And then one day it happened. I would be tested to see just how great a Grandpa I really was.
I wasn’t lucky enough to have had a real relationship with my grandparents. By the time I was born, my grandmother and grandfather were well into their eighties, feeble and sickly. So, when my granddaughter was born, I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to give her the experience that I had missed. I wanted to be the best grandfather a kid could have, and I set out to do just that.
In summer we splashed in the ocean playing Marco Polo and building sand castle cities on the sandy shore, the sun on our faces. When fall came, we piled leaves high, laughing as we dove into raked stacks, carved jack-o-lanterns, and created Halloween disguises for trick-or-treating. As soon as winter’s white flakes began to fall, I was waxing up the toboggan and searching out the steepest sledding hills. We built armies of snowmen, created flocks of snow angels. When spring arrived, there were Easter egg hunts and visits to a historical farm where my granddaughter would pet farm animals and was even able to try her hand at milking a cow.
On Saturdays we would see children’s plays or magic shows. My Sunday ritual of watching football on TV was replaced with DVDs of movies like Annie or The Little Mermaid which we watched together so many times that I could sing and recite every word of dialog along with the characters. Every birthday was wrapped in crepe paper and floating balloons as we baked and decorated a cake together. I truly felt that I had lived up to the promise I’d made myself – to be the best grandfather a kid could have. And then one day it happened. I would be tested to see just how great a Grandpa I really was.
“Where are we going?” my four-year-old granddaughter questioned.
“It’s a surprise.” I smiled.
“Are we going to the ride park?” she asked, and before the twinkle in her eye had a chance to fade, we were passing through the entrance of Playland. From that second on, tracking her was like following the ball in a championship ping-pong tournament. She darted from the motor boats to the swings, then the fire engines and cars. After the love bug, and the scrambler, she raced for the carousel. There were rope nets to climb on, shoots to slide down, and a sea of colored balls to dive into. It took three hours before total exhaustion set in. Mine, not hers.
“Bria, you’ve been on almost every ride here. Aren’t you getting tired?” I asked hopefully.
“I wanna go on the parachute!” she cried out.
I squinted my eyes searching for anything that flew. “You mean the airplanes?” She shook her head, no. “The helicopters?” Again, no. “There are no parachutes here,” I tried to explain.“Yes there are,” she corrected and pointed over my shoulder. There, off in the distance, on the other side of the park in the adult section, it stood. The Parachute Jump. In an instant I was transported back with memories of my own childhood. I recalled how my brothers and I would stare up at the towering Parachute Jump, the biggest ride in Coney Island – even bigger than the old white-washed wooden roller coaster that whipped the screams out of its riders as it creaked and dipped through the park. We would watch people change to the size of ants as they sat below collapsed parachutes while thick metal cables slowly towed them up toward the heavens. They would pause for just a second, and then, they’d fall back to earth. We vowed to one day mount that great ride, but we were just kids, content with the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Steeple Chase horses. The parachute jump would just have to wait. And so, while that great behemoth of metal waited for us to grow up, its bolts loosened, and its cable went slack, until one day, the parachute jump was no more. The tower still stands, silhouetted against an Atlantic sky, a reminder of a road never taken.
“Can we go on it?” my granddaughter pleaded, pointing her tiny finger at the looming tower.
“That’s not for you.” I laughed. “That’s a big ride…for big people.”
“Like you, Grandpa?” she asked innocently.
“Yes, Like me.”
“Then you can take me on it,” she smiled and nodded.
I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. I did try to dissuade her. I told her it was too high. I told her she was too small. I told her I was too heavy. I told her everything except the truth –that I was scared to death of heights. I get woozy standing on the top of a step ladder. What she was asking wasn’t to fly a kite or have a catch. It wasn’t joining her dolls at a tea party or riding a bike. She was asking me to ignore my greatest fear. I had to decide if I could overcome the terror I was feeling for my granddaughter’s sake. I was still pondering that question as I was strapped into the seat next to her.
As the cables began to strain and we headed skyward, I pulled my granddaughter closer and tried to steady my other shaking hand by gripping on to the guardrail for dear life. “Isn’t it pretty up here?” I kept repeating as the colored lights from the midway began to get tiny.” Yeah, pretty. Really pretty.” My teeth began to chatter. “Yep, reallllly pretty.” By now, I was so terrified I didn’t even know what I was saying. We finally reached the top and stopped. There we were, hanging above the world. Waiting. At the top of the Parachute Jump. Just waiting. And as I tried to unclench my teeth, about to ask my granddaughter if she was okay…we dropped. Suddenly, sharply, instantly. We dropped! “Whooooaaa!” I screamed. As much as I wanted to reassure her that we would be fine, I simply could not breathe. All that came out was “Whooooaaa!” After fifteen feet, the parachute kicked in and we began to gently float down. As I gasped for air, Bria looked at me, not with terror, but with a grin.
“Grandpa, I wasn’t even scared. Let’s do it again!” As we reached the ground, the four-year-old sitting next to me fidgeted to get out of her seat as I tried to open my eyes, stop praying, and take a breath of relief. It was only then that I realized that I wasn’t the one who took my granddaughter on the parachute jump at all. She was the one who took me!