I’m in an unusual situation.
I’m high in the air, standing on top of a tall, tall, green pillar. I’m not sure exactly how far away the ground is but my son below has been diminished to a speck in my eyes.
The platform supporting me is just about wide enough to accommodate my feet. I peer down and, the truth is, I’m paralysed by fear.
My boy is jumping around on the ground far below. He keeps shouting up at me.
‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’
‘Yeah, right,’ I think.
The story that brought me here started a few days back when I received an email asking if I would bring my son to a newly opened indoor play facility.
As a (ahem) renowned blogger I get invitations like this occasionally. It sounds like a good deal but in reality I’m always a bit conflicted.
My fear is that once I go down the route of accepting freebies then the integrity of my blog is compromised. I’m expected to write something, and of course the organisers prefer me to write nice things.
But my blog operates on the basis of truth. It may not have much of a following, it makes me no money, I’ll never be mistaken for an influencer and it often feels like more trouble than it’s worth, but I keep it going for that reason, it’s a faithful account of my adventures in parenting.
Previous experiments with ‘sponsored’ blogging have usually ended badly. There was the time I was asked to write about healthy eating by a public body and then got chastised for mentioning a particular brand of breakfast cereal.
Last year I received an invitation to a visit a new adventure trail for children in a popular walking destination. We turned up at the appointed time, my son looked at the man dressed as some sort of medieval beast who was leading the trail and fled in terror, refusing to return.
I presumed this wasn’t the sort of stuff that the organisers really wanted me to write about so I just left it.
For similar reasons I’ve declined a couple of offers for advertising to appear on my site. There are plenty of other bloggers happy to accommodate this sort of material and good luck to them.
But still, ever so occasionally, the offers arrive. A while back I got invited to attend Fashion Week in Belfast. The train of logic in inviting me to this was one I could not follow and I politely declined.
And then, this week, I received the invite to come along to High Rise in Lisburn.
Quickly I was able to establish that High Rise is a new venture launched by Employers for Childcare. I began to feel more relaxed. Employers for Childcare is a social enterprise and charity and all of their profits go into their work supporting parents. Nothing I could write about this could be construed as supporting a private individual or company making money. It was a good fit so I accepted.
However, having satisfied my ethical concerns I was now left with the practical worries.
High Rise is all about climbing. The facility includes an excellent soft play area and cafe and has sensory and quiet rooms for the whole family, but the climbing area is the undoubted star of the show.
The area is large and includes a range of climbing walls and challenges for children and adults. I’ve seen climbing walls before but never anything quite like this.
And here’s the problem. My son, historically, has never really liked climbing. It’s one of the areas where I’ve seen him fall behind other children. Until recently he was too scared to attempt to ascend a tree and his efforts on the climbing frames in play parks have always been modest.
It is true that in recent months I’ve noticed him becoming bolder with challenges which involve getting his feet off the ground, but, as we were being harnessed up by the instructors, I worried that I had taken him a step too far. Many steps too far.
I had sold this day to my boy as a new adventure playground. I hadn’t said anything about climbing walls. Now, as he cowered behind me while we received our safety briefing, I could tell he was afraid.
So I kept whispering to him, ‘It’s ok buddy, daddy will be with you all the way. I’ll be right there.’
And he turned to me. I could see the fear in his eyes.
‘And will you do it too daddy? Will you go on it first?’
It was more than I had planned but, as ever, I found myself slipping from the role of spectator to participant. Now I was harnessed up as well.
We moved into the climbing area. A dazzling, colourful display of climbing walls stretching towards a far distant ceiling. Each wall presents a different level of challenge, combined they represent a masterpiece of invention.
Some of the other children in attendance were already climbing. My son preferred to walk around for a bit first, getting his bearings. Then he selected one of the walls which looked easiest.
‘You go first daddy.’
An instructor attached me to the rope and I began to climb, slowly at first and then with more confidence. I reacquainted myself with long-forgotten muscles and discovered a few others which I did not know existed.
And then I was at the top.
So what now?
Well, the recommended option is to straighten your arms, lean back and simply let go, allowing the rope to gently bring you back to the ground.
Which sounds great when you’re in the briefing room.
But here, ten metres or more in the air and rapidly remembering that I don’t like heights, it didn’t seem quite so straightforward.
I clung tightly to the wall and considered the potential ignominy of having to be rescued.
And then I remembered why I was on that wall in the first place, to give my son the courage to have a go. I leant back, said a small prayer and released my hands from the wall.
The descent was not graceful. My son howled with laughter when I ended up on my backside on the ground. Still, it had been steady and safe and I had shown (I hoped) the way forward.
So then he had a go. First time his feet barely left the ground. Then he went a bit higher. And then a bit more.
And then he tried another wall. And another.
In truth he never got more than eight feet off the ground, but it was a start and more than I could have hoped for.
What was most important was that I could see the fear had left him. The fact that he was now chatting happily to the instructors away from me revealed that he was happy and relaxed. He seemed to enjoy the process of swinging back down to the ground and did it again and again.
And then we came to a new, even more daunting challenge.
It’s called the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and consists of a series of thin, circular, green poles which ascend in height. You walk as high as you can bear and then leap off, putting your faith in the rope attached to your harness.
For most of the session my son was too intimidated to go near the imposing structure. But, close to the end, his fear thawed until the point where he wanted to have a go.
After several attempts he was able to make it to the fifth pole before swinging happily back to the ground.
And then he said.
‘You have a go daddy.’
‘Uh, no. I’m not sure this one’s for me buddy.’
He looked at me.
‘It’s ok daddy. I’ll will be with you all the way. I’ll be right here.’
Unsteadily I started to scale the steps. My son leapt with joy. After six steps I stopped and gave him the thumbs up. I hoped he would agree I had gone far enough.
‘Keep going daddy! See if you can get to the top!’
I kept going higher. Soon my legs began to feel weak and my head was swimming. My son was howling with delight far below.
The step onto the highest pole was quite a stretch. My muscles ached as I ascended it with a short leap.
And then I stood, like a live version of Nelson’s Column, surveying all around me. I figured I would just stay up here forever.
And this is where I started this post. With me standing there stupefied on top of a giant green pole and my son dancing happily below.
I could hear him shouting up to me.
‘Daddy, can we come back here another day? It’s awesome!’
‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’
A lot can go through your mind in a short period of time. I began to think that this is what parenting is, what being a child is, what life is. Gathering the courage to step off the edge even when the voices are telling you not to.
I put one foot out in front, where there was nothing but air.
And then I jumped…….
* Full details available at http://www.highriseni.org