There are moments in life when your heart is telling you to scream, but your head realizes that if you do, you’ll just make the situation worse. I call these “hold your breath” moments.
The first one I remember happening to me occurred on the Tower of Pisa. The year was 1978. I was 15 and my little brother was 8. In those days they let you walk all the way to the top of the tower. My brother and I ran ahead of the rest of the family.
Now, obviously, you know that the Tower of Pisa leans. What you may not know, however, is that you could walk to the very edge of it…and there was no railing there. So, before my parents caught up to us, my little brother calmly walked to the very edge; his toes literally couldn’t have moved another inch. That was enough to scare me, but it’s what he did next that still palpably terrifies me to this day. He craned his neck over the edge, and leaned forward in the same direction the tower was leaning…186 feet above the ground.
My heart almost stopped.
I wanted to scream, but I knew if I did, it could startle him, and cause him to fall off. I calmly asked him to back up, and he did. Nothing happened. At least nothing happened to him. I’m still afraid of heights to this day.
This week I had another hold your breath moment. It happened at 2AM. My dog Ivy was whining. Normally I would have just let her whine, but I knew that she was having some, shall we say “digestive issues”, and that if I didn’t let her out in the backyard I might have a nasty clean up in the morning.
So, I groggily opened the back door and went outside with her. She ran out to do her business, and because it was a full moon I could see her. I saw her stop in her tracks, and I saw what caused her to stop in her tracks. It was a black animal with a white stripe down it’s back. And Ivy was face to face with it. In a totally uncharacteristic move, Ivy didn’t bark.
Again, I wanted to scream to have Ivy come back into the house, but I knew if I did that, I might startle the skunk. So I said as calmly as possible…
“Ivy, come here girl.”
Of course she didn’t. She and the skunk were staring each other down. I started bribing her. My voice was barely above a whisper.
“Ivy, do you want a treat?”
Nothing. Ivy began to sniff the skunk, and the skunk didn’t like it. He turned around, and Ivy looked she was going to sniff directly at the worst possible place. OH MY GOD, NO. But I still couldn’t scream. The tail looked like it was about to go up.
“Ivy, do you want to go for a ride?” I whispered.
That got Ivy’s attention. She immediately ran toward the garage, and the skunk shuffled away without spraying her. I got her back into the house, and no damage was done, but needless to say, I didn’t exactly fall right back asleep that night.
I know that bad things happen every day, and those moments stick with you for a long time, but your brain has a way of dulling them so you can make it through another day. A hold your breath moment does the opposite. Because nothing actually happened, it has a way of permanently stamping your memory. Your imagination takes a snapshot that never goes away. 34 years later, I still vividly see my brother leaning. I see it clear as day. I see it in my sleep. I see it every time I’m in a tall building. I see it writing these words.
This most recent hold your breath moment probably won’t have the same effect on me. After all, it wasn’t a life/death moment this time, and as much as I love my dog–she’s not my brother. 34 years from now, I’m pretty sure I won’t be afraid to go in my own backyard. But I’m also sure I’ll never remove that picture from my brain. If I had any artistic ability at all, I could paint it.
A pit bull mix with her snout inches away from a skunk’s behind, visible only by the light of a full moon.