I went ziplining with my daughter and a small group of women and one man a few weeks ago. My daughter was the only one I knew well in the group, but there is something about cruising 210 feet above the ground in 30 seconds, between two trees that stand a quarter mile apart from each other, that brings people together.
I was absolutely terrified but I knew I had no choice but to try it. I’m not much of a fear of missing out kind of person, for me it was more of a fear of disappointing myself, a fear of regret kind of thing. I knew that if I had the opportunity and didn’t take it, I would be letting myself down.
I told myself that I had already done something much more terrifying: I had jumped out of a plane on a tandem skydive for my 25th birthday, an unforgettable experience. How much more frightening could ziplining be? But then I told myself that I was almost 20 years older now, a wife, a mother, more personally aware of things like pain and suffering and loss… and death. I’ve noticed something about inhibition as I’ve gotten older: Certain things are more scary now than they were when I was in my twenties, while others feel so much more surmountable.
There was nothing logical about my fear. I knew that if anyone had died or been seriously injured on that zipline, the place would no longer be in business. I knew I wouldn’t fall. I knew I wouldn’t crash into a tree or fall off a platform. I knew that the worst thing that could happen was that I would spin around, go too slow and have to drag myself in at the end – basically that I wouldn’t get to go fast enough to have the most fun possible. Our guides were phenomenal and professional, I knew I truly had nothing to fear.
But I could still feel my heart thumping, fast and hard and loud. I still couldn’t believe what I was about to do.
My 11-year-old daughter was 100% totally and completely unafraid. She knew there was no real risk, so why waste a second being scared? She was excited and confident and I did my best to follow her lead. The other people my age and I were not surprised; we talked about how invincible you feel when you’re a kid – of course she was undaunted and brave. That’s also her personality – she came into this world with things to do and she has never looked back.
I asked myself when that changes, when fear enters in and why. I told our guides I would need to be one of the first to try the first zipline in our group of nine because I knew that watching eight people go ahead of me would give me too much time for further freak-out. My daughter said she would go first, and I would go second.
There were seven zips, and there was the option to stop after three. The fourth and fifth were the longest – the quarter-mile ones that last for 30 long seconds, provide the most beautiful views and are the most exciting. I knew I had no choice but to do all seven. Not because of any pressure from my daughter, but again… that fear of regret thing. And the determination that I could turn my fear into one of those surmountable things.
I was shaking and about to cry after the first short zip. I knew that my response was purely physical, it felt beyond reason and out of my control. I wondered what had just happened in my body chemistry as I experienced fear, and as I overcame that fear enough to do something absolutely frightening. What was going on inside my body that caused my hands to shake and brought the tears I did everything in my power to breathe through – all of these physical feelings I was having after having successfully crossed the first line and reached the second platform? Why was I clinging for my life to that tree trunk, afraid beyond logic of being so high up while I could see, not six inches from my face, the harness that would keep me from falling?
I shook a little less after the second zip across, and by the third I was no longer shaking and I no longer felt like crying. Then I found myself staring down the fourth zip – the longest, highest, fastest one. The one where the opposite platform – my destination – was so far away that I couldn’t see it nor the guide who would be waiting there for me. We were told to look to our left at the incredible view of the Smoky Mountains as we zipped across, that it was breathtaking.
My heart raced, and I surrendered to trust, lifted my feet and told the guide on my platform that I was ready and she could let me go. My body felt rigid but I was determined to stay straight and move gracefully across. I could hear myself breathing as if I were laboring to birth one of my children – rhythmic breathing, consistent, loud and determined. I did look to my left and I did see the view, quickly, afraid that if I turned my head too much I would start to spin. It was breathtaking. And then I was on the other side. And I almost cried, but not from fear. From elation, from relief, from pride in myself.
I zipped back across that same distance on the fifth run. By then I felt like the fear was no longer a part of my experience, a thing I had surmounted. The sixth and seventh zips were short and easy and I even let go completely of my hands and let myself spin and play. The final tree’s platform sat way high up and the tree was small and swayed in the wind as it held us – 8 women, 1 man and 2 guides. I can’t say I felt stable until I was back on solid ground, but by then on that final platform, I knew completely that I was safe.
I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the finite nature of the years I have ahead of me. That is assuming, of course, that nothing unexpected happens and I get to follow in the footsteps of my paternal family and live an abundantly long life that takes me almost to 100. Ninety-something is a lot of years, and yet it feels like not enough as I find myself about halfway there. I have moments of panic where I think, How did I get to my forties already? Have I done enough already? Have I wasted time I can never get back? My usual response to calm myself down is to think of all the things I have done – the big things – and tell my story in a different way: My, how full and abundant the last 44 years have been! Look at me. I am so incredibly lucky.
Still, I feel closer to aging now than I ever have. My father struggles with a degenerative disease and I can’t help but wonder how long I have left when I can still call him on the phone. I think about my beloved great aunt who died two years ago at almost 96, how even though she lived overseas I could always call her and hear her voice, and how even though I can’t anymore it still feels like she is close. My parents’ generation has now become the grandparents, and my generation – we are the grownups. We are the ones holding the challenges our parents once held – the aging parents, the mortgages, life insurance policies, illnesses. We are the ones becoming aware of our fragility, of our finiteness.
I ask myself if it’s death I am afraid of. I’m not sure. When I was a child, maybe around my daughter’s age, I was sometimes afraid of going to sleep, fearful that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure where that fear came from and I don’t remember ever speaking to my parents about it. I was a bit of an insomniac then, and I would stay up very late, the last one in the house to go to sleep. I would lay thinking and sometimes I would worry, and eventually sleep would take over. I felt relief in the mornings when my parents would wake me up and I was still very much alive.
I heard a story once about a very old woman who was on her deathbed. Someone was interviewing her for a magazine article and they asked if she was afraid of dying. She had a smile on her face and a sense of peace in her entire being, and she responded that she wasn’t afraid at all because she would at last be reunited with her baby. She had lost a child over 65 years before, at birth, and decades later she still waited to see her again.
Tomorrow will be seven years since I held my daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. She feels closest to me in the most full and courageous moments of my life – which are sometimes also some of the most challenging moments. It’s as if she is saying to me, Yes! This is how to live your life deeply. I could feel her spirit whirling high up in those trees I zipped through. I knew very soon after she died that the grief I had to work through was for me, not for her – that she didn’t need me to spend the rest of my days sad and bitter because she was gone. I knew that I would honor her life most powerfully by living my life well. By truly living.
I consider myself an emotionally courageous person. The hardest parts of life don’t scare me, and I have been through my share. I am an easy crier, tears don’t scare or worry me, my own or others. I worry more when I’m going through something difficult and I can’t seem to cry, because it usually means I’m stuffing something down that will eventually catch up with me. (And it always does).
In seventh grade peer counseling class, I learned about active listening, and I found a language for something that already came easily to me. I know now that I was learning then about the power of compassion, about unconditional love. I learned early that connection is what I live for, that friendships feed my soul. I don’t shy away when those around me are going through something challenging. I can sit with emotional pain, with loss, grief, sorrow and anger – others’ and my own. In this space, I am unafraid.
But I have always felt much braver emotionally than I am physically. At least that’s what I came to believe. Maybe that’s just the story I’ve been telling myself and it’s actually just that – a story, one that isn’t really true.
I used to say that I can handle any amount of emotional pain, it’s the physical pain I can’t do. But then I gave birth. And I had shingles. And I’ve struggled with an autoimmune condition that at times has been incredibly painful. And I’m still here, a little scarred, a little cracked, but very much intact. Still courageous. Perhaps more courageous now than before. Definitely much more aware of the preciousness of life.
I used to say that I my strength is in my heart, in my mind, not in my body. But it takes great strength, great courage, great faith and fearlessness to live with a chronic illness – and to live well. And I think of all the physical things I have tried at different times in my life: Skydiving. Ziplining. Boxing lessons where I sweat more than I ever had before, and which made me feel like a total badass. Dance classes where I had so much fun even while getting tangled in my feet. Rock climbing at the climbing gym and feeling mighty and high (and totally badass) as I looked way down to the floor. Lifting weights with my husband when he was a personal trainer, spotting him on weights twice as heavy as those I lifted myself. In perfect form on the pilates reformer, unleashing the strength in my core. That moment when I had done yoga long enough that even the most challenging poses came with ease. And even those six months I spent trying out running before I acknowledged that it wasn’t for me.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where fear originates, and also what creates fearlessness. I’ve been thinking about the true meaning of courage and all the ways every single one of us is courageous. I’ve been thinking about aging and death, and what it is that scares me when I remember, Holy shit, I’m 44?! I’ve been thinking about how fragile we all are, and how mighty we are at the same time.
I don’t think they are exactly opposites, but perhaps fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they need each other, cannot exist without each other. Perhaps it is fear that inspires courage, and I needed the fear to push me off that platform and across those trees.
It’s been a strange summer, one in which I have spent a good deal of time extremely aware of the fragility of life. The days I sat at my father’s bedside last month reminded me of the days I spent in the NICU sitting with Tikva seven summers ago, as she struggled to breathe and even on those days when she breathed a little more easily. I remembered the fear I felt in those moments when doctors and nurses would rush to her bedside in response to a code pink, and also the grace I felt knowing that she was held – I was held – by something so much bigger.
I held the image of the red tail hawk so tightly throughout Tikva’s short life, and seven years ago tomorrow I released it as her spirit was finally able to soar. When I went skydiving almost 20 years ago, what I loved most were the moments before the parachute opened up, the moments that were the closest thing to soaring I have ever experienced, when I was literally floating on the wind.
I tapped in just a little to that feeling as I zipped across the trees two weeks ago. Even in those moments of fear and courage, I knew I was held. And like my Tikva and the red tail hawk, I knew that it was up to me to play.