Worn out from an event-filled day with my third grade students, I was annoyed to find that as I called my youngest son in from the small grove of trees on the far end of the South Campus field we call Bragdon Wood, there was no response. As I shielded my eyes from the late afternoon sun and squinted, I could see a couple of shadowy figures hanging from the trees. “Thank goodness,” I thought, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to trudge across that field for the fifteenth time that day. But it was two other kids, who slid down the tree trunks and ran towards me. “Mrs. Midani,” they yelled. "He’s stuck, he’s stuck!” I walked over, and sure enough, there among the branches was my son, his arms hugging a tree branch and his legs splayed out at a strange angle, but his feet looking secure... for the moment.
My mind flashed back to a similar scene. When I was younger I had an incorrigible orange tabby cat named Lucy, who, despite being offered the privileged life of an indoor cat, insisted on darting out between my legs and into the wild blue yonder every time I would open the door. One day she ran straight up a tree. My mother and I had watched the cat become more and more terrified as we coaxed her and offered her treats, while pacing and biting our nails. “Do we actually call the fire department? Is that really a thing people do?” we had asked each other.
Doubting that the fire department was an option here either, I went into Mom Mode. “How can I help?” I blurted out instinctively, running to the bottom of the offending tree and estimating mentally how far, fast, and awkwardly he could fall from that height. But since I’m not good at either math or physics, I’m sure my guesses were wildly inaccurate.
My son’s two friends scrambled back up the tree trunk and onto adjacent limbs at roughly the same height. I feared there were about to be three stuck kids in the tree instead of one. Or that they were going to clamber onto the limb with him, somehow shaking him off in their clumsy attempts to help. But instead, I began to realize that these boys were no ordinary kids climbing up some trees. Their tree climbing skills had been sharpened through experience: considering, sizing up, debating, and finally testing out every last limb of that tree during countless recesses. In other words, they were experts. They were Saint Constantine kids.
They perched on their nearby branches and began the process of initiating my son into the art of climbing. “Okay, there are three ways off that limb. One is in front of you, if you can swing your leg over and kind of slither like a snake onto the other branch. The second is behind you. There are two kind of knots on the branch that you can wedge your shoe into, if you think you can turn around and swing your leg over. The third is to jump straight down.”
But because I was standing there, my son considered another default option first. “Mom, can you catch me?” he asked. I could see the fear in his eyes. I considered whether I could manage it. But just underneath him was a tree trunk, with knobby pieces that made it anything but flat. I had a vision of myself standing on it and holding my arms up, with my son trying to slide down into my arms, and his nine-year-old, already-tall body bowling me over, with us both being scraped up by that knobby tree trunk. Probably broken bones would be involved on my part. Nope. Not happening.
“I can’t, buddy,” I said, shaking my head sadly. “You’re going to have to do this yourself.” I thought back again to my orange tabby up in the tree. While we had gone inside to consider the conundrum, the cat, of course, had run straight down. She was just waiting for us to stop panicking, I guess. Then I added, “If you get up the tree, you can get down.”
And so, realizing that only time and my son’s own wits were going to solve this, I sat down and waited, and his friends slid back on their limbs to give my son his space, while continuing their silent vigil high above.
What a metaphor for life, I thought. How many times do we all get stuck up a tree, in a sense? How many times have we found ourselves in some situation that seemed good at one time, but now feels inescapable?
The supposed dream job that has become nothing but drudgery.
The marriage that no longer seems to be leading to happily ever after.
The strained family relationship that seems irreparable.
The medical diagnosis that brings life to a standstill.
As I considered the metaphorical nature of trees, my son somehow turned himself completely around. “There! I can get down from here!!” It was but the work of a moment for him to shimmy across a branch above my head and slide down another one, neatly touching the ground. The two friends philosophically told him they knew he could do it all along, and patted him on the back. We walked back across the field together, my son smiling all the way.
But when we got inside and he left the friends behind, he crumpled in my arms, with big tears streaming down his face. After the initial relief of touching the ground, the fear hit him again. “But you did it buddy, and you did it all by yourself! How’d you end up doing it?” I asked.
“I prayed to Jesus to help me find a way down. But I had to be brave enough to turn around, because that’s where the way down was. Turning around was the hardest part.”
Most every child I’ve seen at The Saint Constantine School climbs trees. That’s just what kids do. Why do they do this? Usually to get a better vantage point. To get higher up, feel taller, more free, more powerful. They don’t know it, but it’s training for other times in their lives when they will need to go out on a metaphorical limb that will be even more difficult than a tree. And they must, of course, learn which branches to climb, which branches to avoid, and how to get back down.
My son will get stuck again at some point in his life, and probably not in a tree next time. But I pray that, remembering this day, he will ask for Jesus’s help and will have the courage to again turn around and see the way He has provided to get down to safety. And I pray that there are again a few good friends hanging out in the branches nearby, giving him space and good advice.