I fall to pieces

This morning while scrambling around atop a 12-foot ladder touching up spots where pure white still showed through Violet Essence (Behr ceiling paint), then brushing deep purple Mardi Gras* over the coverage gaps under the crown molding, I wondered at my intermittent fear of heights.

(*By all means, go for Behr Plus premium paint and primer all in one when painting with deep colors. It is worth the price.)

This morning said fear was nowhere to be found, which is usually the case when I’m painting. But on occasion, I’ve been known to fall to pieces over fear of falling.

When I paint, I’ve been known to dangle by one foot from a rung of a ladder atop a set of stairs – or worse – and being an ambidextrous painter, I can really contort to reach spots. You do what you’ve got to do.

(Tess worries about both John and I when we get too high or in precarious positions. Yesterday she scolded us a couple of times, then shook her head and went downstairs. When we’re being too foolhardy, she can’t bear to watch.)

Pam and I loved to climb atop the framing for new houses when we were in junior high and Indian Hills was being built up around us, and when we were ready to get down, it was via leaping onto sandpiles down below.

Scared? Not us. We’d also climb trees like boys, something I did my whole youthful life.

But on occasion, paralysis strikes. One summer my project was painting the back of this three-story house – the historically correct khaki had to go, replaced by a lovely historically correct taupe. (Historic district rules rule when it comes to the exterior.) The dangling from a ladder to reach that last tiny spot right … over … there… didn’t bother me, but I spent an afternoon stuck on the laundry room roof when I couldn’t see the ladder to climb down.

I’d gotten up there just fine, but something about reaching my foot blindly for a ladder leaning against the wall – well, it just wasn’t happening that day. John couldn’t hear me calling him, so I just hung out until he came and found me.

That was mild. I really got myself into a predicament in the attic a few years ago. Actually, the attic was in the process of being converted into a third-story loft bedroom, and it had no floor – just beams and a piece of plywood here and there.

What happened was I’d been searching everywhere for something so important that I can’t remember what it was. As I was reading the paper one Sunday morning, I had an “Aha!” moment – it was in the attic! John was out of town for work, but it couldn’t wait, so I went running upstairs, barefoot with ankle-length, heavy pink terry bathrobe flying.

I ran up the rickety, leaning original (circa 1895) attic stairs, sans handrail, and across a beam to a plywood patch. I quickly found the mystery object, then turned around, looked down, and realized what I’d done. Gulp. The floor was about 14 feet below. I froze.

No cell phone, no shoes. Damn. I tried to think what to do. I knew I couldn’t get back across if I couldn’t breathe, so sitting down and breathing was the first thing to do. Then thinking came next.

Nothing came to me. After a while, I knew I had to get back to the stairs, so I tried a tentative step. My heavy robe wobbled. Off it came – I think I dropped it to the floor below, but I know I stood there buck naked. My next thought was, “Great, now if I fall and die, whoever finds me will think I’m a nudist maniac.”

At least I’d be dead.

Standing around naked will get you moving, so that worked to my advantage. I took a deep breath, held it, and scrambled back across a beam as fast as I could. Made it fine with nary a wobble. But it took my heart a while to quit thumping.

John hadn’t witnessed my occasional panics before it happened in Costa Rica during our first-anniversary trip. We’d decided to go to Boca del Toro in Panama, but when we got to the border crossing at the Sixaola River border crossing bridge, we knew something was amiss. Traffic was at a standstill.

Sixaola Costa Rica/Panama border crossing

That’s because the bridge across the river had a big hole in it. (Remember the old poster, “Bridge Out”? The one that said, “Oh, shit”? I had it in my bedroom as a teen, and that was my reaction to this bridge’s hole.)

Crossing into Panama on this day required navigating a hole in the bridge.

We were escorted from immigration to the bridge and told to walk across a beam. A BEAM over a deep ravine next to a rain-swollen rushing river. Hah!

My agile, youthful, older (by 4 ½ years) husband grabbed our backpack, scampered across and turned back to me with a look of surprise that I hadn’t followed him. “Come on, Laura,” he said. “It’s easy.”

“No,” I replied. “Nope, that won’t be happening. I’m not coming.”

John grew alarmed at my stubbornness, and everyone else grew annoyed. All the Tico and Panamanian workers talked about la señora being loca, but I didn’t care. I was frozen. It was a beam covered in mud and slime, and mist was falling from the sky. No way was I walking across that expanse. It was a mile wide.

Not really, but it might as well have been. From the picture, you can see that it wasn’t even that long. But it was much deeper a drop than the angle of the photos show.

That hole in the bridge felt a mile wide.

Finally a nice señor came over and offered me his mud-covered forearm as he stood on a lower beam. What could I do? I rested my hand on his arm (OK, death-clinched his arm), held my purse close to me and walked gingerly across, John coaching, “Don’t look  down!” the whole time.

I might have whacked him with my purse when we got across. But he took learning that his bride could be mulish quite well. The trip to Panama went downhill from there, but that’s a story for another time.

This is about heights and painting and labors of love. Fortunately I’m a scaffolder’s wife, because we’ve got a cathedral ceiling that needs painting in our future.


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