Halfway between Oslo and Bergen in Norway there is an enormous waterfall, created at the head of a fjord by a long departed glacier. We almost missed it. There was a small tacky tourist lodge by the side of the road and a simple wood sign. I left Margaret and Lydia in the car because Lydia was sleeping. Brian and I walked down a dirt path, following the roar of the falls. Coming around a corner, I was startled to find myself on the edge of a cliff with a 500 foot drop directly in front of me. The falls were fifty yards to my left, tumbling over the edge of the same cliff, sending a huge cloud of cooling spray all the way back up to where we stood.
There was no fence or other obstacle to keep the unwary traveller from plunging into the spray. I took Brian’s hand and carefully led him along the edge. He pulled at me, fearless at 9 years old, staring eagerly over the side at the drop.
“Daddy, could you dive in there?”
“No, are you crazy? No. Step back, Brian, step back. Daddy’s not too fond of heights.”
His eyes lit up mischievously. A weakness! “Come on, let’s look, you can dangle me over the edge.”
“Sit over here. Come over here now. Climb up here with me.”
We climbed up on a ledge. He inched forward. I followed him, crawling on hands and feet like a crab, now thinking I needed to prove I was not a wimp. We sat with our feet dangling over the edge of the precipice, water exploding hundreds of feet below. Brian tossed a rock down, it disappeared into the spray without a sound. He leaned forward, kicking his feet back and forth. I leaned back, one hand gripping the rocks behind me, the other on his shoulder.
“Daddy, do you think people ever jump from here?”
“Why do you ask questions like that?”
“What’s wrong with that question?” he asked innocently.
I sighed. “Why would they jump from here?”
“For adventure!” he said brightly, “Like Niagra Falls. A man went over those falls in a metal box! I saw it on television.”
“Don’t believe everything you see on television, Bri,” I said.
He threw another rock into the spray. “Daddy, can you let go of my shoulder, it stings.”
“Sorry, buddy.” I patted him lightly on the shoulder and forced a smile. I rested my arm lightly on his shoulder.
“Daddy, could you kill yourself if you jumped in there?”
“Why do people kill themselves?”
“Because they get very, very sad. But it’s more complicated than that. There are other reasons, too.”
“I don’t know, Bri.”
“Can you guess? Has anyone ever killed themselves here?”
“Can we not talk about that? Can we just not talk for a minute?”
I looked down. The water seemed to hang, suspended in a column from the clouds to the rocks below. The steady roar was soothing, hypnotic.
When I was twenty I went through a period of despondency that came upon me like a summer squall and turned me around and upside down like a beach umbrella blown loose. I could not understand it as it got worse, which frightened me. There should have been nothing wrong with me, I was a sophomore at an Ivy League college, barely surviving academically, but with so little effort that it gained me a measure of respect. I had just discovered that no one kept track if I got drunk every night. I wanted a girlfriend but couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to put up with me. I spent a lot of time by myself and I felt separated and defenseless, but could not figure out why. At the end of the year I trailed along with a group of people I didn’t know all that well to a end-of-school party in Newport. Late at night, after everyone had crashed at the old dormitory we were staying at, I took three more bottles of beer and staggered up the famous cliff walk. I started climbing off the path and found myself on the edge of a cliff, hundreds of feet over the ocean. I sat and drank the beer. I got up and walked to the edge and held my hands out. There was a breeze and it felt like I was flying. I could jump, I thought. I could jump and feel nothing until I hit the water. And then I’d be gone. There was something inside me that really wanted to leave this place. People would think and talk about me for months. Why? Why did he do it? He had so much to live for. The act would make me remarkable. And if I stay here, I thought, I just continue to pass, unnoticed, down this dreary road. I took a step forward and my foot found nothing beneath it. I started to fall forward. And then something clicked in me and my body jerked around, my arms thrashing back to grab at the earth. My body slid down a steep dirt incline. I grabbed a rock and hung on. I scrambled frantically back up on the ground, my heart pounding. I ran back to the dorm, falling down three times along the way. I crawled under the covers of my cot and curled myself up into a ball, my knees bleeding, unable to catch my breath. I have since refused to think long of that moment, veering away from it with stark shame whenever it floats to the edge of my mind. It feels like I did an awful, terrible thing.
“I don’t know if anyone has jumped from here, Brian,” I said sharply, “Okay? I don’t know!”
“Can you guess?” he said calmly.
“No! I have no idea.”
“Would you die if you jumped from here?”
“Yes. You would smash into a thousand pieces.”
“What about Niagra Falls? People jump off that.”
“Crazy people. And most of them die.”
“Do you have to be crazy to kill yourself?”
“No," I said more calmly, "no you don’t. Not at all.”
“Really?” he said, surprised. He threw another rock into the spray. “I don’t get it. It must be awful to be that sad. Have you ever been that sad, Daddy?”
“What? Oh, I’m sorry, Daddy, I started talking again.”
“You’ll never be that sad, Brian. Okay? Never. But promise me you’ll tell me any time you feel bad, okay? Even a little bit. You can always tell me, okay? Be careful, okay?”
“Careful? You mean in high places? Near cliffs?”
He looked at me for several seconds, puzzled, then he shrugged.
“Okay,” he said. He stuck his head under my arm and leaned his head against my chest. “Why do you get sad sometimes, Daddy?”
“I don’t know and no, I can’t guess.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“Well, we can always cheer each other up, right?”
“Yes, you can always cheer me up.”
“Are you ever sad with me?”
“Me neither, so we should stay together all the time, forever. Hey, I’m hungry!”
He jumped up and stepped toward the edge.
He stepped back quickly, smiling slyly.
“You want to go up to that lodge?" I said, "maybe they have a snack bar.” I tossed one last rock into the spray.
“Yes! Come on! Watch this, Daddy!”
He threw a rock as far as he could. It sailed a surprising distance, disappearing into the haze. I crawled away from the edge and stood shakily. He hopped on his toes and clapped his hands. He watched me, smiling, wide-eyed and utterly relaxed. We are not going to be able to stay together all the time forever, Brian. For a while we can, but then you'll be older. That’s when it will get scary again.
“Be careful by the edge, Daddy,” he said. “Come on, follow me up the hill.”
The falls roared behind us, relentless. Brian
walked ahead of me, singing an unrecognizable tune, his voice high enough
to be heard, barely, over the crashing water. I moved slowly up the hill,
looking at the ground and carefully planting each foot in front of the
other, trying not to grip his hand too hard.
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
Archive of Recent Activities - Advice for Submitters
Enhanced Navigational Coherency - Long-Ass List of Contributors
Super Lo-Tech Slideshow - Five Years Ago? - Four Years Ago - Three Years Ago
Two Years Ago Today - Last Year Today