Not Climbing Every Mountain
AC-RO-PHO-BIA is a word that entered my children’s vocabulary very early in their lives. Not only could they say it, they knew what it meant: “Mommy can’t go up high.” They’ve learned to live with it, as I have, and are now of an age where they understand that this phobia goes way back, and accept that it will continue to go forward as long as I do.
It’s my phobia, but my kids were equally invested in it. They have never stood on a mountain top and marveled at a breathtaking panorama with their mother at their side. Nor have they made the anxious ascent on a funicular or a rollercoaster clutching Mom’s hand for reassurance. Fortunately, I have just two children and their father has hands enough to hold them both safely.
Our vacations were always planned with my phobia in mind. No one suggested rock-climbing, or hiking mountain trails, or flying to Disneyworld. For years, our vacation needle was stuck on Cape Cod, with its quaint cottages and dazzling coastline beaches. When the children needed more than that, we branched out to sightseeing at destinations we could reach with longer car trips. If they involved nature walks, one of the kids would run ahead, scout the terrain, and report back with a thumbs-up if we could advance, or a definitive “Uh-uh” if there was a cliff walk in our path. While my children soared to breathtaking heights on ski lifts and glass elevators and simulated orbits at planetariums, my feet were firmly planted on terra firma, exploring the wonders in gift shops.
When the children were seven and nine, we did our civic duty and took them to Washington, D. C. I had written our senator and obtained tickets for a White House tour. We checked out the “Spirit of Saint Louis” at the Smithsonian. We paid our respects to Honest Abe. It was late afternoon when we made the long climb up the steps at the Jefferson Memorial, that beautiful rotunda overlooking the Potomac River that honors our third president. When we had read the plaques and inhaled the history and were ready to leave, I turned around and my knees locked. I saw nothing but open space beyond the platform we were standing on. I felt that if I stepped toward that horizon, I would step off the edge of the earth.
“I can’t make it to the stairs,” I said.
“You have to,” my husband Phil said. “There’s no other way down.” He called the guard over and explained our dilemma, which wasn’t easy for either of them. She’d never had a tourist who was unable to leave the memorial. She called for reinforcements. With the help of three guards, two kids, and one husband, I was able to take that first step down.
Fast forward a few years. We’re in Boston visiting Paul Revere’s house. The rooms were small and the staircase to the second floor so narrow it couldn’t accommodate two-way traffic. The only way out at the end of the tour was an open staircase clinging to the outside of the house. My knees locked.
“I can’t,” I said.
“You have to,” Phil said.
“I’ll meet you outside,” I said, then pushed my way down through a crowd of tourists on the way up.
Fast forward to the next decade. Phil and I were empty nesters. The kids were out of college, out of the house, gone. This was our time to see the world. We could do this now because I had conquered my fear of flying. My first flight, prophetically, was on a business trip to San Francisco, a city I’d always dreamed of seeing. That’s why I had agreed to take this trip after rejecting so many others. “I’ll get you a middle seat in the middle aisle, far away from the windows,” Phil promised. “You’ll never know you’re in the air.”
The morning we were to leave, he gave me both his airline ticket and mine before he left for work, saying, “See you at the airport.” As he was getting into the cab that would take him to the train station, I panicked and ran to the curb, insisting that he take his ticket. I could tell from the look on his face that he never expected to see me at JFK.
Back in the house, my ticket was on the dining room table. I circled it with growing anxiety; I picked it up and put it down. I went about my work pretending it wasn’t there. In the three hours before I would have to leave, I kept asking myself why I had said yes when Phil first offered me this trip. What was I thinking? I’d lived a good life without flying. Who needed it?
I desperately wanted my dream of seeing other parts of the world to become a reality and I knew this was my last chance to open doors that my fears had kept closed for so long. Damn it! I was getting on that plane.
Coming to San Francisco to live many years later, I thought about that first flight. Had I not taken it, I would not have been able to restart my life in this fabulous city. Not to mention all the traveling we’ve done to make up for lost time. On a trip to Italy, the highlight was to be a tour of the Cinque Terre. Even in Italy, where everywhere one looks there’s something beautiful to see, the Cinque Terre, five adjacent hill towns, each with its own awesome topography, are scenic wonders. We left our hotel in early morning and bused to the starting point. We walked through one town and took a train to the next, where we stopped for lunch on a terrace that looked out on a nearby mountain range. At one point, I looked up from my pasta and noticed that objects of some sort were moving along a ridge on the mountain’s steep façade, inside an open railing.
“My god!” I exclaimed. “Those moving things are people. Who’d be crazy enough to do that?” Turns out that was the path we would take to the next town. There was no turning back; we were two towns away from our hotel. Though I begged them to leave me behind, Phil and the tour leader refused.
“You can do it,” my fellow travelers insisted, anxious to get started on a walk with just a thin railing between them and certain death. I made that walk, my fingernails dug into Phil’s arm, never looking at the vistas that had the rest of the group gasping in awe. Was it a major breakthrough for me? Was I proud of myself? Would I do it again?
No, no, and no.
I now live in a city also famous for its hills and monuments and the awesome views you come upon in any direction you choose to take. Tourists from all over the world climb the Greenwich Steps on Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, where they take an elevator to the top for a stunning 360-degree view of the city. They hike the challenging trail to the top of Twin Peaks to catch a glorious sunrise. They make the steep climb up Nob Hill where they can look down on the rest of the city. I’m happy for them. But my life at ground level is high enough for me.
Fast forward one last time. We were en route to Hawaii on our first family vacation in many years. Grandchildren had been added to the mix. We were seated in the rear of the plane and when we landed, there was the usual crush of people ahead of us pushing their way to the front exit. Then a flight attendant announced, “Good News! The rear door is being opened. You people in the back can get out much faster that way.” Without looking, without even waiting for my knees to lock, I knew I wasn’t going to exit down the open ladder. This time, my children nodded knowingly and said, “We’ll meet you outside, Mom,” and headed for the ladder with Phil while I, once again, plunged into wrong-way traffic.
And there they all were, waiting for me when I finally reached the ground. Just like old times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Find your passion and follow it! - Oprah Winfrey
Cathy Fiorello’s passions are food, Paris, and writing. A morning at a farmers’ market is her idea of excitement and visiting Paris is her idea of heaven. And much of her writing is about food and Paris. She worked in publishing in New York, freelanced for magazines during her child-rearing years, then re-entered the work world as an editor. She moved to San Francisco in 2008 and published a memoir, Al Capone Had a Lovely Mother. In 2018, she published a second memoir, Standing at the Edge of the Pool. Cathy has two children and four grandchildren. Her mission is to make foodies and Francophiles of them all.