When I was seven, my granddad had a mild heart attack. As part of his rehabilitation, his doctor suggested that he walk a couple of miles, several times a week. He liked those walks, and occasionally he would ask me to tag along. I enjoyed those times with him. He was a great storyteller and always had something to say to keep me entertained.
The walks were long and meandered for a seven-year-old. Sometimes we walked for blocks in one direction. Other times, we seemed to change course at every corner. There were times when he got bored with the city blocks, and we would find ourselves walking on the railroad tracks near the house. I think he liked the track walks the best because his stories were imaginative and exciting.
On one of our railroad track walks, we decided to cross the Kanawha River on the train bridge. As we got to the bridge and the land began to fall away, I noticed that I could see the river through the cross ties. I hesitated, but he kept walking. He didn’t know I had fallen behind and I wanted to catch up desperately so that I was not alone on that section of the bridge.
I took a few more quick steps, hopping over several more ties until everywhere I looked I could see water. I froze.
Although the space between the cross ties was only a few inches wide I could see the trestle, then the river below. I was terrified of falling into the river.
It was an irrational fear. I knew that I was too big to fall through the spaces of the cross ties, but my fear kept me from moving forward just the same.
My granddad was about fifty feet ahead when he realized what was happening. He called my name, told me to look at him–not my feet or the water–then walk straight ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, I worked up enough courage to start the walk out to him. I didn’t have a choice. I was too far out on the bridge, and I could see the water between the cross ties behind me, too. No one was waiting behind.
He kept talking to me as I ambled toward him. When I finally stood beside him, I was relieved. Even though I could still see the river through the ties and trestle, he made me feel safe.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know that was scary for you. There are going to be many times in life when you’re going to be so afraid of something you won’t know what to do. When this happens to you, I want you to remember what you did today. Look straight ahead, keep your head held high, and start moving forward. If you can do this, you’ll always be fine, just as you are now.”
Throughout my life, every time I’ve found myself afraid of falling or failing in life, I think of my granddad. Then I hold my head high, look straight ahead, and start moving forward.
And I’ve always been fine.