Climbing Lessons is an inter-linked collection of nonfiction stories about the unsung tenderness between fathers and sons. These playful, sometimes poignant tales span three generations, beginning in small-town Kansas with a kind but bumbling father who is a physician. His middle son, Tim, narrates as his accidentprone father shows the way. For instance, Tim describes how the over-eager Doc, while trying to demonstrate how to climb a huge sycamore, ends up dropping 12 feet and landing flat-out on his back, stunned and unable to move. When the fallen father recovers enough to speak, he announces, “So that’s how it’s done,” and in that moment, he becomes an emblem for all fathers—trying to lead, failing, but getting back up to continue showing the way.
Over time, Tim pushes back against his father, embarrassed when the older man makes himself too noticeable or when he wants to discuss a set of sex-ed tapes. After a year at college, Tim builds up the courage to admit he doesn’t really want to follow his father into the field of medicine. To his relief, his dad jokes that the reason he and his three brothers all became doctors like their father was that they lacked imagination.
Part of Tim’s individuation is falling in love with a woman named Cathleen,
who wants to serve as a clergy person, something women are not allowed to become in his parent’s church. Nevertheless, he breaks with tradition and ends up marrying her. In fact, after they have their first child and after that son nearly dies of “failure to thrive,” he becomes his son’s main caregiver while Cathleen goes full time as a Episcopal priest.
After a few more years, another son is born. Tim takes to telling the two boys bedtime stories that are thinly disguised tales about them as caveboys. Despite such adventure stories, however, the brothers won’t “tough it out” during a mountain hike. Instead, they fall into imaginative play based on Pokémon cards. Tim is irritated until he realizes that their make-believe game—not unlike the roles he assigns them as caveboys—is helping to complete the hike, getting them above timberline.
The boys eventually rebel, just as Tim once rebelled. In their teens, they form
a rock band and start disappearing to gigs. One night, the oldest staggers into his parent’s bedroom high on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Tim feels out of his depth, but there is no time to reflect. After his own dad shatters a hip, Tim must race home to Kansas. Instead of drawing on his father’s strength and experience to care for his boys, he must assume a caretaking role.
Still feeling “off-balance,” Tim goes hiking with his younger son, middle-aged brother, and nephew. Together, the four males climb through hail and rain, high into the Colorado Rockies, and Tim takes great pleasure seeing the strong bond between his 16-year-old and the mischievous nephew. The two teens make their own separate shelter and wake early to fish. Nothing about their vitality and their general happiness suggests what will happen a few months later—when Tim learns that his nephew has committed suicide.
As the whole extended family moves through this terrible crisis, Tim’s sons
go off to college, charting their own courses. They both struggle with the loss of their cousin. However, they are clearly thankful to rejoin the larger clan at a Thanksgiving reunion, and they show great affection for their aging grandfather, now hobbled by his repaired hip. When Tim receives news that his father, now in his 80’s, has had a massive heartattack, he and his wife and sons race back to Kansas once again, joining his mother and brothers, their wives, and all the grown children. The old patriarch makes one last remarkable recovery, cheering them with his resilient humor. However, in the Intensive Care Unit he conveys to Tim that, though he will keep trying to show the way, someone else will have to take that role soon. “You’ll get
your turn,” he says to his middle-aged son. “Trust me, we all do.”