Saved By A Whisper

new climberI’ve known I was a writer since I was twelve years old and read about the main character, Jo, in Little Women. Becoming a writer can be like becoming a rock-climber. At first, it seems incomprehensible you can reach your goal, and it’s easy to lose focus, or give up. As a writer I knew the peak I wanted to reach, I just couldn’t see my way to the top.

To get published I thought I’d need to spend eight hours a day at a keyboard. By the time I got married, I was convinced staying at home would be crucial to my success. But, my husband and I needed every penny my full-time job provided at that time, so how could I quit and pursue my dream? That’s the number one advice given to would-be writers—“Don’t quit your day job.”

So, I talked to God about it. Every day in the shower I prayed: “You created me to be a writer. I know this. So, how is this going to happen? I think I need to stay at home and write.” And, “God, please. Please just let me stay at home and write.” This was my daily mantra for three months.

God responded in December, but I didn’t get the message until one weekend in February, on a rock-climbing trip.

It was a typical winter morning in Joshua Tree National Park, California: crisp blue sky, sounds of clinking carabiners on rock-climbers’ slings, and the crunch-crunch-crunch of their footsteps on gravelly paths. My husband Chuck and I, along with our friend, Chris, joined the parade of climbers.

I was obviously sick, dizzy and sluggish; I probably had a virus and Chuck and Chris said I should just be the photographer for the day. I insisted on continuing, but I felt terrible. I proceeded to exhaust myself on what should have been an easy ascent. At the top of the first pitch, I sat on a ledge, nausea replacing my usual euphoria. Chris offered tepid water that felt thicker with each tiny sip. I almost threw up.

I agreed to sit out the second pitch, the more difficult section of the climb, and waited on them to finish. I leaned back against the cold rock and closed my eyes to the midday sun. Suddenly, I felt keenly aware, like danger was near.

I sat up straight and looked around, but nothing was wrong. I watched Chuck finish setting up the ropes for us to rappel down. We were about sixty feet up. Chris went first with no problems. Then it was my turn.

Being inexperienced, I always trusted whatever belay or support anchors the guys set up. They’d been rock-climbers for ten years, so they knew what they were doing. But, this time, something held me back. I stood staring at the set-up.

“What?” Chuck said.

“I don’t know. I don’t like it.” I told him.

For starters, the rope was not anchored above or in front of me, like I was used to. The rope would be beneath my feet, secured into bolts below a narrow, sloping bulge. The bulge, or belay ledge, that we had to stand on was about a foot wide and seven or eight inches deep.

Imagine standing on the top rung of a ladder, balancing because one side of the ladder is four inches shorter than the other. You have nothing to hold onto except air and a rope that is tied below your feet, underneath the rung you are standing on. That’s similar to how our rappel had to begin.

Since the rock face and the belay ledge were both rounded and sloping, I’d have to fight gravity, keeping my weight shifted to the left to keep from falling. I didn’t want to fall because to the right the rock angled sharply down into a thin canyon, with large jagged rocks lining its depth. It was shadowed by a huge, overhanging boulder.

It was scary. I didn’t want to do it. But, there was no other way down.

Chuck and Chris were patient, yet they seemed frustrated with my hesitation. So I sucked in my breath and tied-in to the rope anyway, ignoring my instincts that something was not right.

As I started to step onto the belay ledge, I froze up. It felt like an invisible force was holding me back. I couldn’t ignore the intense intuition danger was imminent.

Again Chuck walked me through how to balance and shift my weight to do the rappel. Way down at the bottom, Chris waved encouragingly. I sighed, nodded that I’d give it another go. Then, the weirdest thing happened.

I heard myself blurt out to Chuck, “Can I use your ATC instead of this figure-eight?”

The words spilled out of me as if someone else were speaking through me.

“Why?” Chuck asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I didn’t. It was an overwhelming urge to do so, and after the words came out of my mouth, I was confident it was the right thing to do. I had no idea what the mechanical difference was between the spring-like device, that hung on Chuck’s waist, or the smooth, number “8” shaped piece of metal, that I was using. At that time, I had no logical reason to swap equipment.

I had yet to learn that the ATC unit would put more friction on a rope than a figure-eight would, better slowing my descent if I did take a tumble. I only knew that I felt peaceful relief course through my body when Chuck agreed to switch with me.

He sighed because it would take more time—we would both have to untie from the rope, swap the units, then we’d both tie back ink. But, he didn’t argue. As soon as I threaded my end of the rope through the double openings of the ATC, I felt the tension drain from me. I got on the ledge, but remained apprehensive.

“I still feel like I’m going to fall,” I told Chuck.

“You’ll be fine,” he said.

I leaned backwards, holding the rope securely with my right hand behind my back. I felt the rope go taut, but was off-balance. I took one step down the face of the rock, and immediately began slipping. I plummeted hard and fast. My feet lost contact with the rock and I went swinging wide to the right. I wasn’t wearing a helmet and my head and shoulders were on a collision course with the overhanging rock!

Instinct took over. I raised my right hand to ward off the impact. My out-stretched arm protected my skull, but I had let go of the rope! In confused, desperate panic, I’d lifted up my “brake hand.My hand on the rope was the only thing controlling the rate of my descent; and I had let go.

Chuck leaped down on all fours, grasping the edge of the ledge, helpless to assist, screaming at me, “Oh my God! Baby, your brake hand! Your brake hand! Grab the rope! Grab the rope!”

The freed rope zipped through the ATC, spinning me downward. I quickly spiraled twenty or thirty feet, but it seemed like time stretched out.

I remember those split seconds in flash-frames like movie stills: the rope slithering around my waist and thighs, like a living thing I couldn’t catch; the sandstone passing by my face; Chris stood up on his toes trying to see me, his hands clenched down by his side not knowing what to do but pace; my husband looking at me with wild, horrified eyes, his lips pressed together, wanting to pounce over the rocks to reach me. But he couldn’t.

I saw the truth of my peril on his face. He was terrified for me. There was nothing he could do. He didn’t want to watch, but he couldn’t look away.

I kept twisting downward, scrambling to grasp the rope. At last, I caught it; amazed it didn’t burn through my palms, but it was still moving faster than I could stop it.

I couldn’t regain full control until I braced one foot on either side of the tapering, v-shaped, ravine walls. My heart pounded as if to escape my chest. I breathed. I was alive. I was dangling about ten or fifteen feet above the toothy boulders on the desert floor. Phew. Good.

Sort of.

I was not a stellar climber, but my only way out was up. The rocky hollow I’d fallen into was enclosed on all sides. I needed to scramble back up about two stories, to reach the lip of the ravine where I could finish the rappel.

The danger now, was that I would not be on belay. I’d be climbing “unprotected;” no one could catch me if I fell. Once again, a slip could land me on the rocks below. I prayed through gritted teeth, sweating and white knuckled. Though shaking, I got up and out, and managed the rappel down. With trembling jelly legs, my feet finally touched earth. Tears streamed down my face as I blew Chuck a kiss. I was safe.

“Thank God, you swapped out that figure-eight,” Chuck’s voice shook. “You could’ve died!”

I didn’t die, but things were certainly never the same. It was the last challenging rock climb I would do. There was a surprise in His creative answer to my dilemma for the chance to “stay at home” and write. A surprise I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t swapped out belay devices that day. There was much more at stake than I realized.

I wasn’t the only one to survive that fall. Later that week I discovered that viruses aren’t the only medical condition to cause nausea and fatigue. So can pregnancy. I was speechless (actually I burst out laughing, and then cried) when I discovered that I was miraculously ten weeks pregnant. Miraculous because my husband’s vasectomy—that he’d gotten nine years before we met—had grown back.

We were both shocked and elated at God’s creative response to my request to “stay-at-home” and write. I could have missed His answer though because I almost forgot to listen for it.

How does God answer prayers? With a phone call? On a billboard? In a burning bush? I suppose He could, but most often He answers in His “soft whisper” and it’s important to heed it when He speaks. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

If I hadn’t listened to that “still small voice,” if I hadn’t obeyed what God whispered to my instincts, then things may not have worked out at all. I might not have lived to be writing this right now. Also, if I had miscarried, I may not have gotten to stay at home and write, and eventually get published, (writing a newspaper column, just like my literary hero, Jo).

But the worst thing that could have happened by not doing what God told me to do is that I would have missed out the best part of my life: having my daughter and the joy she brings to me and my husband. So, when God whispers, even if it doesn’t make any sense—I listen.

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