At a rock-climbing wall, a mother understands: Sometimes a little slack is all that a child needs.
As a very young child my daughter Phoebe would yell "I'm OK!" whenever she'd crashed or fallen but didn't want to stop her game. "I'm OK!" she yelled at age 4 when she got on her sister's two-wheeled bike but couldn't stop herself without careening into something. "I'm OK!" she said at 3 when, hopping up and down a set of cement steps in the park, she tumbled. Looking down at the happy, scrappy, scraped young child splayed at her feet, an astonished passerby said, "I wouldn't be."
She climbed into the kitchen sink before she could walk, pitched herself out of her crib before she could talk. But once she could talk she said, time after time, "I'm OK!"
From me there's been a lot of "cut it out, be careful, get down from there, put your helmet on!" I never thought I would have to drag that girl, at age 6, to an indoor rock-climbing gym.
The Maine Rock Gym is no Chamonix, but it is designed to hone real mountaineering skills. The walls rise up 35 feet, some angled away, some precipitous, some with muffin-top cliffs. Toeholds of various sizes and colors resemble candy placed to lure a creature up. With our harnesses on, my husband and I and two of our three daughters looked like a family of well-equipped handymen. But Phoebe hung back, fingers in her mouth.
"I don't want to," she said.
Let's be clear. Stubbornness – let's call it determination, stick-to-itiveness, tenacity – is what sent Phoebe crashing, on purpose, into our neighbors' bushes in lieu of using brakes her first day on a bike. To me, the climbing gym was an opportunity to literally harness Phoebe's desire to go high and soar. I begged, I explained, I even tried to bribe her, pointing to the M&M machine near the gym desk. "Uh-uh," she said, looking down.
I'm stubborn, too, and I could have eventually driven her, uh, up the wall. But I had to learn to belay – to hold and work the rope. In rock climbing, the system of rope, carabiner, and belay device allows a belayer to hold a climber's weight without much effort, to arrest a free fall, and thus possibly to save a life. It was heartbreaking to leave Phoebe standing there, but all I could do was kiss her and tell her she was free to change her mind.
Beyond the belayer and belaying equipment, the harness and ropes, and the feel of rocks under feet, the most important safety element in climbing is undoubtedly communication. The rock gym's owner-trainer drilled into us the must-say dialogue known as the climbing command:
Climber: On belay?
Belayer: Belay on!
Belayer: Climb away!
Before any ascent, this simple back-and-forth ensures that everyone is not only ready, but also paying attention. It should be a requirement in any relationship: Are you ready for me to depend on you?/ I'm ready./ I'm depending on you./ You can trust me.
And they did trust us. With soft clicks of equipment, the kids – all but Phoebe – headed up. Small feet feeling for toeholds, small hands and arms gripping, then letting go for the next level. Climbing even man-made mountainsides takes strength and focus. Each decision determines the next choice; each choice challenges the next decision.
Whenever I looked at Phoebe, she shook her head, "No." I couldn't look at her for long – belaying means dedication to your climber. It was nerve-racking to let the kids go so high. Even 3-year-old Elspeth went up, her miniature muscles carrying her almost to the top, maybe 25 feet. Most intimidating for me, though, was giving them enough slack to get down. Phoebe? Still bolted to the ground.
Then, our oldest, Esmé, went high up a vertical pitch and stopped where a bulging crag made it too difficult for her. She looked down. "Lower me!" The overhang prevented her from rappelling – hopping sideways down the rock face. She kicked away, she had to, and swung out overhead, joyful in midair. She flew back and forth, like Peter Pan on Broadway, as I let out the rope and brought her to the ground.
Although belaying is a series of making sure – making sure the carabiner is locked in place; making sure you're communicating; making sure you're holding the rope properly; making sure, after all, your climbing child is safe – it's a thrill to see a kid scale a huge rock, then swing in the air with the greatest of ease. I stood there, just watching, no longer worrying about what Phoebe was missing.
I felt a tug on my harness. "On belay, Mama," a quiet voice said. It sounded a lot like "I'm OK."