On Handling Grief: Karl Wallenda

On Handling Grief: Karl Wallenda
Paula J. Lambert

Leave it to Ohio to find finesse in failure.

When the circus came to Akron in 1943 and people
gathered breathless under the high wire
waiting to see The Great Wallendas grace the air,
the front man lost his footing and the family fell…
so gracefully, the news report said, it seemed
as if they were flying. And there you have it:
The Flying Wallendas were born.

This was twenty years after their net was lost
somewhere between their last show in Cuba
and their debut with Ringling at Madison Square Garden—
the show had to go on—
and twenty years before their fate was sealed,
this time in Detroit, when they fell again,
and two were killed,
one was crippled,
and no one called it beautiful.
Performing without a net now seemed like what it was,
a mistake, so when Rietta said When I fall,
I want to be dead
, it was prophetic.
Two years later, in Omaha, she did, and she was.

The Flying Wallendas never meant to tempt their fate.
Karl Wallenda never meant to put his family in harm’s way.
He was comfortable on the wire. He told his wife,
I feel like a dead man on the ground.
I can handle grief better up there.

And so he kept climbing, the family following,
muttering that holy prayer beneath their breath:
Disaster does not have to end in defeat.

It’s a fine line, Karl, that you keep your family walking,
defying even your death with every step. You know
the crowds below need something to look up to,
something to believe in. You know we need to believe,
like they did in Akron, that if we fall, we can also fly.

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