by Bruce Meyer
I am no longer afraid of heights. When I was young, the idea of riding skyward on a Ferris wheel terrified me. My grandmother kept coaxing me to ride with her. She loved roller coasters, too.
‘When we get up to the top we can see everything,’ she said.
Eventually, when I was ten I relented and went on the wheel with her. As we waited at the top for the lower buckets to load, she began to rock our seat back and forth. I wanted to be sick.
By the next summer, she was dying. We watched The Ed Sullivan Show on a tv in the ward lounge. Pearl Bailey was singing, “That’s Life,” about being shot down in April and back on top in June. My grandmother shouted out, ‘Oh sing it Pearl!’ I’d never heard her that enthusiastic about a song.
After she died, I struggled to keep up with my studies. I suffered a very dark period. My attempts at finding work were a disaster. I began a position in a bookstore, but my cash float was off by ten cents one day. I must have miscounted someone’s change. I was accused of stealing and released at the end of the day.
I managed to get to graduate school on the inheritance from my grandmother and studied Medieval literature, not just Chaucer, but his contemporaries—Hoccleve and Gower—and determined to immerse myself in their world .
I took a train one summer morning from London to Rochester in Kent. London was snarled with a state funeral. The only person in Rochester Cathedral was an elderly woman mopping the nave. I asked if the church was open.
At first she said, ‘No,’ then looking me up and down decided I was not the sort who might do damage to the place. I had a camera around my neck and a notebook in my hand.
‘Stay as long as you wish,’ she said, ‘just close the door behind you when you leave.’ She said she was off to see the funeral and disappeared through a small door on the south aisle. A moment later, she returned and handed me an annotated floor plan.
There is no feeling like having a gothic cathedral all to oneself. Sound, light, air soar upwards. The alabaster tomb of a Medieval bishop glowed in a column of light. His praying hands lit up like angels. In the silent enormity of the church, I wanted to say the word ‘Amen,’ but refrained for fear I would break the spell of the sanctuary. Birds were arguing in the eaves. The rest was stillness.
I ascended the steps of the chancel and stood looking the length of the rows, each seat shoulder to shoulder with the next in a congregation of ghosts. I was about to turn away and walk down into the nave when I saw a patch of column that wasn’t whitewashed on one of the pillars facing me.
Beneath the layers of Puritan erasure was a Medieval wall painting. A queen was standing beside a Ferris wheel. I studied her face. She bore an uncanny resemblance to my grandmother, or perhaps I just wanted to see her likeness there because I promised her that someday I would ride a Ferris wheel with her and not be afraid.
In ascending buckets of the wheel, kings were donning their crowns. On the descending side, monarchs were tumbling from their seats, their diadems falling from their heads as they fought to grasp at an illusion. I sat down on the chancel steps and read the guide sheet. The painting depicted a passage from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. As it faced the altar, it was meant to instil in the priests, even at the moment of their greatest power, the humility that says all success and worldly worth are but rumors. I wanted to shout out, “Oh sing it Pearl!” because at last I understood the life my grandmother had led. Two wars, the Great Depression, the years of scraping by, days and nights of hardship—all they had given her was the right to let go and fling her arms in the air as the coaster cars roared downward.
A bookstore near the station had reopened after the funeral and I found a copy of Boethius. In his despair, as he languished in a Roman prison, he argued that all fortune is an illusion. One day can be good, the next awful. I thought about my grandmother asking me to join her on the wheel if only so we could reach the top and she could rock the bucket until I was not afraid. And had I relented and risen with her as far as we could go, the view would have been stunning.
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of more than sixty books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.