Right Before the Fall
The woman leaned over the rail of her friend’s fourth floor balcony. She wanted a photo of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Below her the crowd was thick, bundled in down coats, hand knit scarves wrapped around throats, wool hats pulled over ears. Spiderman drifted by. She steadied the camera with her left hand, her right adjusting the lens to focus, pressed hips against metal and braced herself. She had never been afraid of heights. At night, she often dreamt of flying; feathers sprouting from flesh, arms outstretched, body dipping in and out of flocks of pigeons. She shifted her weight again, shimmied her body a few more inches across the metal bar. For a moment the glare of the sun blinded her. Her body teetered. Her shadow fell first. To me, a three-year-old, sitting on top of my father’s shoulders, it looked like the woman was flying.
Disney’s Pollyanna fell out of a tree after singing a rendition of “America, the Beautiful” that I coveted. I belted out the melody in the shower every day. Hollowed out the o’s until I mimicked her voice precisely.
Pollyanna stood on a stage at the town bazaar in an American flag getup that looked like a red, white and blue body bag—face pensive, voice tremulous, slightly British. I longed to be that girl on the stage—full of optimism and possibilities. The summer I turned eight, Hayley Mills became my idol and I entered a twelve-year obsession with trying to bleach and curl my hair.
There is a moment right before Pollyanna falls. She reaches for a branch she has no business reaching for. She reaches so far, I can almost hear her shoulder pop. Her fingertips brush bark. She wobbles, eyes wide, porcelain doll gripped between small white teeth. I brace myself. I know what’s coming; I’ve watched it a hundred times before.
Because it’s a Disney movie, you don’t get to see Pollyanna’s body fall through branches, her bones and muscle and skin slamming into the ground below. You hear a scream. The sound of leaves being slapped. Cut scene.
In Disney movies, the reality of trauma exists slightly outside of frame. It has taken me a long time to learn it is worse to imagine the damage than to face it.
I sat in the dark, in a bathroom between my sixth grade hall and the cafeteria. Past parts of me flew out of my body and hovered near the ceiling. Child versions of myself wide-eyed and screaming. For the past nine years my father had been sexually abusing me. I told no one. The fear of what I might lose, outweighed the pain and shame I chose to swallow.
I pressed my twelve-year-old body up against the large concrete sinks, willed myself back together. I physically constricted. When I pulled my limbs inward, I could almost fit beneath the basins. I sat on the floor and tried to locate the thing everyone else seemed to have, that connective tissue between heart and head that didn’t ache all the time. I tried to calm the buzzing in my skull by placing my hands over my ears, but it persisted. The throbbing consumed me, so I slammed my head against the base of the sink until I bled. Until I realized the aching had stopped and I could breathe again.
No one noticed the cut on my forehead. Just that I was late to class.
A giant Snoopy floated by as I perched on my father’s shoulders watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade. My left hand held a blue ribbon tied to a red balloon. Woodstock played follow-the-leader with Snoopy, bobbing between apartment buildings and the tree-lined park framing the route of the parade. My faded red Keds hung below my father’s collarbone. The man next to us pointed his camera lens to the sky. I lifted my right arm and waved to the giants in the clouds.
My father placed me on the metal stepladder in front of him. I wobbled a little, getting my footing. At three, I was still small for my age—hair cropped short, legs always pumping at air. My father’s hands steadied me. They felt warm. A crumpled paper bag danced along the street. I watched it vanish into a sea of legs.
“Daddy needs a break; you’re getting so big.”
A shadow rapidly descended down the face of the building, reaching for the pavement below.
I tapped the top of my father’s head, laughing at our equal heights, our noses almost touching. My brother Peter fussed in his baby carrier strapped to our mom’s back. My mom jiggled up and down, from one foot to the other, blowing puffs of steam into the air, cooing at Peter. On the sidewalk a puppy pulled on its leash. I blew it rapid-fire kisses. I liked puppies. I was still unsure about Peter. The puppy yelped and I felt a rush of wind against my face.
The woman hit the pavement.
It sounded like an explosion. The stepladder rattled. Ground shook. A sneaker bounced off a foot and into the street. A woman screamed. Bodies scattered, elbows pushed their way out, knees knocked into shins. I blocked one ear with an index finger, my other hand gripped the top of the ladder, so hard it left marks. My body was shaking. I looked for my father; he was on the ground.
A giant fell from the sky, shrunk into its body, wrinkled and gasping for air. My popped balloon lay shriveled on the sidewalk. The panic imprinted on my memory, twisted the events into something less violent—the body was Woodstock or Charlie Brown, synthetic fibers and rubber filled with helium. I erased bone and skin and blood, but I couldn’t erase that sound. Someone screamed: “Bomb!”
“I’ve lost my arm! My arm! My arm!” my father yelled.
He rolled around on the sidewalk. He held his hands in front of his face, but kept insisting they were gone. I looked left to the man with the camera. Blood came from a hole where an ear used to be. It sprayed out in delicate arcs, droplets splattering his grey jacket. The man clutched his head, trying to hold himself together. A little boy next to him wailed. My mom opened and closed her mouth but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I wanted to get off the ladder, but my legs wouldn’t work. The ground was too far. No one came to help me. I looked again to my father, but he didn’t notice, one arm limp at his side, the other clawing his legs. He was screaming out about being in pieces. I watched my father rock. Only then did I cry.
“It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.”
I let go of the top rung, extended my right arm, wiggled my fingers in the air. What would happen if I jumped? What would happen if I spread my arms wide and let go?
Already, the sounds of sirens wailed in the distance. I heard applause sneak around the corner. A puddle of red spilled from the woman’s body, her arms extended as if she were reaching past the pavement. Her camera was in fragments by her side. Glass glinting in sunlight.
“Daddy, is she okay? Daddy?”
Arms gathered me up, hoisted me over a shoulder. I’m not sure whose. I watched the woman close her eyes. I thought I saw her smile.
That night, I relived the rush of wind against my face. My father lifting me off his shoulders. How light my body was. How weightless.
Post-fall-Pollyanna is a different girl: jaded, pouty, sullen and broken. In her bed—a pink satin bow tied in her perfectly curled hair—the camera reveals her legs, limp and hidden under a white coverlet. Outside the house, the town has gathered. The girl who brought sunshine and mason jars of jam is paralyzed. The town brings puppies and flowers and boxes of candy. The town brings engaged housekeepers and cranky old men who string crystal prisms on fishing twine. They file in one-by-one, smiles so large they threaten to swallow their faces. Pollyanna is unmoved. She feels nothing.
In March 2019, I stood on a hotel balcony in Portland, Oregon and nearly jumped. I was there for a conference, to speak on two panels in front of packed rooms of educators and writers. That morning I gathered the parts of me out of bed, haphazardly soldered them back together, slapped some lipstick across my mouth and smiled so much it hurt. On the hotel balcony I let myself teeter, inched my stomach across steel rail. Looked at the pavement below and thought of it as a gift.
Beneath the balcony was a parking lot, yellow lines marking perfectly identical spaces for cars that hadn’t yet arrived. Across the way, three men sat on chairs drinking beer out of green bottles, oblivious to me standing on the chair I’d dragged up to the rail. I leaned into gravity, let my body register how much of nothing I felt.
I had been suicidal before. As a child. As a teenager. Maybe that ending had always been there for me, a low frequency hum only animals could hear. I’d been so sure if I ever got “this bad” again there would be things that would pull me back: my friends, my family, my cats who sat at home in my apartment in New York, hissing at the cat sitter who came to feed them every day. But I felt nothing. Less than nothing. Finally, at thirty-five, carrying the secret of my abuse for so long became untenable.
“You were in collapse,” my new therapist said four months later. “It’s like you were driving with your foot slammed against the gas pedal and brakes at the same time. It was never sustainable.”
In that moment I didn’t give a fuck about anything. All the best parts of me had been scraped out. And I was tired. I wanted it to be done. But I didn’t jump. My eyes caught the movement of some random person walking into the parking lot below, a woman shifting a canvas tote over her shoulder. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t traumatize a stranger.
I got down, dragged the chair back to its place on the balcony, sat on the edge of the hotel bed mattress and watched my hands shake. A few minutes later my friend called, invited me to lunch, and something snapped right back into place.
I ate Miang Kham so spicy my tongue went numb and sweat and tears poured down my face. I wandered Powell’s Bookstore, perusing antique copies of Jane Eyre and Winnie the Pooh. I settled on a 1946 Random House special edition of Through the Looking Glass. I went about my day as if the balcony never happened.
In 1986, during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Diana Mullman fell from a fourth floor balcony on Central Park West. It was an accident. She was trying to take a photo. Her fall was broken by the crowd below.
Dennis Egan, a man visiting from Westfield, N.J. sustained injuries to his left ear and neck. Egan’s wife, Jane, who opted not to attend the parade with her husband and their five children, was quoted by United Press International stating:
“My kids called me. They said someone standing behind him saw a stool fall, then a soda can, then this woman…My daughter said it looked like a stuffed clown had fallen from the window.”
There is no mention of my family in the article. No mention of my father being transported to the hospital for broken bones in his feet and nerve damage that made his arm go numb.
My memory of the popping balloon mirrors exactly what was reported by Jane Egan regarding her three-year-old son, Danny.
“Danny was not hurt but he started to cry because his balloon popped.”
Standing in close proximity and making it onto the page are often incongruous.
I return again and again to that moment of reaching. Pollyanna fell out of a tree. Her hand missed a branch and she lost the use of her legs. She lost more than that, but her lungs kept circulating air.
There is an allegory in this story I’m trying to decipher. I can sit here and know I feel sensations again. That sometimes you have to leave your body to protect yourself from much worse things than falling. That part of surviving trauma is embracing the loss. I know if I bleed it will hurt. Eventually. But, I suppose, Pollyanna knew this as well.