Sometimes you say those words out loud, sometimes the words just fly around in your head like trapped butterflies, but either way the feeling is the same: you’ve just looked down, and you’ve seen how far there is to fall, and your breath catches in your throat and you hug the rock a little harder and even though you know that all there is to do is keep climbing, there’s a part of you that just wants to stop and stay where it’s safe. Because it’s terrifying, that oh shit moment. It’s the moment when you realize, oh god, I could fall. And if I fall it will hurt. If I fall I could die. And, you know, you don’t want that.
You rarely have those moments on the ground, but when they do happen on the ground, they’re no less terrifying. They’re more terrifying, actually, because the ground is supposed to be safe. You can’t fall from the ground, right? Still, it happens, and when it does the feeling is exactly the same: a momentarily deafening vertigo, the infinite seconds of complete breathlessness, the panicked butterflies leaping from your head to your stomach and back again, beating the same frantic poem with their wings, ohshit ohshit ohshit ohshit ohshit. And the thing is, you weren’t even looking down.
I was in the hallway outside of a conference room, taking a call from my doctor, when it first happened. I was in a radiology office the second time, and laying on my back in a very dark room with an ultrasound machine the third (I was looking up that time, which fact did not escape me. Have you ever been afraid while looking up, I asked myself. My self didn’t answer. My self was working very hard to catch her breath and manage the vertigo.) The fourth time I actually was up a mountain, on a very big rock, refusing to check the messages from my doctor’s office on my phone. I tested myself and looked down and wasn’t at all surprised to find that there was no vertiginous oh shit moment to be had right there, because I was deep within one already. Falling held no terror because there was something that I was more afraid of, something contained within a voicemail message on my phone.
I returned the call when we were part way down the mountain, even though I didn’t really want to. Prolonging these things is a little like staying stuck on the rock, looking down and looking up and being terrified to move. Not moving doesn’t make the fear go away, which is why you always, always move. Up or down, doesn’t matter; the only way through the fear is movement, and getting yourself either to the summit or the firm safe ground below. So I called.
The rock that I’m standing on is a lump in my breast. We don’t know how precarious this rock is, whether it’s a rock that I can climb up from or that I will be forced to climb down from, but we do know that it’s a rock that I have to pause upon and evaluate. And I am whispering oh shit not because I am up too high, but because the rock is unstable. It could give way beneath my feet. I can’t just climb through this, not now, not yet. The mammograms and the ultrasound have told me to stop where I am. I will have a biopsy next, and it will tell me for sure whether the rock is tipping, whether the rock could hurt me or kill me, and I will know what to do. I will climb up or down or sideways and maybe I will fall and maybe I won’t fall. But I will be terrified either way. I am terrified.
I quell the terror by looking up and to the side and all around. In some moments, I look down. If I calm my breathing I am able to take it all in, the sky and the sunlight and the air. The view from here. It’s a good view, a worthy view. I am glad to be here, at this height. Whatever happens. Because whatever happens, I will still climb.