My boy climbs the sloped trunk of the tree in front of our house. A monkey, a scout, Tarzan. My girl follows, more timid, a stuffed unicorn tucked under one arm, and I say it again, louder. Be careful. Up the trunk, she eases herself, also part monkey. Ballerina, trapeze artist. Bird, perched.
That they’re climbing the tree at all – that they found the nerve – warms me from toes to heart, even as I measure the distance between branch and ground. From ground to the top of their heads, to elbows and knees and necks. My mind gathers up the faintest rules of physics that cling like lint somewhere inside it and scoops them into a inadequate bit of fluff. How hard would they fall, if they lost their balance? Where would they bruise? Or worse, break?
And then reason gives me a nudge. Remember, it tells me, you climbed a tree forty, maybe fifty, feet tall when you were their size. You climbed to the thinnest, highest branches and worked your toe into the V of two twigs and held on in the sway of wind. Just so you could have that view. Just because you could.
Think of that, it tells me, and those five feet shrink back to what they are. Not that far.
A week or two later. My daughter gets home from school every day and heads for the tree, with a book or some stuffed animals. Her brother, too, but with the goal of dropping things from perch to ground to watch them break apart.
One day, I hear him crying and rush toward the sound. “I fell out” (gulp) “of the tree!” He is shaken and a little scuffed. I settle him onto the sofa and start checking him over, rib by rib (he landed face down and flat out). I make him breathe in and out, and I feel every rib and arm and leg bone, until I’m sure nothing is broken.
The words – warning, habit, instinct, prayer – come back to me, an echo now. Be careful. As in, how many times did I tell you. I try not to say it, but the words won’t be stopped.
Later, he tells me, “I don’t want to climb the tree again.”
And then I do what is counterintuitive, what goes against every instinct, what has to be wrung from my heart. I tell him that in another day or maybe two, I think he will want to climb the tree again. I say it, out loud, my voice making assurances my heart doesn’t buy. “Better to leave it alone,” I want to say. “This was enough. Lesson learned.”
But I don’t. He finds his nerve the next day and crawls up the trunk. I watch from twenty feet away, far enough that he can’t hear me when I whisper the words.
And I check myself this time. Because I know for sure, watching him climb, holding my breath, mapping out where the small scratches still show somewhere underneath his shirt – that something in me is, and will stay, broken.