Elizabeth Willis Barrett………….April 2015
“Stay away from the cliff,” Mama called to Charlie for the 426th time, but Charlie didn’t listen even though he pretended to. He’d heard those words so many times that they just bounced off his hard reward-centered brain like a ping pong ball and got imbedded in the walls with all the other words he didn’t like hearing.
“Don’t go near it or you’ll fall off!” Mom’s voice got hysterical as it always did but Charlie grinned and promised again that he’d never get close enough to fall over its edge.
“Silly Mama,” he nearly added as he put a slight shake in his head and continued his exit through the kitchen door and out into the inky blackness. As usual he called back:
“Just lookin’, Mama. Just checking it out. Trust me. Don’t worry.”
Those words: “Trust me” and “Don’t worry” had become for Mama a red flag that was heaved and waved and blazed with the words “Don’t trust me, Mama, and you’d sure as heck better worry.” The flag waved so close to her in her waking hours and as she tried to sleep that it was hard to see anything else—-the pride of Marie’s straight A report card, the thrill of Margo’s piano recital. “Don’t trust me, Mama. Worry.” had become an unwelcome and constant mantra.
It was a dangerous place to live Mama knew, but they had tried other places. And those had had their own cliffs and dangers. Was there anywhere in the world that didn’t have a unique set of perils? The four other children didn’t have a problem with the cliff. They stayed away and found activities that kept them from even looking in the cliff’s direction.
But Charlie was different. For some reason, known only to the Creator of all mankind, his focus was riveted on the cliff and no matter how many times Mama told him to stay away, there he was just teetering on its edge. Mama begged and pleaded and bribed but it didn’t make any difference. She might as well have been attempting to teach math to a cougar. It didn’t stop her from trying though. Somewhere in her vast vocabulary, there must be just the right words she could say. And in all of her abundance of great ideas there must be one that would finally illuminate Charlie, make him see the error of his ways and get him back on the path leading far from the edge of the cliff.
On a particularly terrifying night Mama heard Charlie calling from a distance and knew at once what had happened…finally happened….inescapably happened. Mama jumped out of bed and grabbed the rope she kept nearby for this anticipated emergency and ran out into the night barefoot and nightgowned.
“Charlie,” she called. “Charlie?” more insistent. “Charlie, Mama is here. Tell me exactly where you are so I can help you.”
Mama ran along the edge of the cliff forcing her eyes to slide away the darkness so she would know where to throw the rope.
“Here, Mama.” Finally a faint call and she heaved the rope over the edge.
“Grab it, Charlie. Grab it. I’ll pull you up. Grab it, Charlie.” Her voice was choking. Her eyes were streaming. What if she wasn’t strong enough to pull him up? What if her hands slipped? What if he was too heavy for her and he pulled her down over the cliff instead?
And that’s what happened. Mama gave one futile tug and Charlie’s weight—bloated with defiance, selfish arrogance, stupidity and disregard for her well-being and safety—pulled her down over the cliff and she landed with an agonized crumple on top of him.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” whispered Charlie when he could finally speak. “I’m sorry, Mama. I won’t go to the edge again. I won’t. You’ll see.”
Hope eased into Mama’s battered limbs. “This fall was worth it,” she thought. “At last he will stay away from the cliff and we can all pay attention to other things.”
After Mama and Charlie were ceremoniously and painfully rescued, Charlie kept his word—for a time, a short time. Then the old pattern blasted back ready for battle. Charlie spent even more time at the edge of the cliff and Mama spent even more time trying to keep him away. The other children felt neglected. The Disneyland fund was spent on a protective—but ineffective—wall. The money set aside for a new bathroom was spent on classes for Charlie. In them he was supposed to learn ways to stay away from the cliff. But he didn’t learn them and he didn’t stay away.
Mama never ventured far from home since she needed always to be ready to save Charlie from himself. She was missing out on a lot of things she had planned on doing at this stage of her life. But isn’t that what mothers do? Sacrifice? She adored Charlie. She’d give her life for him.
Her saving attempts forcefully wrenched her over the cliff so often that she had lost count of the times and the bruises and Charlie’s whispered and insincere promises ceased to make the fall worthwhile.
One night while lying in the muck at the bottom of the cliff with Charlie’s assurances rattling around in her despairing mind, other words came to her that she had heard over and over:
“You have to let him go.”
“You are as addicted to Charlie as Charlie is to the cliff.”
“He will never stay away from the cliff if you keep rescuing him.”
At last those words made sense to her. Here at the bottom of the cliff, wallowing with her beloved son, those words finally made sense. And something happened.
It had tried to happen before but Mama just hadn’t been desperate enough. Perhaps she hadn’t hit the rock bottom that all the experts raved about. She had thought the rock bottom analogy was for Charlie’s necessary change. But maybe rock bottom applied to her, too. And she had hit it.
“No where to go but up,” she thought. And saying nothing, she walked away, ignoring Charlie’s calls of “Mama, Mama. Where are you going? You’re not going to leave me down here all alone. Mama?” At last Mama found a way to climb out of the gloom and home again.
After that, Mama lived her life. After all, if she didn’t, who would? And Charlie lived his. It wasn’t the best life to be wished on a son, but it was his life and little by little it started getting better. When Charlie finally understood that Mama wasn’t going to be his savior anymore, he started reaching down into his own rescuing options and found that he had a few to choose from. With tedious effort, he eventually turned from the cliff and explored paths that held greater promise.
For Mama, life became doable again. Joy invaded the cracks made by everyday happenings and peace left its calling card much more often.
The cliff, the looming hated cliff, seemed to dissolve into the horizon and Mama, just like Charlie, gladly turned her back on it and followed safer paths. Sometimes she even followed Charlie—but not too often and not too close.