A few steps from the drop-off at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon, my children gathered around their father. My 5-year-old son was picking up small rocks and stuffing them into the pockets of his blue shorts. His twin sister, oblivious of the seemingly bottomless void before her, dreamily twisted back and forth, staring at the sky. My older daughter listened to her father’s lecture about how the canyon was formed, unconcerned that a stumble could send her screaming into the pit.
Twenty feet behind them I stood, too terrified to warn them about the danger. What if one of the girls toppled over backward and fell into that endless chasm? What if my son reached for a rock and lost his balance and fell onto these wicked boulders far, far below?
I had read the brochures about the Grand Canyon, about how majestically the waters of the Colorado River below had beautifully carved the rocky sides, and how the width of the huge river looked as if it had been reduced to a silvery thread. Earlier that day I had inched my prone body right up to the edge just so I could see the glory — and it was glorious. Lying on my stomach with my eyes peeking over the edge was agony. What if the edge crumbled and I fell down into those cruel depths?
That sounds like acrophobia, but my fear isn’t of heights; it is basophobia, a fear of falling from those terrible heights. When I soared with my husband in his ultra-light plane, the view from 1,500 feet was spectacular. We floated over trees and cows, we waved at people on the ground, and we listened to the tiny sounds of Earth — even heard a cat meowing. I was not afraid of the height. I was afraid that, even while tightly cinched with two seat belts, I might slip out the open door and plummet into the giant oak trees below. The violence of the landing, should I fall, was not part of my fear. Probable death was not part of my fear. The actual falling, the total loss of control, the heart-stretching agony of the uncontrolled plunge contaminated the joy of the flight.
When we visited friends in Atlanta, we stayed at the beautifully decorated Peachtree Hotel and were pampered by the excellent staff there, but accessing our room on the 20th floor required courage. The glass-enclosed bubble of an elevator was exposed on three sides. While other passengers jockeyed for position near the glass, I cowered on the building side and faced the solid back wall.
Standing on the balcony atop the Space Needle, and on that terrible, beautiful deck of the Empire State Building, has twisted my innards, drained the strength from my legs, and silenced my voice. With the barriers there, falling would have to be deliberate, but still my gut experienced that endless drop to the Earth below.
At the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a 40-foot walkway projects over the trees below, and guests there can get an airplane-like view of the surrounding area. By walking very carefully directly down the middle of the walkway and not looking to the right or left, I managed to join my family there, until we reached the small area, about six feet square, where the floor is replaced with glass. Thousands of visitors have walked over that glass and no one has fallen, but I could not do it. My feet would not move, and I stood on the safe side while my family exclaimed about the beauty below and urged me to join them.
Today my age and COVID-19 guarantee that never again will I be required to exist at a higher elevation than my third-floor balcony, where a chest-high metal railing protects me — that is unless an earthquake demolishes the building or a tornado blows me into the night — or COVID-19 comes to visit me.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.