When I was in second grade, I was enrolled in CCD at our church. The point was to instill me with a more fundamental knowledge of our faith — to help me realize more fully what it meant to believe in God, and what it meant to be Catholic. There was a textbook, with pastel paintings of Jesus and his disciples, helping the sick and feeding the poor. There were tests — memorizing the Commandments and reciting the Our Father. I needed to learn these things to make my first Holy Communion, to advance in my faith. The weight of the spiritual world was essentially resting on my shoulders, being this was the first rite of Christian passage that I actively was participating in.
But none of that mattered. The fear and anxiety of the tests and the practicing and the ultimatums (“If you don’t learn this, you won’t be able to get Communion,” which loosely translated into “You won’t be able to wear a pretty white dress and have your own special party”) completely paled in comparison to my true source of anxiety every Sunday: the open staircase that led to our classroom.
Since I can remember, I have been afraid of heights. Terrified, in fact. I only recently started to be able to use down escalators, and still usually have to latch on to whoever I’m with for stability and moral support; I still have to grab the railing on any staircase I walk down.
The stairs that led to the church basement were made of solid, gritty concrete blocks. And although there was a double-bar railing, there was plenty between them for me to easily see the imminent death that awaited me if I accidentally lost my balance and slipped. I can’t explain where this fear originated or why it was so debilitating, but I would literally become paralyzed once we would reach the curve where you could see the flight of steps below.
Even then I knew this wasn’t normal, or particularly cool behavior to exhibit in front of my peers, but I couldn’t help myself. No matter how much I pep-talked myself or tried to properly prep for the challenge, the fear drained the blood from my little limbs until I felt weak and tingly. Against my best judgment, I would cling desperately to my Sunday School teacher for comfort and assistance, attaching myself to her as we walked down the stairs.
My teacher did nothing to hide her annoyance about my quirk, and would often — and quite openly — dismiss my fear, only finally helping me when it was clear I would not move on my own. This routine got old to her pretty quick, and it was soon clear that I was the thorn in her proverbial side as much as she — and that damn staircase — were in mine.
One day, she finally lost it.
“It’s not my job to help you down the stairs and I’m not doing it anymore. If the rest of the kids can do this, than you can too — I’m not going to give you special treatment or coddle you about this any longer,” she declared matter-of-factly, in front of my fellow classmates.
Although I’ve managed to perfect my poker face in the 20 years that have passed since then, it was clear I did a pretty poor job of masking my total and utter humiliation when my mom came to pick me later on. And although I can’t exactly remember what she said when I told her what happened, I do remember what happened after.
The next week, my mother came inside when she dropped me off and told my teacher that if she couldn’t be bothered to make sure I felt comfortable on the stairs, then she would do it herself. “And as long as we’re establishing what will be done and what won’t,” she continued, “I want want to make it clear that you never speak to my child that way again, ever.”
And so my mother helped me with the stairs until I felt comfortable doing it on my own. She never complained, she never made me feel silly or stupid about it. She simply offered me her quiet love and patience before she’d finally go home, only to have to come back and do it again less than an hour later.
I thought about this the other night as I was helping her up our basement stairs. I had brought her down so she could see our rabbits and pet them for awhile while I fed them (she has always been an avid animal lover and being around them still brings her very obvious delight). It wasn’t until it was time to go back upstairs I realized the dilemma: between the Alzheimer’s and her already poor vision, it’s difficult for her to maneuver stairs, especially ones with open slats.
“It’s OK,” I assured her, “We’ll just take our time.”
I held her hand as I guided her up each step, helping her move her foot to the next landing. If she got confused, we waited. If she got nervous, I made sure she was comfortable before we tried again. It took some time, but we made it, and by the time we got to the top, she was smiling again.
“Thank you for taking the time with me,” she said, slightly embarrassed. “I really appreciate it it.”
I gave her a hug and told her she didn’t have to thank me at all. “Consider it payback.”