One of the things I like about our oldest son, Michael, is his ability to choose unusual gifts. He asked me in November if I thought the family would mind waiting for their Christmas present until a couple of days after Christmas. He piqued my interest.
“Sure, but why?” I asked.
“I want to give the entire family a special day together – a day for memories. We can all do something together, but we’ll have to wait until Saturday, the twenty-seventh. It’ll be fun, Mom. Something you’d never think of.”
As each week passed, I thought back on some of the many gifts Michael had given me:
The VCR, a massager, the breadmaker. How many times before he was married did he come for a visit just in time to take home a fresh half-loaf? And also the homemade knife holder. How old was he when he made it? Twelve? Thirteen? Wonderful, useful gifts.
During those busy days before Christmas I wondered what new gift Michael had planned. Our family includes us grandparents, young adults, teenagers, and toddlers. I found the guessing game in my head more fun than wondering what would be under the tree.
Amid the usual fun and chaos on Christmas day, Michael fielded questions, but he stood firm. No one would know his plans until we arrived at our destination. His only words of preparation: “Dress for action and plan to be gone all day.” Dress for action? I spend most of my days at a computer!
We gathered that morning in the parking lot of the Long Beach (CA) YMCA. Only 21-month-old Monika was missing. Her baby brother was there because Mommy was his milk bottle.
This seems an unlikely place for a family outing, I thought. Michael led us inside past people in gym clothes pumping iron and doing aerobics. As we climbed the steps, I still had no idea what lay ahead.
We entered a huge room. Walls stretched straight up for thirty feet. They were speckled with various colored nubs and protrusions; some were even attached to the ceiling. A few of the peculiar wall panels sloped precariously above our heads.
Suddenly I understood. This was indoor rock climbing. I’ll only be observing, I thought. At 56 I’d be foolish to try this. I’d rather take care of Benjamin and enjoy watching the others.
Soon we were checking out climbing gear: special rubber shoes, lengths of rope, and harnesses. I accepted mine but was sure I wouldn’t be using them.
Before long our instructor was pairing us off. My partner was our other son, Dave.
It didn’t take long to catch on to tying the rope. Make a figure eight, pass it back through, take the other end and pass it the other direction, forming a double figure eight. The harness was more complex. I felt like a horse being saddled, but it was not as uncomfortable as I expected. Throughout the one-hour training session, I kept telling myself I was learning this so I could be a good partner to Dave. I didn’t intend to get off the floor.
We had to learn a new vocabulary, words such as:
Belayer – the person serving as backup for the one presently climbing.
Repel – to be lowered by rope while bouncing your feet along the side of a cliff.
Our instructions were to plant our feet; call out “climbing” before beginning our ascent; and, remember, don’t look down.
Dave made several successful climbs to the ceiling following the marked trails or exploring on his own. He looked like a spider, stretching arms and legs for the best holds. Sometimes I took quick looks around, enjoying the efforts of the others. Most had already reached the ceiling and repelled back down. Primarily I thought about my responsibility to be Dave’s backup. If he should start to fall, I had to immediately cinch my rope to stop him.
After a while he said, “Okay, it’s your turn, Mom.”
“No, you go ahead and try the next level.”
“Come on, Mom. You can do it.”
It was safe on the floor. Those nubs they called hand and footholds were so small. Most were only an inch or two, some only half an inch. They looked like little rocks of weird shapes. A few had indentations for a finger or two, but most were simply a bulge. No way could I ever hold on.
Now other voices were urging me to try. “You can do it, Honey.”
“Come on, Nonna.” My entire family had stopped climbing and were waiting, encouraging me to try.
Dampness formed on my palms. “You can do it, Nonna.” our granddaughter, Katie, called out. She had already made it to the top of the wall. Could I let her down? Fail to even try?
I knew I was stuck. I’d never get them off my back until I tried. Could I trust Dave with my life?
Yes, I would trust him. We switched roles.
“Take it real slow, Mom,” Dave urged. “You can stop anytime you want.”
I checked my gear as instructed, rubbed my hands on my pants, and approached the wall. There was a tug on my harness as Dave tightened the rope. He won’t let me get hurt, I reminded myself. I can do it.
Grasping a nearby protrusion with my left hand, I reached for another just above my right. Dave gave another slight tug on my harness. I hoisted myself up to where my left foot could rest on a nearly invisible foothold. Then the right foot.
“You did it!”
“See, it’s not so hard, is it?” The voices of my kids and grandkids urged me onward. “Come on, go a little higher.”
I grasped another nub, then another. “That white one, just to the left.”
”That’s it, Nonna.” came the voice of our grandson, Daniel. “You’re doing great!”
I couldn’t believe I was doing it. Muscles I didn’t know I had, let me know their discomfort. I’d better not go any farther, I told myself. Anyway, I was winded from the exertion.
Can I go any farther? I argued internally.
I was too tired to keep going, and wanted desperately to rest a while. How I longed to sit on the safety of the bench below, and cuddle little Benjamin. I didn’t want to repel to the floor. That seemed more scary than going up. My right leg, resting on an outcropping about the size of a grape, began to tremble. I was afraid to move my foot lest I not be able to get it to a more sizable foothold.
“I want to come down, Dave, but I’m too tired to move.” I heard the shakiness in my voice.
“Put your right leg on that black one about a foot higher. Good. Now, just rest a while, Mom. I’ll help you. Anchor your feet on those footholds and lean back.” When I felt a firm lift from my harness, I released the grip of my fingers. Dave was supporting most of my weight. It was like I was sitting on thin air.
While I massaged both hands I looked down. Way down. And quickly looked upward. I had thought I was about eight feet from the floor, but I was more than halfway to the ceiling. I looked back down. I realized it wasn’t only my family watching; many others had stopped climbing and were watching my efforts.
My right leg still trembled. I couldn’t come down or go on until I regained my composure. Far below me, voices continued, talking now to one another. “I didn’t think she’d do it.”
“She’s one brave lady.”
“She’s my grandmother,” said our granddaughter, Elizabeth.
Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…. The words sprang from my memory. Where’d that come from? I wondered. Oh, yes. That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote after listing the heroes of the faith. “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
That’s what I’ve just done, I mused. Without their encouragement, their words of support, I would have been back on the ground long ago. “Keep your eyes on Jesus…that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
My leg was no longer shaking. I looked up. “Keeping your eyes on Jesus…therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. …the race marked out for you.” I’m going on, I told myself.
“Dave, get ready. I’m going to keep climbing.”
“Climb on,” he called out.
Cheers rang out from below. I reached for some handholds and Dave let out a little slack on the rope. I was holding my own weight again. “Go slow, Mom. I’ll talk you through it. Get that brown one to your left. Now push with your right leg and grab the gray one with your right hand. Left foot toward you and up about six inches.”
The murmur of voices below was like a cheerleading squad repeating, “Run with perseverance the race marked out for you. Strengthen your weak arms and knees.”
“You’re going to make it, Honey.”
“You’re nearly there, Mom.” There were also voices I didn’t recognize, but they too were encouraging.
Each time I felt I couldn’t continue, the voices below urged me on. Dave calmly said, “To your left, the black one. You’re almost there.”
I felt an adrenaline surge and a sudden renewal of energy as I pushed off a foothold and reached for the final handhold. The choir below crescendoed as I brushed the ceiling with my hand. I relished the sense of accomplishment.
“Just rest again, Mom. Then I’ll get you down,” Dave said. This time I knew how to relax. Looking down it seemed that everyone in the place was watching me. I guess it’s not every day a 56-year-old grandma makes it to the top.
As Dave lowered me to the floor, I bounced my feet along the wall, and thought, I never could have made it without my cloud of witnesses.
Michael truly gave the family a gift of memories. And a living demonstration for me of the power of encouragement.
© Beverly Caruso, 1996