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I don't usually have reminiscences--flashbacks, you might call them. And time almost always seems fluid for me--I have always believed that time travels like a solid, inflexible line. And yet...lying there in bed, I felt time cease to exist, as I remembered the days when I was six years old and would climb the tree in Greg's backyard, pretending that we--me, him, and our other friend Tom--were explorers on some foreign planet, or maybe that we were monkeys, or, on the occasion that sticks out most in my mind, mountain climbers like the ones who climbed Mt. Everest and K2 and all those others mountains.
Greg's mom was always worried that one of us would fall and break our necks, or impale ourselves on a branch, or being attacked by some rabid squirrel, or some other unreasonable catastrophe. We knew what we were doing. We'd climbed this tree hundreds of times before, and nothing had ever happened. Now, we were experts. We knew the best way to climb up, how high or far out we could go and have the branches still support our weight without breaking. Nothing bad could ever happen to us in our world of climbing and climbing ever higher and to more exotic locales.
I remember this day so clearly because this day, the last day any of us would be allowed to climb even to the first branch of the tree, was the day something DID go wrong, the day something bad DID happen, the day Greg's mom could look us in the eyes and say "I told you so" in that nagging voice she's always had that we all loathed so much.
"I'm Sir Edmund Hillary!" Greg proclaimed in a voice that could easily have been heard at the bottom of the peak. "And I'm going to be the first person in the world to climb to the top of Mt. Everest!" Our history teacher had just taught us about the historic assent of the great peak earlier that day, so the knowledge was still fresh in our minds.
"And I'm Tenzig Norgay," I chimed in excitedly. "You might take all the credit for being first, but you know you never could do this without me."
"Wait...there were only two first guys right? Who does that make me?" Tom never quite fit in with us, and never really took charge in any situation--it was all Greg and me. Naturally, he'd always be the odd man out when we did anything with two people.
"You can be our alpaca and carry all our stuff," Greg sniggered. We didn't find out until later that alpacas aren't native to Nepal or Tibet, that they're actually from South America, but it didn't matter at the time so much as Tom being our pack mule.
Tom didn't complain about this role we'd assigned him.
We made our way up the lower parts of the tree, with Greg leading the way at first, letting me follow close behind and Tom struggling to make it up to the first branches. Now that I think about it, I don't know why he found it so difficult to climb up the tree. He wasn't weak or out-of-shape or anything, so he was physically able to. Maybe he just wasn't as courageous as we were--or maybe he was just more sensible.
The higher up we climbed, the more excited we got--and more nervous too. We felt confident in our climbing abilities, but we weren't stupid enough to think that everything would be alright if we actually did fall. We did our best to not take unnecessary risks, such as climbing out to the edge of the tree's crown.
Still, at least for this day, this was Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and no one had ever climbed all the way to the top before. We were determined to get higher than we ever had before, and we were going to risk everything, even our lives, to meet our goal. Tom still hung back, saying we could still make it to the top with only part of our supplies. And he was right, we didn't really need his help all that much. So, Greg and I pushed on, going higher and higher than we ever had, and ever would. Together, we would do something that could never be repeated.
Somewhere along our journey to the top, I thought it would be a good idea to move further out from the center of the branches, out towards the edge where the branches weren't as thick and dense. It made sense--it would be easier to climb up if we didn't have branches blocking our way. And the branches were sturdy enough here that I wouldn't have to worry about them breaking.
The only thing I had forgotten, though, was that it hadn't rained in three months, and the tree's branches were dry and frail from lack of nutrients. If I had picked up one of the twigs that was lying around the base of the tree and tried to snap it, I would have noticed just how easily it would have done so. The thicker branches were the same way, and even though they were certainly more solid than a tiny twig, they weren't necessarily strong enough to hold multiple six year-olds.
I just happened to be the one stuck out on a limb, per se.
I don't know if Greg had anything to do with the branch breaking--he was standing close enough to the trunk that his effect was only minimal, and I know that he never would have stood there if he had known it would put me in any danger. He was my friend, and regardless of his belligerent attitude at times, I know he would never deliberately inflict harm on me--or anyone who didn't deserve it, for that matter. Tom was still too far down to have any effect on what happened, and good for him. Greg himself was lucky he was ok, he was on the same branch that broke, only further up.
There are only two entities responsible for what happened: myself, and the tree.
As it happened, I took a step towards some of the outer layers of the tree's crown. As I set my foot down, I heard an ominous crack, and immediately pulled back. I hadn't accounted for how this movement would affect my balance--I couldn't, I was only six--and I realized only too late that I had nothing left to keep me steady. I wobbled for an instant, than gravity sucked me off the branch like some sadistic vacuum cleaner.
I reacted very quickly for a six year-old, surprising even myself (even if I did this today I'd be impressed). Somehow, as I twisted around in the air, I was able to reach back to the branch my feet had just left and actually managed to gain a handle of the branch and even supported my own weight, with only one arm and its underdeveloped six year-old muscles.
That's when the branch snapped completely.
I tried to reach for Greg as I began to fall, hoping he would somehow be able to react fast enough and catch me before I was gone. I didn't even see him move a muscle, although I'll never know if that was a choice or just a failure to react.
Some people say that when your life is in danger, time slows down, or it seems to at least. And I agree. I definitely felt time stop as I fell to the earth. It had to. How else could I have felt that peculiar weightless feeling, a sensation that I was just suspended in mid-air and that my hurtling downward would never end?
Regardless of that feeling--one I will never forget--it didn't last forever. I did hit the ground eventually, as any physicist knew would happen. And it hurt. A lot.
I don't know if I screamed. I don't know if Tom or Greg screamed. I don't even know if they moved. I don't know how Greg's mom knew what had happened, or how long it took her to get outside. I must have blacked out, because I don't remember anything until I heard her kneeling over me to check that I wasn't dead.
"Jeremy! Jeremy! Wake up, Jeremy!"
I opened my eyes, jolted from my memory by my mom yelling at me.
"Well, I see you decided to rejoin us in the land of the living. Since you're now awake, maybe you can come down for dinner." I wondered how long she'd been trying to get my attention--the irritation in her voice indicated it had been about six minutes since she started calling.
I was still groggy-headed, but I can't say why--I hadn't thought I'd fallen asleep, so maybe I'd just fallen so deep into the memory that it took the form of sleep.
As I walked behind my mom down into the dining room, I tried to recall anything else about that day. All I remember about that day was being sent to the hospital with a broken arm, a broken leg and a stern lecture. I wasn't allowed to go to Greg's house for another year--I don't know if this was my mom's or his mom's decision--and when I was allowed back we weren't allowed near the tree. Not that I wanted to climb it again anyway.