One of the greatest delights in my life is seeing my sister’s children after a long time of not. When they were babies I would run into the house and scoop them up from their cribs or bouncers or would search the house elated to find diapered toddlers at my feet. And now that they are growing they only grow more and more beautiful and complex and brilliant. I got to see Nathaniel (Natty) a few weeks ago.
He swung open the door into the lobby of the blue collar diner my mother and father rave about, and I don’t mind too much myself, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in Somewhere, Tennessee. He has a new haircut. At age 8, he has surpassed me in weight and almost in height and wears a men’s size 10 shoe. He wears a t-shirt and basketball shorts. I can’t squeeze him long or tight enough. He gives me his usual sheepish, mischievous grin and little head nod as I rave over him. He is so big! But his cheeks and arms are still baby soft. His ears make me drool just a little. I rub them with both hands like a good luck charm. He sits by me. He rides with me back to the hotel and asks how I am doing, how my drive over was, how is work and how both Wendy and Oscar (the cat) are faring in England. He has always been the best little sidekick, easy with conversation and the vicissitudes of life.
We spend the next morning zip lining, something he and Dad conjured up. I thought zip lining was breezing over trees in tropical places looking for parrots and pretty plants. It is not. It involves wearing a helmet that smells like someone else's sweat and climbing up in huge tree “stands” and jumping from swing to swing or walking along a tightrope. All while you are very, very, very high in the air. It was awful. An acrophobic nightmare. Although I knew I was secured by the line attached to me, I didn’t want to fall and have to attempt to regain balance with nothing to hold on to! I bloody wanted down. When we finally reached a platform that involved standing on a swing and “riding” from one tree to the next, my confession fell out. “I want down,” I said out loud. Dad, ever so patient and calm, encouraged me to simply jump. Even Natty the Brave was afraid of the skateboard tied to a rope suspended high in the treetops. I was sweating profusely, not due to heat but fear. Natty, my heart in a boy, cried when he reached the other side and the mother in me hugged him when I could finally reach him. I told him we could get down at any time. He looked at me as if I were insane and announced he was doing the Extreme Course next. With tears still on his baby soft cheek, he had already forgotten the terror of the suspended skateboard and could hardly wait for all the danger that lay ahead. But it still remained fresh in my mind and Dad and I voted to get off the course as soon as our feet hit solid ground. And we did.
On the last “obstacle” I had to hold myself up by a swinging rope, high in the trees. Since hand surgery I have no grip strength. I was petrified. I saw visions of myself suspended, hanging head first and losing my hotel powdered egg breakfast. But Dad was right there beside me and he coached me through the entire thing and he even went first and was there to catch me. Literally. I gripped that dumb, stupid rope with my left hand and hoisted my 5’4” 130ish lb self into my father’s arms. And then I had tears on my cheeks, not because we finally reached the ground, but because for 2.5 hours I treaded lightly and fearfully among those treetops with my dad’s voice in my head, his arms there to catch me, his words to coach me along each step and his encouragement cheering me on. We laughed too and although my palms are sweating as I write this just thinking about the experience, it wasn’t all that bad. It was an unpleasant experience with little glimmers of thrill but mostly altogether unpleasant. But it was saturated with my father’s voice, firm when he needed to be and yet so gentle, kind and reassuring. I was five and we were in the woods at Reed Creek. He was firmly teaching me how to safely shoot a rifle, jump across the creek or start the tractor and I could smell the fescue. And all was right with the world and I was immensely secure.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I lack…He leads me along right paths. I fear no danger for you are with me. You anoint my head with oil. Only goodness and faithful love with pursue me all the days of my life.”
The joy and the pleasure of my father’s voice. It moves mountains and it calms storms. I’ve been hearing it ever since those hours in the treetops. I hear it in my prayers as I offer up my fears of no money and growing old and spending my last dime going back to Africa. And I can hear His voice, Father God, full of love, yet firm with instruction and wisdom. And I know He’s got me. As firmly as a zip line secured to my chest, He holds me. And although I slip, I will not fall. I cannot.
We left the treetops and went for a swim in a picture perfect swimming hole and went for ice cream. Natty and I played “Would You Rather” on the car ride back to Nashville so he could, “get to know you (me) better.” I learned that he would rather have an elephant as a pet than an aardvark and he learned I would rather give blood and have a root canal on the same day than ever go zip lining again.