Last week, visiting my oldest on her semester abroad, my kids and I hiked Arthur’s Seat — the hill that looms like a mountain in the middle of Edinburgh. As we hoofed along the leafy path to its periphery, I thought of my last visit there in 1986 — at the close of a post-college year spent living, teaching, eating chips and tripping on cobblestone in the lovely gray eminence nicknamed Auld Reekie.
My sister Lucy had flown in for my last week in Edinburgh, and I brought her up Arthur’s Seat for one last view of that ancient and spooky and perpetually damp city. Heading back down, I almost died. I’m not exaggerating. When I say I almost died, I mean I LITERALLY ALMOST DIED, by which I mean I nearly fell +/- 800 feet down a near-vertical sandy face into a roadway. I’m certain I would have LITERALLY ENTIRELY DIED had Lucy not talked me down from a second height and a steeper one, my own vertiginous panic.
I was scrabbling at the sand and brush — madly, uselessly — after taking a wrong and wrongheaded shortcut down from the summit. For some reason, I won’t even attempt to explain why, I didn’t want to return by the proper footpath. And I wasn’t just scrabbling; I was scrabbling one-handed, as my left hand was busily gripping my precious umbrella. Early on during my year there I had learned not to leave the house without my brollie, and we had bonded, the two of us. We were inseparable. It was my best friend. I refused to leave it behind.
“Ame,” Lucy said. “Ame. Let go of the umbrella.”
No. I wouldn’t. No. I had bought it at a shop off Princes Street, and it was covered with sheep, and I wanted to bring it home with me. No.
“Ame. Let go.”
NO. NO. NO.
As my hand and feet slid against the sand and loose brush on the face of Arthur’s Seat, I started shouting. Hyperventilating. Freaking the hell out.
“Ame,” Lucy said again. She sounded calm. Facing the same sheer crag with the same loose dirt, the woman who had struggled for years with the urge to kill herself was relaxed and in control. Hundreds of feet below us, a police car pulled to the side. Two dots emerged and started waving their arms, an unmistakable gesture that said: GO BACK, DUMBASSES. IF YOU DON’T, YOU’LL LITERALLY ENTIRELY DIE.
“Ame. It’s okay. Slow down. Breathe normally.”
I can’t breathe normally.
“You can. You can.”
“Now, see that bush? The one up there, by your head? Grab it. Let go of the umbrella and grab it.”
I wouldn’t let go of the umbrella. I wouldn’t.
I grabbed it, still clutching the umbrella.
“Ame. Now slowly. Use your other hand to grab that root over there. Pull up.”
I did. In this manner, one root and shrub at a time, she talked me up and away from danger. At the top I thanked her for saving my life, and she laughed. “No, I didn’t.” Yes, she did. She did. We both knew that she did. She saved my life.
Had I only been able to do the same for her six years later, when she swallowed a shitload of meds and curled up on her bed to die. Then she might have joined me on my return to Arthur’s Seat last week. She might have laughed at the summit with her “Little Amys,” a term coined by her shrink for the children he hoped I would have someday — anchors in the world for her to love. When I got married, he wanted me to start popping out babies immediately. He thought they might keep her alive.
A year and a half after Lucy’s suicide, my oldest was born. She never got to meet her Little Amys.
On an impossibly sunny afternoon, no brollie in hand, I emerged from the woods opposite Arthur’s Seat and stood at the base, staring at that same, sandy cliff, while my three miracles horsed around below. I asked them: Did I ever tell you guys the story about hiking Arthur’s Seat with Aunt Lucy? I had, but it was worth telling again. And as I did, it hit me: They wouldn’t be here if Lucy hadn’t talked me down that day. These Little Amys would never have been born. In a way, she had as much to do with their presence on this world as I did. Her role in their lives was just as generous, just as loving, just as real, and no matter that she never mussed their hair or pressed her lips to their foreheads.
I stood there weeping, but only for a moment. The kids asked if I was okay. Yes, yes, I assured them. I’m just grateful. I said a quiet thank-you to Lucy, picturing her bright purply-blue eyes and springy black mass of hair, and then hiked with my children to the summit. Auld Reekie looked as lovely as ever. Heading back down, we stuck to the path.