B is stuck in a tree. For real. Perched on a winter-bare branch, six feet above the ground, my 7-year-old son looks rather like Dr. Seuss' faithful elephant, Horton, sitting on that abandoned egg.
But B's stuck-ness is not the real problem here. The real problem: I can't help him down. Recovering from gallbladder surgery, my guts held in place by a slew of stitches, I am forbidden to lift more than 20 pounds. So, I work with what I've got: my voice.
"Buddy," I address my trembling son, "I know your mind is telling you you're in danger, but you're not. Try to put fear in the backseat, and listen to my words."
He squinches his eyes shut and nods.
"Okay," I tap his left foot, "put this foot here." I pat a branch four inches below his shoe.
He winches one eye open, shuts it, wails, "Noooooooo! I'll faaaaalllllll!" Torrential tears.
For 20 minutes, I run through my repertoire of verbal strategies. I try encouragement: You can do it! I switch to empathy: I am so sorry this is happening; you look so scared. I move to logic: Would I ask you to do something dangerous? I dust off some tried-and-true anecdotes: Remember when you were scared to ride your bike without training wheels? I experiment with mindfulness: Take a deep breath. Feel the tree supporting your weight. I resort to tough love: Well, I guess you'll have to sit there until you're ready to climb down.
Nothing works. In fact, I'm verging on a meltdown myself. But before I blast my dude with a less-than-helpful Would you just get the @#$* out of the @#$*-ing tree already! it dawns on me: he can't. Kiddo's not trying to be difficult. Fear has locked up his body, and he truly cannot move.
I need a Plan B.
I step away from the tree, take a deep breath, and assess. The sun is sinking over the mountains. A chill is biting the evening air, and my kidlet is shivering in his short sleeves. I look back at our house: light glowing warmly through the sliding glass door, my younger son eating dinner, solo, at the kitchen table. "Hang tight," I tell B, "I've got to make a phone call."
It's 5:50 p.m. My wife Tracie said she'd be home from work by 6 o'clock. Waiting 10 minutes seems a viable option, but Tracie's ETA is often 15 minutes shy of her actual arrival time, so I call her cell to check on her whereabouts. No answer.
I peer out the window at our sad Horton, his silhouette now backlit by a multi-hued sky. Little guy asks, "How're you gonna get him down?"
"Not sure, kiddo," I say.
Time for Plan C: call in reinforcements.
First candidate: across-the-street neighbor Phil. Well over 6 feet tall, Phil could pluck B off that branch, like a piece of ripe fruit. I call. No answer.
Second candidate: next-door-neighbor Karla, wonder-mama of three, who answers her phone on the first ring.
"Do you have two adults at home right now?" I ask.
"Sure do," she says. "Alfred's here. What do you need?"
I chuckle. "Wellllll, Brennan is stuck in a tree, and I'm wondering if I could borrow one of you?"
"I'll be there in two seconds," Karla says.
By the time I've opened the garage door and shoved the kitty litter box away from our spider-web encrusted ladder, Karla is rounding the corner into our driveway, her 1-year-old daughter on her hip.
"Will she come to me?" I ask, momentarily forgetting the 20-pound rule.
"It's okay, I can do it," Karla says, grabbing the six-foot ladder with her free arm and carrying it into the backyard.
"Ever feel like your life has turned into an I Love Lucy episode?" I ask.
"Always," she laughs.
While baby toddles barefoot in the mud beneath the tree, Karla stabilizes the ladder, and I explain to B, "So here's what you're gonna do: take your right foot, and place it on this step."
He whimpers, pointing at the top of the ladder, "Nooooooo, it says 'DO NOT STEP,' right there."
I take a breath. "Honey, you're right, but that only counts when no one is holding the ladder. Karla and I will hold it."
Experience has taught me that B, who often noodles out with me, will almost always muscle up for another adult. So when Karla climbs up the ladder to meet B eye-to-eye, I let her take over. And it works. In 30 seconds she's got him climbing onto her back, transferring his feet onto the ladder, and descending to terra firma.
After a congratulatory hug, emboldened by his narrow escape from the grip of certain death, B runs into the house to recount his adventures to Little Bro. Lifting her muddy-footed baby onto her hip, Karla looks at me, and we're both hit by a gut-busting (in my case, this is an actual possibility) bout of laughter. I push my hand against my stitches, gasping for breath. "Oh jeez," I say, shaking my head. "That was, hands down, the most ridiculous moment in my parenting career."
Karla nods, "We're totally going to embarrass him with this story at his high school graduation."
Moments like these, I am reminded how very lucky Tracie and I are to be raising our family in a neighborhood where everyone lends each other a hand. I'm also painfully aware of how many people struggle through their day-to-day lives without this kind of support, isolated or targeted by hostility because they have been branded different, other, less than.
For some reason, that ladder stays in the backyard for the next four months. Throughout winter and spring, it stands under B's branch, a testament to the essence of community: when you're stuck in a tree, someone shows up to save you, long before you fall. Call me terminally optimistic (you won't be the first), but this is my wish for us all.