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Don’t Look Down

We didn’t have much money when I was growing up in Utah. When we were looking for something fun to do the four of us kids often piled into Mom’s sky blue '79 Volkswagen Rabbit speckled with cinnamon-colored rust in search of free adventure.

More often than not, she drove us up a canyon we lived near and unleashed all four of us on a park nestled beneath the Wasatch Mountains. It’s called something else now and is all manicured lawns and boring plastic playground equipment, but back then it was wild: trees everywhere, wildflowers, and a rickety old battalion of a jungle gym constructed from heavy duty wood that was rotting and would just as soon splinter you as assist you in play, and probably contained more than a few rusty nails eager to puncture young skin, but we loved it. It was a spaceship, a pirate ship, a haunted mansion, a crime scene all within the span of a sunny afternoon.

Mom sat around pretending to admire our agility every time we shouted for her to WATCH MOM, WATCH while we played, climbing trees and hills and wading in the river that ran along the edge of the park. An old bridge constructed from massive wooden trestles spanned the river. Long before my hundreds of childhood hours logged in the park, trains used to run across the bridge. The bridge had long since retired from escorting train cars and was spending its twilight years squiring only people from one side of the river to the other.

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The bridge was the Mount Kilimanjaro of my childhood. I was terrified to cross it because the beams were placed so far apart, or seemed to be, from my 6-year-old perspective. One wrong step and I’d slip through the heavy, wooden beams without even a whisper and plunge straight into the roaring river below, or so I imagined.

I’ve been thinking about that bridge a lot lately. Crossing it as a child feels a lot like the summation of my adult life now as I traverse the theoretical bridge from marriage into singlehood.

After straight-up refusing the bridge’s wordless entreats to cross, I eventually got to where I’d traverse if Mom firmly held my hand. I couldn’t cross it with regular steps, though, as that was inviting certain death. I’d take a step with one foot and bring the other to the same beam. Step-together, step-together. Mom would tell me not to look down but of course I looked down, almost thrilling in the delicious terror that vibrated through my body each time I caught a glimpse of the raging (or so I imagined) river below. Mostly I tried to focus on perfect foot placement but every few steps my eyes would refocus on the space between the beams. My knees would weaken and I’d freeze mid-step, breathing deeply, while gripping Mom’s hand until my body would comply with my brain’s commands to continue. My older brother taunting me, dancing along side me in monumental mockery and pretending to fall didn’t help.

Eventually I got to where I’d cross the bridge without Mom but still with the same trepidatious step-together, step-together process. If Mom was busy with my younger brothers I’d stand anxiously at the edge of the bridge, looking across the gapped beams where my older brother was beckoning.

Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.

Step-together, step-together, step-together.

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Profound relief would flood my body when I made it to the other side. Relief and pride. I made it! By myself. When I was afraid I stopped, took deep breaths and focused on my feet firmly planted on the solid trestles until the fear subsided.

I’ve been thinking about that bridge a lot lately. Crossing it as a child feels a lot like the summation of my adult life now as I traverse the theoretical bridge from marriage into singlehood. I’m in the middle of the bridge, just now. Frozen in terror at the sight of all the space I now see between the delicate construction of my life. A marriage unraveling, the newly realized fragility of human relationships and always the inevitable maws of death slithering ever closer; cancer, car accident and heart disease taking out people I previously deemed immortal.

I can’t help it. I keep looking through the trestles at what lies beneath and it fills me with dread. We shuffle along, living our lives, focusing on the trestles; our friends and family, our jobs, the balance in our bank account, what’s for dinner—and all the while the great unknown is roaring there beneath it all, ready to swallow us up.

Sometimes, in my more hopeless moments I long to slip through the cracks. Seconds of helpless freefall before plunging dramatically into the icy mountain river; water filling my eyes, ears, nose and mouth, debilitating stress over crossing the bridge immediately transformed into nothing. One you fall, once you let go, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?

But that’s the worst of it and I always shake it off and refocus on my feet, willing another foot forward—step-together, step-together—until I make it to the other side where who knows what’s waiting around the bend.

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