falling



My inbox is stuffed with the crap of the day—Democrats begging for money, Geek Squad confirming the installation appointment, Moosejaw reminding me that I have a credit that will soon expire. Nextdoor features untethered neighbors screaming about untethered dogs. Expedia has figured out that I desperately want to fly out of White Plains rather than LaGuardia, and dangles cheap midweek flights to Fort Lauderdale. Liberty Paintball sends a confirmation for Ben’s upcoming birthday party.


Only strangers seem to email, so on impulse I begin to delete, extravagantly, letting my eyes glaze over, barely looking at the details, not even caring about the refund or the promo code or the excellent sale on the suede Italian flats in sexy colors that I might miss as a result. My glee builds, and I begin to bulk delete, 15 at a time now. Like an arsonist with a can of gasoline, I'm burning up the evidence of my meaningless virtual life. It’s a heady act. I begin to highlight 25 emails at a time now, an entire screen’s worth at a go. Each time I jab at the delete key I say “Nope.” Nope, Nope, Nope.


And so I almost miss it, buried between Dr.Emilio’s happy dentist newsletter and the Barre Class’ fall sale ad, a single real email, from a person, from Karen. I’m never sure what to call Karen: My first husband’s second wife? My ex husband’s widow? My friend? The memo line says take a look at this, and a video is attached.


I click on the video, and up from the little square swirls a scene, a season, a family, a whole world I used to inhabit. Shel and the kids are on top of Gibraltar, a favorite picnic spot on the lake in Maine, just up the shore from his family’s summer “camp,” a place we went every summer when were together, and a place that he and Karen and the kids have gone every year since. Gibraltar is tall rock outcrop surrounded by pine trees and moss, and at camp, jumping off the high ledge into the deep water below is a scary but seminal right of passage.


Shel is doing the filming, as the kids are trying to work up the courage to jump for the first time. The camera is trained on Sam, our oldest, who looks to be about 14 here. He is already pretty tall, not quite the 6 feet he is today, but getting there. His voice has changed. He is barefoot. His bathing suit hangs from his narrow hips to his knees. Will, who is eight, stands beside and a little behind. Will is 6’4” now, so it is astonishing to see him again as his little imp self, sturdy and blonde. He is watching Sam, encouraging him, engaged in the drama. Sam makes a start for the edge, but then stops, nervous, and returns. He brings his hands to prayer for a second, inhales and exhales, and laughs.

“Salam Shalam,” his father jokes.


Sam resumes his preparations, summoning his courage, and just at the instant I think he might go, Will darts out instead, fearless. It is terrifying to watch him hurl himself off the edge, curl into a flip, and disappear over the edge.

“The MAN!” his father yells, following Will with the camera. I know it is not meant to insult Sam, but I cringe at how it might. Will’s head pops up from under water; he smiles and swims toward the edge. Shel pans the camera back to Sam. I can almost hear Sam think, “fuck it,” and he runs toward the edge. He dives out, and flips, but over rotates. He lands hard, nostrils first, in the water.

As always, Will says what I am thinking: “Sam, are you ok?”

“Yeah,” says Sam.

“Did that hurt?” bellows Shel, too loudly, from above. Sam says no. I am not so sure, and am squinting at the screen, trying to see Sam’s expression. But before I can be sure, Shel moves the camera back up to the rock, where Ivy is now readying herself for her turn. She is 12, with long hair, and an athletic body that is just barely beginning to show the slightest curves of early puberty. I can feel her focus and resolve. She gathers herself carefully. Walking halfway to the edge, she raises her arms like a trained diver, takes a few sequence steps, leaps up, flings out, flips over and lands like slice in the water.


Shel says “Nice job, Nubbin.” The video shows her swim behind the rock to the place where they climb out, where Sam is still hanging out, back to the camera, on a ledge. Ivy climbs back up to the top, where Will picks up a big blue beach towel. He swings it behind him, and then wraps it around himself like an enormous hooded cape. Will walks directly toward Shel and the camera, and says, “I want to see,” and the video ends.


I didn’t take a single breath as I watched, mesmerized by a glimpse of the babies I lost in the bewildering bait and switch that Time perpetrates on all mothers everywhere. The mirage did what all mirages do: left me craving something I would never reach. They were right there. They were not there. They were once mine. They were never mine. And yet, they are mine still.


Later that night I spent an hour on the phone with Will, from college in California.

“I just miss Dad so much, Mom,” he said. “I can’t believe he is gone forever.”

Images flickered behind my eyes as I listened; the little boy in the blue towel, my frail white mother, dead in her bed.

“I know, sweetheart,” I said. “I know.”


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© 2020 Sarah Balsley 

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