From The Ground, Looking Up
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Whether you fall from one hundred feet or one thousand, the result is still the same. Dad said this to me in his work truck on the way to Sedona. Granted this statement was made in the context of rock climbing, and dad didn’t intend for me to take it any way other than literally, but I’ve been stuck on that thought ever since the words left his mouth. I sat in the passenger seat silently debating whether or not that statement holds up outside of a free solo gone wrong.
The sun sat high above the hills in a cloudless sky, the perfect day for diamondbacks to finally come out, sunbathe on the rocks, and begin shedding their skin. “They’ll be out today,” dad commented, “they’ll be hungry, pissed off, and ready to strike at anything that moves.” From his five years of working in Arizona, he’s soaked up a ton of desert knowledge. How much of it is accurate, I am not entirely sure.
He spends most of his time alone, and I imagine after a while it must be annoying to not have anyone there to talk to, to complain about the traffic with, to discuss politics, to laugh with over inside jokes. I was lucky to visit him over break and could tell he was taking advantage of having a pair of ears nearby to listen—for a usually quiet dude, I could only get a sentence or two in here and there. Dad says a lot of things that sound on the verge of genius at first, but are then obvious to me and I feel a little dense for having not thought about that before. I called him once about a difficult class and he told me, “Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something, that’s how you learn” and that completely altered my universe for a second. I am constantly reminded of how deeply he thinks about life, life outside of just tractors and engineering and work. I think he could make a good writer if he sat down to try.
Dad rambled on about a camping trip he went on when he was seventeen, reminiscing about his upbringing in the mountains of Idaho while my attention flitted between the saguaros and the thought of falling.
In the third grade, my group of friends and I presided over the monkey bars adjacent to the jungle gym: No Boys Allowed. We saw ourselves as very esteemed gymnasts and learned how to do cool tricks like hanging upside down without hands and doing a front flip. Despite teachers’ efforts to get us down from our domain, we persisted and got more skilled every recess.
Looking back now, I am nowhere near as brave as I was when I was eight. I used to sit serenely atop the monkey bars with my friends, casually gossiping about who in the class didn’t finish their multiplication test before the minute was up. If I were to do that now, I would tremble with fear and my palms would sweat, potentially causing me to slip from the metal structure. But falling wasn’t something that crossed my eight year old brain, I thought I was invincible.
I remember one day in particular—it was during the spring time because the grass outside was covered in clovers and what I thought were chrysanthemums, but were actually just some kind of flowering weed. I had to stay in for part of recess to makeup a test I missed. I sped through the work as fast as I could manage so that I could join my friends outside. After the test and on the way to the playground, however, it was clear to me that something was amiss. People were crowded around our monkey bars and there were ambulance sirens in the distance which only meant one thing: someone was dead. Or so I thought. What actually happened was one of my friends fell from the monkey bars, broke her arm, and needed to be taken to the hospital. We were all pretty shaken by the whole ordeal, but not enough to stop us from sitting on the bars and continuing to learn new tricks.
A few years went by and I was near the end of sixth grade. By this point I had stopped spending every recess on the monkey bars in favor of focusing on my soccer skills. I was trying to get better so I could try out for the middle school team the next year. A part of me, nostalgic for third grade when times were much simpler, thought it would be appropriate if I ascended the monkey bars one last time, and bid elementary school goodbye. But I was out of practice, and it showed.
On my first attempt to do a flip as I had done countless recesses before, I fell. I hit the wood chip covered ground hard enough to knock the wind out of me and bring tears to my eyes. I laid there on my back, staring up at the afternoon sky through the gaps between the bars, knowing I hurt a lot, but not enough for anything to be seriously wrong.
Unlike my friend, I did not break my arm. We took the same exact fall, no more than eight feet high, yet she suffered a great deal more than the few bruises and splinters I earned. Sure, one thousand and one hundred foot falls may both lead to one’s demise, but one eight foot fall leads to a broken arm and the other a shocking reality check. The closer to the ground, the greater deviation of circumstance and increased chances of survival. The day I fell from the monkey bars, I hit the ground and stayed there—my delusion of invincibility was no more.
Dad and I arrived at Slide Rock State Park where the parking was twenty dollars for no good reason, according to him. Before he got into agricultural engineering, dad wanted to be a park ranger somewhere in the Rockies and feels the need to criticize parks anywhere else: “Things like this cost five dollars in Idaho…”
We walked a few minutes down to the narrow river and so called Slide Rock where the hike began. A few years ago we drove past this place, but didn’t have time to stop and sight see as we were headed to the Grand Canyon. This time, however, we had as much time as daylight would allow and were long overdue for a hike together.
The little canyon was full of red and gray rocks ranging from massive boulders to tiny pebbles, all worn smooth from the water. The place is called Slide Rock because, get this, you can slide on the rocks. People in bathing suits were taking turns sliding down the rock riverbed and jumping from the ledges overhanging the river into water no warmer than fifty degrees. I thought about going in the water despite the fact I was in regular clothes and I didn’t have a towel, but the thought of having to endure a three hour drive back to Phoenix with soggy clothes was enough to dissuade me.
Our hike continued from the swimming area back into the narrower part of the canyon where the water was more shallow. When our ledge on the west side of the river grew too small to continue walking on, dad and I moved to cross the river on stepping stones dotting the river to the other side. Dad went ahead of me and I hesitated. The urge I had to join the people jumping into the river earlier completely gone now that I was faced with the possibility of falling into water, even if it was only a foot deep. I don’t know why I hesitated, why I felt fear in that moment over something so small and relatively inconsequential. But dad noticed my hesitation and stuck out his arm to help me across. My shoes and socks remained dry, crisis avoided.
About an hour and many pictures of the canyon later we hiked back to the parking lot. I left Slide Rock with a larger camera roll, but not much more than that. I have the memory of hiking with my dad, of course, yet I feel this deep regret about not taking advantage of the moment to its fullest. I didn’t leap from the rocks into the river below, I crossed the stepping stones without so much as dipping a toe into the current, and I did everything I could to keep myself from falling in. I think some of the worst falls are the ones not taken.
It was a Thursday in March, and the first anniversary of grandpa’s death lived quietly within me; it kept me company on my way to work, and sat with me in class. I went most of the day without acknowledging its significance, and I nearly made it until my roommate left for class and I was left alone in our room, just the grief and I.
It started, the metaphorical falling that is, with remembering the last time we said goodbye and how he cried. Arms which used to be so tanned and sturdy from years of being a farmer were pale and trembling as he held me. He knew. Somehow he knew that would be the last time, that that hug would be our last memory together. He told me not to forget about him and tried his best to put on a smile as he wiped his tears. Seeing him cry that day made his cancer real in a way it hadn’t been previously. For years he fought his own lungs with each and every breath, and I guess I never realized how serious that kind of thing was. I thought at some point one of the surgeries would be a total success, and that he could have gone back to being the grandpa he was before. The kind that I shared peach pie with, who wore cowboy boots everyday no matter the occasion, who took us out to the farm to play with the kittens, the grandpa who looked ahead at the chalky limestone road we had never been on before and tell us “I always go this way sometimes.”
But the man smoked for forty years. He had yet another tumor, this one the size of a baseball in the upper chamber of his left lung. Unlike his previous tumors, this one couldn’t be removed—the surrounding blood vessels held it in a vise grip. Most people diagnosed with lung cancer die within a year, and grandpa had lived with it for seven; I should have realized that at some point he had to stop fighting and let go, but I refused to do that. For the seven years he battled cancer, every time I saw grandpa, my mom told me it would be the last time I would ever see him. Every goodbye was supposed to be the last, and after a while I stopped believing it.
Over an emotional phone call, my mom confessed to me that grandpa apologized in his final moments. “He didn’t want to die,” my mom sobbed into the phone. “More than anything, he didn’t want to die. I never told you girls, but your grandpa was sorry for how things ended up. He wanted to live, but his body wouldn’t let him keep going any longer.”
We finished talking, I hung up the phone, and attempted to digest this new information. He was only sixty-four, wanted so badly to live, and felt the need to use his remaining words to apologize for not being able to do so. I wish I could have told him that it was okay, that he didn’t need to be sorry. When I first heard the news of grandpa’s passing, I was angry. I was angry at God for taking him from me, angry at the doctors for not being able to save him, angry at grandpa for choosing to smoke, and angry at myself for not realizing our last goodbye was truly the last. I quickly realized that anger would help nothing, and for the first time in my life, I spiraled into intense grief. This was my fall from one thousand feet. And one year later, what should have been a hundred foot fall (since grief supposedly lessens over time), felt no less painful.
My only consolation as I sat in my dorm room at the bottom of this one hundred foot grief was the fact grandpa had officially been three hundred and sixty-five days without pain. That was enough.
From the passenger seat of dad’s work truck, I watched mountains turn blue as the sun sank behind them. I wondered what it would be like to hike up one of them, stand on a cliff, and then jump off. What would it feel like for those seconds before I hit the ground? Perhaps weightless, cold, and exhilarating. What would I be thinking about if those were truly my last moments of consciousness? I hope I would be thinking about the people I love, and the things I did in life which made me happy and better for having done them. Then I would land, hitting the ground littered with prickly pears. And suddenly the idea of jumping off a mountain loses its appeal.
The French call this “l’appel du vide” or “the call of the void.” Supposedly it’s this innate thing people feel when up high; there’s a voice that asks: What if I jumped? Though it’s not as if everyone who feels this call of the void is suicidal, rather this desire to jump is caused by a mixing of the conscious and unconscious mind calling into question our agency and our will to live. The voice asks “what if I jump?” and given a few seconds to ponder the implications, jumping implies a moment of falling, and then an impact. This is enough to reaffirm the desire to live. From the top, we think about what it would be like to jump, but looking up from the ground we wonder what it would be like to fall.
Emma Kaster is a junior at Emerson College in Boston. She is pursuing a BA in publishing and has been accepted into the graduate program at Emerson in which she will pursue a MA also in publishing. Apart from writing, Emma loves being outdoors, reading, drinking earl grey tea, and spending time with friends and family.
"I wrote this piece after I visited my dad in Phoenix for spring break. He had a day off from work, and we drove up to the Sedona area to hike--something my dad and I like to do whenever we have the time. My dad says a lot of things that sound poetic out of context, and as a writer I tend to keep track of them in my notes. As mentioned in my essay, I got really stuck on his statement about falling, and thought it was complex enough to make a memoir out of it. I told my dad I used our conversation in his truck as the foundation for one of my essays, but I have yet to let him read it. Perhaps now I should let him read it."