a video, with the push of a brain button. Henry is still in the tree. Shari stands below him, arms crossed, looking up, talking to Henry, coaching. Through the yellow leaves, I can see Henry’s white T-shirt moving down, making steady progress. When the shirt is ten feet or so above the platform, I see a flash of white lurch downward, jolt to a stop as if caught on something, and then free fall. All of Henry emerges from the branches and leaves, all of him plummeting down. The thing I have dreamed so often—Henry falling—the thing I have prayed would never happen, the thing I told myself is just my fear, not reality—is happening. Right in front of my eyes. Henry slipped, lost his footing in his sliding shoes, caught himself for a moment with just his fingers, but he couldn’t hold on and fell again. He fell, but oh glorious day, he hit the platform. Maybe it’s over. A broken arm or sprained ankle, but maybe the fall is over. The fall is not over. Having fallen so far, Henry’s body has too much momentum, and now he’s rolling. He’s on the platform, but he’s still going. He’s rolling and rolling, and I’m praying he’ll find a handhold or a place to hook his foot, but nothing, nothing stops that roll. Now he’s on the edge. I can push pause in my mind. Rewind rewind rewind. Is there anything we can do to keep him there on the edge? Ella still stands on the platform, only a few feet from where Henry first hits when he falls, but she’s looking in our direction. Is there anything we can do to give her time to turn around, realize what’s happening, throw herself onto her belly and grab his wrist? But there is no rewind, and now we are in super slo-mo. Henry is over the edge and in the air. Falling falling falling. Time? Gone.
Space? Gone. Henry is in the air, we are watching, and we don’t know if the next thing to happen will end Henry’s life. We don’t know what will happen when he lands. I can’t get to him. I am stuck in a wrinkle of consciousness. Finally, Henry is on the ground, and Time flicks on her switch. Mark and I are moving again, really moving, and we fall to our knees by Henry’s body. Henry lies on his side, head up, pushed forward on the palms of his hands. Our first miracle: in the fall, his head never touched the ground. He lifts his chin and lets out a scream, a wonderful wail: “Aaaaaaa! My back! It hurts!” No. Not his back. Please, not his back. Henry’s hand moves toward his back, perhaps to touch where it hurts, but he is distracted by the pain in his hand, which he now brings close to his face. “My hand! My hand hurts. It’s my fault. It hurts!” Holding his hand in front of his eyes, he opens his fingers, stretches, a blossom opening. The screaming stops, and we all take a breath. Shari is standing over us. Ella is making her way down the ladder. Another friend pulls up to the curb for yoga. “My leg!” Henry screams. He has found his deepest and most real pain. “My. Leg. Hurts.”
Like the yogini and her carpenter, we can fall in love—and out again. Voices fall, usually into whispers. In moments of shame, shyness, or chagrin, eyes fall. On a bad day, we might fall into a trap or in error. On a tragic day, soldiers fall in battle. A political party can fall from power. Whole cities fall! Deals fall through. People sometimes fall into line or on hard times. There are so many ways to fall on one’s face. Bad girls fall, or so I’ve been told. But falling doesn’t need to be so hard or bad. Walking along the coast with our bare toes in the sand, we might notice that the shore falls away into the sea. Or my birthday might fall on a Saturday this year right after some amazing opportunity falls into my lap. In falling, fundamentally, we move from one state of body or mind or existence to another, suddenly and involuntarily. To fall is to change. Fast.
Would he be really alive, the way he is now? Or would he be biding time, like so many of us? Dying takes many forms. So does living. The hard part is recognizing them. —Dierdre Wolownick, Honnold’s mom
I think of Philippe Petit and his crazy dream to put a wire between the Twin Towers in New York, a dream he dreamed when he saw the architect’s sketches in the newspaper from halfway around the world in his native France—before the towers were even built. As Honnold would do at the base of El Capitan forty-three years later, Petit began his walk just before dawn—before the heat of the sun and before workers clocked in at the towers, a time of such beautiful, muted light, a time of possibility. Have you seen the 1974 footage and photographs of twenty-four-yearold Petit on his swaying wire?3 Petit’s cable, buffeted by wind gusts as he’d known it would be, stretched two hundred feet between the two towers and 1,350 feet above the streets of New York. He crossed not just once, not just to get to the other side and get his name etched into the record books, but eight times. For forty-five minutes, Petit played out there on this wire—he played, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of New York City. Fearing, at first, a jumper, police were dispatched to the tops of both towers, but what were they supposed to do? Run out onto the wire and arrest him? While Petit walked, the cops waited. Petit would come dancingly close to the edge, flirting with the waiting officers, and then he would pivot, moving farther out, above the open air. Down on the street, a crowd gathered, pointing and marveling and aghast. Who is this crazy man? But also: Look. Do you see? Are you seeing this? My god. How beautiful. How impossibly beautiful. Petit wore all black for his performance, including a form-fitting shirt with a plunging V-neck that exposed a triangle of pale flesh at just the point where Petit’s heart beat the steady joy of a dream unfolding. Everybody else was terrified and acting out their fear—the police threatened to
loosen the tension on the wire or send a helicopter across the wire to pluck him from it—but Petit was unafraid. He played on his wire. He walked, he danced, he grinned. He lay down with his pole across his chest, and his arms stretched straight out as if he were nailed to a cross. At one point, he hung by his heels. And he was not afraid.
Before falling comes slipping, and doesn’t everything in this whole troubled world feel slippery these days? I am forever struggling to get a grip. I’m down here on solid ground trying to hang on, trying to make something beautiful. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the news that, right after car accidents and poisoning (a category which includes overdose), we are all statistically most likely to succumb to a fall—we’re not made for this falling, we breakable beasts of bone and blood. Remember the old Sesame Street classic, The Monster at the End of This Book? The one where “lovable, furry old Grover” tries everything to prevent the reading child—who was me, over and over again—from turning the page? Blue hair spiked with anxiety, Grover ties pages with rope, nails pages shut, smears mortar between bricks, throws the entirety of his shaggy, loosearmed body across the corners of the pages to prevent the reader from making it to the end of the book and being confronted by the titular monster he fears will eat us all up when we arrive, together, at the end. Grover’s dialogue appears in speech bubbles and pops with color. Grover’s solution to fear is to not see it. He wants the thing that scares him—that monster at the end of the book—to stay at the end of the book, and he wants us to stop turning pages. As his anxiety rises, Grover’s fear sometimes looks like anger. The battle is between Grover and us page-turners now. Grover is consumed by fear for the thing he cannot see but believes is waiting to consume us. He doesn’t know what will happen at the end, and he is terrified. He sweats, he begs, he covers his eyes and freezes in his fear—and then? “Well, look at that! This is the end of the book, and the only one here is . . . ME. I, loveable, furry old GROVER am the Monster at the end of this book. And YOU were so SCARED.” This essay is that book. Soon, we will arrive at the last page. I am Grover. I am forever looking outside of myself, outside of my children, for the thing
that will come and get us in the end. Ah ha! I call out to the universe. I see you! You tree, you cliff, you wire strung crazy high between two buildings. I want the danger, the next fall, to be external, something I can see. I want to pull my children back from the edge—but I am the monster at the end of my own book. The keeper of my own fear, I am my own greatest menace.
There is no ‘why.’ When I see a beautiful place to put my wire, I cannot resist. When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk. —Philippe Petit, wire-walker
Henry’s fall from Shari’s tree didn’t make him afraid to climb trees, but every year since, he has grown more afraid of judgment and failure. Ella, ever vigilant, takes her anxiety right to the jugular: she is afraid of death and that fear of all fears—what happens after we die. We are afraid because we don’t know what’s going to happen when we hit the ground, and eventually, we all hit the ground. We just do. Ella is making her way, book by book, through the Old Testament, after which she intends to reread the New Testament. We are in the kitchen, and she is crying. The night before, she couldn’t fall asleep. Her head was full of thoughts of death. She tells me that she sometimes wishes we were a churchgoing family—any church—because then she would have grown up with something to believe. I remind her that this isn’t necessarily true, but I do it gently, because there she is in the kitchen with tears flowing so steadily that they’re splashing on her purple T-shirt and making darker purple blossoms across her chest. In this moment, I wish so hard that I could give Ella and Henry a promise: whoever dies in this family will be waiting in a beautiful place of peace, and whoever dies next will join them, and death will not separate us. When we hit the ground, no matter who falls first, we will be together again, forever and ever, amen. But all I know to say is, “Oh, honey, I love you so much.” And she says back, “I know, and I’m not blaming you and Dad. I’m not. I know you’ve always said we can go to whatever church we want and believe whatever we want, but since I grew up not believing in one thing—” She pauses, “—since I grew up with you, I’m always a little skeptical. I can’t be sure.” I force myself to pull my eyes down from the highest branches of my memory, that place where I store those things that scare me, that place where the yellow leaves so high above the ground have occluded my view of the white
T-shirt I know Henry is wearing. I lost sight of my boy just before he fell. Ella stands before me, asking for a story she can believe in. And me? I do not, cannot, know what will happen when we hit the ground, but, I tell my weeping daughter with her sweet, sweet face: “I don’t believe this is it. I know there is something else, something more. I just don’t know exactly what.”
We are all, every one of us, the stories we tell ourselves. I can’t be sure of what will happen when we hit the ground, and I may never learn to set my fear aside like hunger, but I can keep loving with everything I’ve got. I can press the sole of a foot into the opposite thigh, pull in toward my core, and grow my arms into branches. When I wobble and almost fall, I will remember that swaying is strength, then draw my branches down and in: palms together, hands at heart center.
Notes Worrall, Simon. “Alex Honnold Isn’t Fearless—He Just Accepts Death.” National Geographic online. 3 January 2016. 1
Synnott, Mark. “Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.” National Geographic online. 3 June 2017.
Dimuro, Gina. “Inside the Death-Defying Feats of World-Class Tightrope Walker Philippe Petit.” All That’s Interesting online. 26 April 2019. 3
Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, TriQuarterly, and True Story. Her essays have appeared in many anthologies including Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction, and The Best of Brevity: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction, and her awards include a 2019 NEA Prose Fellowship and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. A senior editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and executive producer of the podcast Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence, she teaches at Ball State University. Find her on Twitter @jill_christman. Christman explains that “Falling” is one of those essays triggered by an event: “In November 2016, five days after the election, my eight-year-old son Henry fell out of a bright yellow maple tree. He fell far, his father and I were there to watch it happen, and because this very disaster was something I’d been dreading all of his life, I was deeply shaken and started taking down notes in the days right after the accident—not necessarily to write an essay, but to make some sense of what I had seen. I’d long been fascinated by Philippe Petit’s wire-walking feats, and so when Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan the next spring, the threads started to come together, and I wove them into the first draft of this essay. However, when I asked Henry, he said he preferred I didn’t tell this story publicly, so I put the project away for a few years—during which time, Free Solo came out, and Alex Honnold appeared at the Oscars. I thought about “Falling,” waiting on my hard drive in a file marked “2017 Essays.” Last summer, I asked Henry again if he would mind if I told the story of the tree, and this time, he gave me the go-ahead. So I pulled it out and spruced it up. This one’s for Henry.”
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