I just witnessed the most extraordinary event: not just for its daredevil -“ishness” or athletic feat of balancing on a wire strung between two hotels ten stories above the ground in the light wind and rain. I certainly have an excruciating respect for what that takes.
The extraordinary event that took place this weekend, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was a mother and son celebrating their lives together and the lives of all their generations past. They were both steeped in the knowledge passed down, with DNA of high performance and courage.
Filmed for Discovery Channel’s “Life on a Wire,” Nik Wallenda had set out to honor his great grandfather, the Great Karl Wallenda who fell ten stories to his death in the same location on March 22, 1978 at age 73. That tragedy, captured back then on live TV, was said to have been caused not by his age, but by winds and bad rigging.
That fatal fall is why Nik, now 32, and his father, Terry design, prepare and construct every inch of rigging themselves. And why Terry oversees nearly a dozen riggers on the ground who have to pull the wire more taught in places, let it slacken in others. While those walking on the wire must have a zen-like concentration, it is quite a different dance on the ground as various members of the support team are instructed to move stabilizing ropes to the left or the right. The rest of us are left to watch and nurse our white knuckles. Wallendas never perform with a safety net.
On Friday, the Wallenda family, joined by Pastor Steve, held a brief memorial service for Karl Wallenda, who once filled arenas around the world, even Madison Square Garden, with his brand of depression-era entertainment which featured his trademark seven-person chair pyramid on the wire. At the memorial Nik Wallenda, along with his parents, wife, three children and various uncles and cousins, released white balloons to remember the family patriarch and all the other Wallendas who have been killed or paralyzed while performing.
A plaque was then placed on the very rooftop which once held Karl Wallenda’s rigging, in a spot in a corner marred by a notch made during that fateful moment. It was close to where Nik Wallenda would take his first step onto the wire.
I have seen Nik perform on the wire many times. It never gets any easier for me, or for Nik’s wife, Erendira, also circus royalty coming from many generations of trapeze artists. Just a few years ago her best girlfriend at Ringling Brothers fell to her death in front of her and her own young child. Erendira certainly understands the risk and during the walk, she will hold her children close. A headset will allow her to eavesdrop on the rigging instructions given by Terry to gage any problems for herself.
A FAMILY SUPPER
Friday night, Nik made arrangements for the entire family to have a glorious feast at a Brazilian steakhouse where servers carve every imaginable cut of beef, lamb, pork and chicken and diners are given small tongs to transfer a slice or two to their plate. It was an unforgettable night for all, with Nik seated at the head of the table.
One can’t help but notice that no one in the entire Wallenda clan drinks alcohol, even if they are just there to observe. No one is rude, or ill-mannered. When you’re a Wallenda, I guess you never go to bed angry or leave an important sentiment unspoken.
In this family, no one talks about a car someone should buy them or the latest gadget everyone has at school. Absent is any sense of entitlement. Personal responsibility is everything. It is clear no one in seven generations ever got a trophy because “the whole team gets a trophy” and everyone’s the most valuable player.
No, I think why I love the Wallenda family so much is that they understand, more than anyone, that every misstep has a consequence. They celebrate high performance. They respect nature and the laws of physics. And they understand, however sad, sometimes sh** just happens.
“I BRING MY PURPLE COSTUME WHEREVER WE GO”
Nik is clearly the star in this current Wallenda constellation. But there is another quiet hero, his mother Delilah who for all these years has hand-sewn the leather shoes used to help grip the wire.
Throughout weekend Delilah talked to me about her grandfather, Karl, and how she adored him. “I had a different relationship with him than he had with my own parents, or cousins,” she said. “Some thought he was an ogre, making everyone practice on the wire all the time. They thought he could be mean.”
Delilah, of course, was different; Karl Wallenda never had to push her to practice. She wanted to follow him everywhere and do everything he did. She pleaded and begged until she was allowed to sit atop the famous 7-man three-tiered chair pyramid, a high wire stunt she said her mother could never bear to watch.
Having met her on a few occasions, it was quite a surprise to me that Nik’s mom, Karl Wallenda’s granddaughter who’s now a grandmother herself, was asking again to be a part of a high wire act: Nik’s.
“The family always teases me that I bring my purple costume wherever we go… just in case.”
Delilah had been asking about San Juan and was told as usual, “we’ll see, we’ll see.”
At age 58, it had been three years since she performed in anything serious on a high wire. For the past 10 years or so she’s managed a dining room in Sarasota for 12 hours a day. Still, as a Wallenda, she kept in shape and did everything time would allow, “just in case.”
Working out isn’t quite the same when you’re a Wallenda. Just about every Wallenda in Sarasota has grown up with a high wire apparatus in the back yard. A cable stretched about 18 inches off the ground will do. All the kids are on it almost as soon as they can walk. And now we have learned you never have to stop.
AND THEN THEY DANCED
Saturday morning, “we’ll see” turned into “let’s go” for Delilah. The final decision was made that she would join Nik for the emotional tribute “walk.” It would turn into a most beautiful event filled with all of life’s metaphors, between a mother and son.
As hotel guests ran out on balconies and pressed their noses against windows, Nik leaped out onto the wire first, holding his 22-foot balancing pole. A moment later, Delilah walked onto the wire with her pole. Slowly, mother and son slid each foot forward never loosing a grip on the wire.
At one point, a light rain began to fall and Nik said they must be tears from heaven. Delilah prayed aloud. One hotel guest near me said she was so stressed just watching, she felt like she was having a heart attack.
I worried the rain would make the cable slippery. I quickly learned rain causes the opposite hazard; it makes the wire sticky, a different concern for a wire walker.
As mother and son approached the center of the 300-foot-long wire, 10 stories high, Delilah sat down, much to gasps of onlookers. She then leaned forward allowing her son, Nik, to step over her, so they could continue their walks.
If it’s hard to imagine how they worried about each other on that wire as they approached, it’s impossible to think what it was like after they passed, continued in opposite directions and could no long see each other or measure how parallel to the ground was the other’s balance pole.
Nik would not see, but perhaps could feel that Delilah had a little trouble standing back up on the wire; her jeans were sticking to the cable as well, she later told me.
Their high wire dance 10 stories up, so full of love, joy and trust. was at once terrifying and humbling to watch. With the younger Wallenda stepping over his elder — both paragons of courage and grace — all the generations of Wallendas were honored. At the same time, this mother and son were able to let go of the remaining ghosts of the past and simply soar.
Our family is involved in the personal management of Nik Wallenda’s career.