Between Fear and the Need to Feel Alive

The clearest views in life come from standing at the edge of a scary cliff. Which is why I want my son by my side.,

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Not long ago, my 12-year-old son, Lucian, and I were standing on the knife’s edge. I mean this quite literally. We had just completed a grueling, four-day hike in Maine that culminated with us climbing Mount Katahdin. At its summit, Katahdin has an extremely dramatic, mile-long ridge known as the Knife Edge, that looks like the back of a stegosaurus. It connects the mountain’s two most dramatic peaks. The ridge is narrow, less than an arm-length wide in places, with massive drops on both sides. It’s scary and quite dangerous: The mountain has claimed at least 17 lives. We knew we had to be careful, but in an odd way, the danger was part of the allure. Lucian and I were both craving a bit of risk.

As parents, my wife and I have always tried to be adventurous in ways large and small. We let our two boys climb trees, and sled down steep hills, and swim in frigid ocean waters in winter. We took them hiking in the Himalayas and backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks. (We didn’t helicopter.)

When Covid hit, as with so many families, we traveled less and did less. We hovered together, getting in each other’s way. Our adventures came in the form of books and movies. We read “The Maze Runner” and watched “The Golden Compass.” We lived vicariously, and — somewhere along the way — our conception of the outside world began to shift. Slowly. Glacially, even. But it shifted. Sure, there was the risk of getting infected, but we worried over other things too, like bees.

Last fall, we were visiting some friends when Lucian was stung by five bees. Turns out, he was highly allergic and the incident could have been fatal. Lucian went into anaphylactic shock. His face swelled up, his body broke out in hives and he began to vomit. We rushed him to the E.R. and made it in time. Afterward, he began getting a series of injections so that his body might begin to tolerate the bees’ venom if he was ever stung again. We also bought a bunch of EpiPens and Velcroed them to virtually every surface we could. When Lucian ventured out into the world to take a bike ride with his buddies, it seemed to require an almost comical level of preparation (i.e., bike helmet, surgical mask, EpiPen, Benadryl tablet), as if he were the modern-day equivalent of a medieval squire with his kit — minus any prospect of real adventure.

On some level, I think that Lucian and I both craved an epic quest, a bold affirmation that the world was a place not to survive, narrowly, but to explore voraciously. And this is how we found ourselves at the top of Mount Katahdin, traversing the Knife Edge.

It was late August, but the air was crisp. To the south, there was a weather system moving through, and we could see the clouds beneath us. To the north, the sky was clear. It was like the Knife was cutting the clouds in half.

We proceeded along the ridge, in places, climbing hand over foot. Lucian moved with such agility and balance, it was clear to me that this kid was born to do this. Then suddenly, right dead, smack in the center of the Knife Edge, we encountered a thicket of scraggly grass. And that’s when the bee stung Lucian.

My wife, who is a doctor, had tried to prepare me for this moment. She had told me, repeatedly, that if Lucian was ever stung, we both had to remain calm, because panic would only accelerate the anaphylaxis. Lucian was pale faced, and he told me, very calmly: “Dad, this is serious, I could die.” If this were a novel, the perfectly timed calamity, and my son’s earnest yet grim remark, would all be cut by some clever editor. Too on the nose. But this was not a novel. It was real life. We both glanced about. We were in one of the most precarious spots in North America. There could be no rescue here — no helicopter to save us. We were on our own.

“What’s your favorite video game?” I asked my son. He looked at me incredulously. Clouds swirled around us. I pressed him, asking him again. Reluctantly, he began answering my question — or more accurately, he began explaining to me why it was totally inappropriate to talk about video games at a moment like this. By the time he finished, a minute had passed. He showed no signs of having an allergic reaction. I pointed this out to him. Another minute passed. And then, miraculously, we realized, he was totally fine. We didn’t even need the EpiPen.

When we returned home, Lucian and I both recounted our tale — to my wife, and his brother, and all the grandparents — until it quickly became family lore. The story seemed to become Lucian’s anthem. Behold, the boy who survived the killer bee on the Knife Edge. And it occurred to me, rather belatedly, that I had been so preoccupied by the risks we faced by going, that I never considered the risks we faced by not going. Lucian is a born wanderer, a swashbuckler, even. By placing him under house arrest — and then chasing him around with an EpiPen every time he entered a field with a flower — I was, in effect, sapping the fundamental ethos of who he was.

Fear is an insidious thing. A kernel of it can form, like some cancer deep in our being, and then its tentacles begin to creep. Fear of Covid morphs into fear of toilet-paper shortages, which morphs into fear of civil unrest, which morphs into some low-grade, ever-present anxiety of everything that lies beyond our doorstep. It’s a smooth, quick slide into existential dread. As a parent, I’d become so focused on the task of staying alive that, on some level, I’d given up on the feeling of being alive. Of pressing on as the storm clouds gathered. And what kind of lesson was this for my son? I realized, much after the fact, that the Knife Edge was the apotheosis of all the fears we’d conjured. And, with EpiPen in hand, we’d crossed it.

Jake Halpern won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for “Welcome to the New World,” his 20-part series in The New York Times.

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