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I don’t remember when exactly I felt a conscious fear of heights. That sinking feeling in your heart when you are high up in the air, grounded, but when you look down, you see people look like ants, and cars look like lego blocks. The spinning in the head and the falling down sensation creeping swiftly up your legs and stomach.
Back in the day there weren’t that many accessible high rise buildings or places where one could go to dizzying heights and vertigo hit them when they peeped down. The highest was a 2 storey multi-home building that I grew up in, and there was a spot where we brats of 8-10 years old would climb and sit down on the tiled roof of a jutting single room. The fall was barely 10 feet. I could easily climb up but the hard part was coming down. I’d turn my back and climb down like a crab all the while insisting the boys stood right there in case I fell. I didn’t, but I always assumed I would.
Am sure there were huge carousels and ferris wheels that showed up on the beaches, but none of us were particularly fond of braving the elements and making a trip out there forget riding one. Heights and my fear and anxiety of it was just not a conscious or sub-conscious thought.
Check it out!
Fast forward to Brussels, Belgium. I was 24 and had just delivered my daughter. Summer was in full swing and boy, do the Europeans make their hay while their rare sun shines! The fair was on, and with baby in a pram off we went. I was excited with just about everything I saw. Cotton candy, the games, the ice cream, the frites and more. Yes, I was a child mommy.
The huge ferris wheel spun around lazily with kids of all ages, squealing at different pitches and distances. I *had* to sit on it. I hesitated just briefly before leaving the swathed 1 month old with the dad and jumped in one of those swinging pods. Before I could register the lameness of this impulsive act, I was mid-air. Against the setting evening sun, the city looked bustling, green, gray and smoky (this was next to a train station hub). I looked all around and well, I was up there alright. I waved ever so slightly, and that’s when the jerk came, when the little pod swung forward with the gaining momentum. I held on tight to the steel rod in front.
I was falling with great speed and I did not like it.
The wind was biting into my eyes, face and ears, the screams around me were close yet very far, the people below were becoming bigger and bigger then suddenly whooshed past me into oblivion. I searched frantically for my husband. You’d think spotting the lone brown man with a baby seat in hand in a sea of white and black would be a breeze, but not with the crazy speed at which I was spinning away.
I did not realize it, but I was crying. I just wanted out. I was scared and frightened and I thought I was going to die listening to my heart beat so fast in my ears. My mouth went dry and I squeezed my eyes shut for the rest of the ride. I believe it last for four minutes, but it was the longest four minutes and when I tumbled out and through the crowd into my husband’s arms, I cried some more and got teased and well, who cared, I sobbed again, and swore I’d never ever get on such an atrocious spinning ride, and cursed the person who came up with this genius ridiculous idea of sending people spinning into air in swinging pods and yelled at him for allowing me to get on it. (yes, emotional wives are always looking for ways to blame the hapless husband!)
Then I picked up the sleeping baby and crushed her in a hug and insisted we return home. I spent the next few hours into the wee morning lying down next to her with my arm hooked around her tiny body. We both cried alternately. She for food every couple hours and I, in the fear that I was going to die on that ferris wheel and my baby was too precious to be raised motherless.
Lame, I know, but fears aren’t always reasonable, logical or pretty.
Fears come in like unexpected guests. They have to be entertained and let them stay as long as they want, coz the harder you try to push them out, the uglier it gets.
16 years later, we went on a family vacation on a cruise to the Bahamas. At the ports, we get to land, and do some fun stuff along with sightseeing and soaking in the culture and atmosphere. Everyone decided we’d engage in water sports. The excitement was palpable as we all got on the steamer that took us right into the middle of the beautiful bright blue bay. A certain kind of peace washes over you when all the eye sees all around is flat blue gentle lapping water. There is a physiology to the way the nerves work on calming the brain, but for now we’ll stick to the obvious romantic notion of unhurried life and the force of nature’s effect on our soul.
Yes, we were on a boat to parasail. The teenagers were excited beyond measure, while the husband was happy just watching them and I was content with recording every smile, grin and hurrah. Our friends went first. Dad and son and then mom and younger son, while each squealed and came back with flushed red faces half drenched as they were dunked in the water on their way back. The guy looked at us, and asked us if we could also go as parent-kid, coz he was looking at weights to balance us all off. Husband refused. He is a cautious wise man, and such risks are not up his alley. The kids were not happy with the suggestion of splitting but they were just not heavy enough together, and so all eyes fell on me. I shrunk. I listened. I wanted to as badly as I felt I couldn’t.
In the confusion of two minutes that followed with so many voices suggesting, goading, screaming and convincing, by the time I realized, I was harnessed onto a life jacket and made to sit in the middle flanked by my son and daughter who were excitedly chattering between themselves.
Zoom. I barely had time to wave to my husband or ask him to video tape us, and soon, they were just a blip on the blue. 250 feet up, we were told. In a matter of minutes, there I was, hung mid-air, with the wind flapping the parachute behind and above us loudly, I could hear my heartbeat, above the screams of my children. I held onto the ropes till my knuckles turned white. Almost scrambling to find a foothold, but instead my feet lashed wildly, prompting my son to yell at me to stop making the harness swing madly. I closed my eyes, torn between being the responsible adult and the kid that I felt inside. My daughter, all of 14 years old, turns to me wisely and says “Mom, it’s okay, don’t look down, just look straight and look at the horizon. Go with the experience mom, focus on it.” Son chimed in with “We don’t get to parasail often, pretend this is your last and final one!” I glared at him, at the gravity of his innocent words and of course thought the worst, which the daughter immediately picked on and told him to shut up, which he immediately did.
We sat there, in silence. Letting the wind swing our feet, our hair blowing across our faces, soaking in the complete luxury and awe of the risk and the wonder of indulging in it. Each of us took turns spotting the white surf on the waves below, the color of the various blues, the horizon and how near it looked, the other boats around us and the more serious rhetorical questions on the depth of the sea, the single knot that held the bar/harness to the chute above, the fish that may just be lurking below, the chance of rain or even worse a tornado and so on..
At that moment, I looked all around me, at my babies next to me with so much courage, elan and happiness of living in the moment, my own softer heartbeat, the fingers relaxed in their hold, the freedom of the mind and the body, and rejoiced in one overwhelming hurrah. I wasn’t scared anymore. Yes, the lift and the gravity pull was there but if i just focused on the moment and the wonder of the experience, it really wasn’t so bad.
We were dunked twice in the water before we were reeled back in like fish, wet, slippy and exhausted. I winked at my husband who was looking anxiously at my face. It was a personal achievement. I imagined I would come home to have a video of my terrified face and then the sagely calmness that the moment’s profoundness bestowed upon me. Only to be told that he did not tape, as he was watching us three go up anxiously and forgot all about it.
As upsetting as that was, maybe this memory and the goal was meant to be etched in my memory. Not on a hard drive somewhere, where it could be forgotten. This way, I’ll never forget it.
I’ve risen. Not unlike the phoenix. We all have our personal ashes to rise from, and so I have. It’s liberating.
PS: Part 2 of a series on Facing Fears. My personal account of the numerous little achievements which enabled me to face apprehensions and fears growing up and continue to face as an adult.
Part 1 – Facing Fears: Speaking Out
*Photo credit: scrapcatz.
Rads lives in the suburbs of Washington DC along with her husband, three kids and
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