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first person

Drew Shannon/The Globe and Mail

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My mother watched tight-rope walker Karl Wallenda fall to his death in 1978. That day, she met me at the front door after school. She was in a state of distress having seen it broadcast live on TV from Puerto Rico. The wire he was attempting to cross wasn’t properly fastened, she said, and it started swaying in the wind. “His family was calling ‘sit down, Pappy!’” There was so much emotion in her voice. He fell, she said, because he couldn’t get his bearings.

Mom was really upset, but I was selfishly tired, hungry and had likely just failed a math quiz, too. I was dismissive of both her and Karl Wallenda. I don’t remember what words came out of my mouth but it was surly and shut her down. She didn’t mention it again, not at dinner that night or ever.

Some years earlier I remembered she quietly followed Philippe Petit’s bold walk across the space between the Twin Towers in New York City. I wondered why Mom seemed to have an affinity for tight-rope walkers. I finally started to figure it out when I was a mother myself.

For many years when my two kids were little, I sometimes felt like we were doing a high-wire act ourselves. I detest the single-mother sticker because of the assumptions people make when they hear the words. But that is how I found myself for some of their growing up years. In the minefield that was the system of family law I experienced then, I imagined I was pulling my beautiful son and daughter along a high-wire in a wagon with no wheels. One misstep and I would have only to watch them plummet to Earth such as stars pushed from heaven, their books and games and that week’s groceries along with them.

At night I imagined spreading myself out like clouds above their heads, tightening the wire with my free hand. It sounds awful, I know, but in many ways we were safer up on that wire than we had been on the ground.

As an adult, with that wire as the mapping metaphor to chart my course, I remembered my cold indifference to Mom that afternoon after school. My guiding imagery must surely also have been hers. That must explain her grief to Wallenda’s fall. Her circumstances were different from my own, but her life had been nothing less than precarious in its own way.

She suffered a profound postnatal depression after the birth of her last child (me). In those relatively dark days of psychiatry this was a was poorly understood affliction and its treatment largely experimental. I don’t think she ever really recovered.

The best parts of her were suppressed not by her condition so much as an endlessly varying complement of treatments and misdiagnoses that never helped her to find her balance, only took her voice away. She was hobbled by the stigma of all that in a world that should have loved her more for her quirks and frailties.

Looking back over my life and hers, I regret my indifference to her the afternoon Karl Wallenda died. So when, one summer, I read that the Flying Wallendas troupe would perform at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, I was compelled to go. And I dragged my kids, both now young adults, along.

For days leading to the sweaty 2½ drive to the city, I repeated the story of my mother’s empathy for Karl Wallenda. They indulged me in that patient way that really good kids have with their mothers. Secretly, each would rather have been anywhere but watching the Flying Wallendas with their mom. My daughter, a huge Yankees fan, let me know that Derek Jeter was playing his last game in Toronto that very hour. My son, prodded out of his bed, was coming off a Nine Inch Nails concert the night before. He found the canned carnival music especially annoying.

Both kids understood it was important for me to be there but didn’t understand why, even though I tried explaining it to annoying degrees. They’re too young yet to have many regrets. To make up for their basic lack of interest I treated them to onion blossoms and other questionable treats.

We sat on a curb in the blazing sun to watch the act. First, a clown amused the small crowd with balloon tricks and pantomime as the family prayed together in their tent. (The Wallendas have strong faith in a higher power who protects them when they’re so high up in the air.) When they climbed to the platform to begin their act, I couldn’t stop my tears. The derring-do involved headstands, unicycles and pyramids. Backwards and forwards they stepped and cycled as their matriarch beamed from below.

I was remembering Mom the whole time.

When the show ended and they slid back to Earth one by one, I noticed the same preshow clown holding the wire taut for their descent. He’d been there the whole time, but I hadn’t noticed. As each pair of feet reconnected to the ground, he gave a salute with his outsized costume glove.

On the drive back home I thought more about that clown. While I had the opportunity to find my way off the high-wire act that was my life for a while, my mother never did. Everybody performing a high-wire act needs a clown to help them off. Some might call it their guardian angel. I think my mom was missing hers, and I’m really sorry about that.

We all may have regret about things we said, or didn’t say, to our mothers growing up. If we’re lucky and smart enough to seize the opportunity, we should tell them while there is still time. Mothers can be endlessly forgiving. If your Mom is no longer living, you can at least honour her through the things that mattered to her. That’s why I try to never miss the opportunity to tip my hat to the Flying Wallendas. For you, Mom. For both of us.

Martha Mallory lives in London, Ont.