The ten days since returning from vacation has finally subsided, life's anger at me for abandoning it appeased. I've endured the wrath of Murphy's law, that staggering, relentless dictate that no event should unfold according to the preferences of the participant. I barelled through the week and skidded to a shuddering stop last evening, quivering as I stood in place, clutching my wits about me. Friday. Friday. Mid-September, ten days after my return from the serenity of Lake Michigan, and my hair has turned several more shades of grey. What can I do, but laugh?
The radio softly murmurs in the other room. If I strain, which I don't, I can understand the NPR commentators and their guests. I let it continue in its reassuring, barely discernible tone, background noise to my quiet consumption of coffee. My mind wanders, back to Michigan, back to New Orleans, back to Wyoming, back to New Mexico. When people talk about their vacations, I demur. I've never been anywhere
As I leaned on a wooden rail nearly a thousand feet over Lake Michigan at Inspiration Point in Arcadia, Michigan, my thoughts drifted to other elevated spots on which I have stood. A human-made rock cupola over a canyon in New Mexico; Pinnacle Peak outside Little Rock; City of Rocks State Park near Denning, New Mexico. I close my eyes to remember the glory of each, which I conquered my fear of heights and in some cases, my wobbly gait to see.
With eyes still closed, I remember standing behind a small clutch of tourists gazing on the Lower Falls in Yellowstone. A dozen feet to my left, my son and his best friend challenged my patience by pretending to slide beneath a lower rail, their teasing nearly too much for my mother's nerves. From behind me came the quiet, singsong cadence of some visitors from an Asian country. I did not turn, but enjoyed the universal tone of awe which told me their long journey had been rewarded.
Seconds later, I simultaneously heard a resounding snap in front of me and a gasp at my ear. One of the men from the group of Asians darted forwarded, pushing through the several rows of bodies, diving low. My heart pounded in my chest as I found my balance. My brow tightened. The voices behind me quickened, their pitch rising, excitement crackling as their cameras fell, forgotten, dangling from thin straps, against shirts, jackets and dresses.
My son's form, hastening forward, caught my peripheral attention. His face bore the stamp of fear, and I began to suspect the source of the commotion had something to do with me. Not me, though: my then-husband, who had been at the rail, in the cursed rented portable electric wheelchair that we had brought on the journey. As the people in front of me pushed aside at the urging of my son's arms, the pounding in my heart stopped; the rise and fall of my chest froze; and any grievance I had ever had against my spouse vanished.
The bolts on the wheelchair had broken, and the frame collapsed. Dennis' six-foot frame had pitched over the bottom rung of the iron railing, his trajectory a direct path to a stunning end on the floor of the valley of the Falls. The slope of the falling water measures 300 feet, but the craggy surface of the valley lies further down. By any measure, his pitch forward would have been fatal, and as my son prodded the tourists aside to let me move forward, I realized that the only thing between Dennis and death was the strong hand of a small man from a country whose language I could not speak.
He tightened his grip on Dennis' belt and heaved backward, my son holding the unsteady chair to allow his stepfather's savior to at least settle Dennis somewhere. My heart resumed its beating. I let my eyes stray over the side of the bars through which Dennis had toppled, tracing the straggly vegetation as it vanished into the dark depths of the valley's edge. I flicked my gaze back, watching the serene waters of the Lower Falls in the near distance. I did not feel able to tear myself from the starkness of that scene, but I eventually pulled myself from the edge and joined the small group surrounding my husband.
My son, his friend, and the rescuer dragged the worthless wheelchair and its occupant back to our vehicle, Dennis muttering thanks and expletives with equal fervor, the Asian tourist demurring, Patrick and Chris chattering with the nervousness of young teens.
Hands pressed hands with the warmth of gratitude; the man settled my husband, then joined his family. A member of their group raised a lens and took his picture, and all these years later, I realize that in some album, on the other side of the world, in careful characters, his wife has doubtless written Papa with the man he saved in America.
I am afraid of heights. My son had to take my hand and persuade me of the safeness of the Royals stadium, the one and only time I went to a game there. But I crossed a fog-shrouded bridge on Grandfather Mountain because Patrick and his friend Phillip wanted to make the journey, and I did not want them to go alone. I climbed to that rocky point in New Mexico to watch eagles soar out of sight into the depths below us, because my son, age 7, could not make the hike alone. I rode the old lift to the top of Jackson Hole Mountain, standing at 10,000 feet just to gaze across at the run down which my son and his friend rode rented bikes. And to show my son the beauty of the upper Rockies, I took the trip that brought me to the edge of the lookout over the Lower Yellowstone Falls, where my long, frozen gaze memorized the fall that my fellow traveler would have endured, but for the swift intervention of a stranger.
The understanding man with whom I am enjoying the last half of my journey through life just refilled my coffee. In a little while, I'll surprise someone who doesn't expect me to appear in the place where she is, and I will luxuriate in the joy on her face. Several states east of me, and a bit north, Dennis and his girlfriend will, I hope, be enjoying a quiet weekend, at his farmhouse in Killbuck or her city home in Akron. On the road between us, Patrick occupies a space in the flat lands, not realizing that his mere existence has made me conquer my fears, time, after time, after exhilarating time. And in Japan, or China maybe, a man grows old just as we all do, remembering, I hope, the beauty of America.