This little story is about determination and courage and self-realization. Not mine- mine was, at best, incidental- but the tremendous act of will demonstrated by my daughter, Elaine.
Our tale takes place against the backdrop of a nature walk through the mangrove-swampy wilderness of the National Conservation Foundation in Lekki, Lagos; a trip that my little lady had been looking forward to for days and days. However, it is not about swamps or birds or little green snakes; it is mainly about a Tree and Two People. Granted, there were more than two people present, but I cannot speak to their own experience… only mine.
This impressive bit of fauna stands just off to the right of the damp, green-coated plank bridge that is the main feature of the tour at the NCF and is the site of a modest tree house, at the top of a far-from-modest 80-foot climb.
When Elaine excitedly announced that she wanted to climb up to the tree house, I casually agreed, on the condition that I would climb behind her. At that point, I hadn’t really looked up to see where that tree-house was mounted. When we got to the platform from which we were to make the climb up the ladder, I did look up… and I faltered.
She was already attacking the ladder and I was right behind her, but with much less enthusiasm, as I was struggling with a sudden, fierce contemplation of Gravity. In my fearful mind, Gravity took on a malevolent persona that had the sole purpose of snatching away my child. As we ascended, and I looked up past my daughter to the far-away platform at the top of the tree, and the impassive sky above us all, all I could think of was whether I would be able to save her if she lost her footing, or slipped, or froze, or got a splinter in her palm, or any of a number of horrible scenarios that my hyperactive imagination was delivering in rapid succession.
This convoy of terrors affected me so strongly that, to my eternal shame, I started trying to dissuade Elaine from going any further. “You know, Elaine, maybe we should not go any higher,” I said. “Why?” she asked me, and I embarked on a clumsy, mumblety-fumblety explanation of how the tree house was really too far off, and really quite dangerous, and maybe she wasn’t ready, and that coming down would be much harder, and how we could come back again another time and try again…
None of these risks were unfounded, mind you, despite the wooden cage built around the ladder itself- an accident held the prospect of an 80-foot drop- but it only took me one look at the pure disappointment and sorrow on Elaine’s face to bring me to the realisation that I was polluting my child’s aspirations with my own fears; poisoning the fount of her exhilaration with my doubt; and curbing her quest for self-realisation with my own desire for safety. This would be a defining moment for her- one in which she dared to challenge herself with a task that, if conquered, would strengthen her character, build her confidence, craft an indelible, life-shaping memory, and assure her that achievement often only requires effort- and I was on the verge of shattering that moment. Shame!
In the short space of seconds it took for me to contemplate these thoughts, through my shame, I received my lesson; for what is life but an endless procession of opportunities, each offering its own penalties and rewards? To climb and see much, fraught with the certainty of hardship and risk, but also the promise of growth and enlightenment; or to remain still and, perhaps, secure, fraught with (at least) as much risk and considerably fewer rewards?
We climbed up that tree! All the way to the tree house at its top; Sat for a moment to savor our sense of accomplishment; Braved the downward look that preceded our return to earth; Then we climbed down!
My daughter came down with a childhood memory that will mold her adult sense-of-self, and an experience that will prop her up in times of hardship.
I descended with gratitude; for my shame and the deeds it can inspire; for finding the ability to be a father to my child and; for simply being able… to climb a tree.