Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…


“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.

True friends are like stars…


“True friends are those rare people who come find you in dark places and lead you back to the light.”

It was never the one person I kept looking for, desperate for her to hold on to me, who ultimately grabbed me as I was sliding over the cliff. It was everyone else who pulled me to safety. I can see them only in reflection, like stepping stones along a treacherous path become invisible when you’ve reached your destination beside a gurgling brook, wildflowers blowing in the breeze. Yet they were there long before the journey through and will be there long after. I was inside the deepest cave; I couldn’t see my own hand held in front of me. These friends didn’t jump into the darkness with me, instead sat beside me and listened to my story. My ambassador who knows how to conduct herself shook her head in frustration, “You are telling too many people far too much,” she said. My heart didn’t care. Each time I told the story it became more believable to me. It felt like life or death. The heart chooses to hold on.

These lights touched me in the parking lot of my girls’ dance studio, the grocery store, Costco, the sidelines of soccer games, school functions. I sat in the chairs in my therapists’ offices, my most trusted friends. They lit the darkness like homemade luminaries made of brown paper bags and small wax candles, sand holding me to the earth. They asked me to coffee, lunch or dinner, to go for a walk, take my kids to do something fun with their friend. They read my posts on Facebook and liked them or commented or sent me a private message that said me too, I’m so sorry. My extended family with parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, was a place I could go where there is always a seat reserved for me without condition. Saving a place for those I care about is part of my DNA. So many cheered me on as I went through the poisonous fog and the tunnels and into the underworld where only I could go, but I had to choose to remember them, these ones who saved me.

It seemed like I was by myself, no one came to my rescue. The one person I thought would come for sure didn’t. I called her a friend because I traveled to the depths of her worst fears alongside her. She asked if I believed in God. I said I did, He shows up for you through others. She asked what’s going to happen and I told her “it’s going to be okay, I don’t know how, but it will.” She came to me on her knees when furniture would be taken. I said I wouldn’t let her go to ruin. I gathered her tribe; collected her tears for a year, held her grief and her place for when she was ready. When I was on my knees, I assumed she just didn’t realize what had happened. I’m asking too much, she’s busy getting her life back together, I’m not as worthy of saving as she is. I kept telling her the details, she read the letters, listened and nodded, gasped at the appropriate times to gasp but never came to my door or offered a seat next to her–when she was the only one who could. I pushed her away, “it’s your fault I couldn’t help you,” she said. I didn’t want to betray you but you asked for too much, her soul said. I was the fool.

Like a toddler learning to trust wobbly legs and the mom who is rarely seen by these new eyes because she is behind spotting, making sure he doesn’t fall down the stairs or break his brand new tooth on the stone fireplace or skin his knee raw on the patio chasing a runaway bouncy ball, I couldn’t see the hundreds of people who sent me love through the universe—tea lights lit while I walked through the dark night. This wireless love made me feel held and safe and most importantly, reminded me there are good people in the world and the rules for that club still apply. Kindness, compassion, generosity, mercy, grace were still in a world that looked to have been turned upside down. “God is here and He shows up through others,” I reminded myself.

Once in awhile, you are uniquely qualified to be of service and that is what compelled me to help my friend who seemed to be in dire straights every couple years—and at the same time I was. When I was swept off my feet, she was the person who could have held out the branch to me, lifting me from the flooding river. She could have validated my pain. God had other plans for me. My test was to receive what was given and it wouldn’t be from her. God spoke through every act of kindness and compassion sent my way. He was always there, behind me, ready to hold on when I couldn’t anymore. But I never fell hard enough that I couldn’t get back up on my own. I learned how to hold on to me by holding on to others when they fell. My friend and I were mountain climbers tethered together each holding an ax. If one falls, the other anchors and saves both. One is saved physically and one emotionally, both will come down the mountain changed forever.

The second part of the story that’s rarely depicted in the movie theater is what happens in the aftermath when the danger of death has subsided. Are they grateful to be alive or do they relegate the experience to the dark cave, never looking at it again? Does the one who was saved face the gravity of nearly dying but for the generosity of another, forget the mercy that was given? Maybe they rationalize why the other person saved them: they had no choice they just happened to be there, if it wasn’t her it would have been someone else, they are weak, I didn’t ask for saving so I don’t owe them anything, they are a fool for risking their own life for me.

The hero could follow this thinking too. I risked my life for this person? How could they not feel the terror and sacrifice I made for them? I am a fool, the hero second guesses. How can she not see me when I held her very life in my hands? I didn’t give up on her even when it could have cost me my own life. Should I have used my ax to cut the rope and watched her fall while I clung to the frozen ground for my own life? Should I have just saved myself, after all, she was kind of an asshole too many times. No one would blame me and she wouldn’t have done it for me. Is her life more important than mine?

Both are at risk of hanging over the bottomless crevasse forever. Around and around they go hanging from deteriorating ropes. The hero is weakened by the inches of snow piling over the years, the lack of acknowledgment of the profound difference she made for this other person. Maybe it didn’t happen. The saved one hardened to avoid looking at how vulnerable she really was—looking at death. Gratitude, vulnerability, love can only be felt when your heart is open to yourself and others. It’s far easier to project your unworthiness onto another, someone who thought you were worth saving when you don’t see it. It’s easier to pretend it never happened, to feel anger instead of anguish.

The only trail off this cold, bitter mountain is through grace, God. He was there. The saved one was not saved for the hero and the hero did not save her because she was deserving of being saved. They were on different mountains, their journeys merely intersected for a brief encounter. Making it to the top requires looking up into the swirling clouds and blinding sun, not down into fear and selfishness.

The final leg of the journey requires different equipment. The saved one needs empathy to understand the depth of fortitude it took to use that ax to secure both of them instead of cutting the rope. It requires humility to know that mercy was offered and received–after all, she looked the hero in the eye and begged to be delivered from her worst nightmare. They need love in their heart for themselves so they understand their life was saved for a reason and it didn’t have anything to do with who saved them. It requires grace.

The hero was saving herself. She listened to the voice inside that knew for sure cutting the rope, sending her friend to her destruction, would be cutting her own rope. She knew for sure this would be the end of the friendship either way. The only choice she had was to save them both or die trying. What you do when no one is looking, in an instant, when no one really knows what happened is the measure of your worth. If the hero would have cut the rope between them, she would have cut herself off from her own heart, belonging, connection to humanity, from God. She chose to hold on to herself by holding on to another.

I chose to look for the luminaries along my path with gratitude, mercy, and grace.