Jeff Vrabel: Facing certain death for my son

Jeff Vrabel

This is a story about parenting, and slightly manic fears about falling to your death in a glass box of doom.

Last weekend my son and I visited the Skydeck, the top floor of the former Sears Tower (which is now called the Willis Tower, but I still call it this Sears Tower, because everything was better the way it was before). I don't have a fear of heights, necessarily, but I do have a fear of dying in falls from very high places, which sets me apart from my relatively fearless 8-year-old, who has clearly failed to inherit his father's self-preservation instincts, and by "self-preservation instincts" I mean "nerves of silky gossamer."

My son was particularly interested in the Ledge, a small glass-floored outcropping that extends 4 or 5 feet away from the face of the building, giving the impression, when one steps into it, that one is walking out of the Sears Tower's top floor into Empty Space, or, more accurately, the Waiting Hands of Death. As Chicago tourist attractions go, it's probably the most pants-wetting, although I'm told the Art Institute's exhibit on pre-Columbian textiles is a close second.

But here, as you might have guessed, is the problem: Despite my plan to have TV handle most of it, I'm apparently someone's primary male role model, and as such most of my decisions, actions and fears are being consciously and subconsciously tracked by an impressionable 8-year-old at all times, or at least when he's paying attention to me, so I guess 1/8 of the time. 

But the 8-year-old is also smart, despite his parentage, and the 8-year-old knows that Dad isn't too keen on the whole idea of heights, which means that for weeks the 8-year-old has been saying things like, "You know, it's best if you just face your fears, Dad," because that is EXACTLY WHAT I'VE BEEN TELLING THE INFERNAL 8-YEAR-OLD about his own much less mortal fears (spiders, the end of "Goblet of Fire"), and he has apparently chosen this one single solitary point to listen to me on, ever in the history of anything. So essentially, between my drive to appear strong in the presence of my son and his accurate and infuriating use of the logic that we've taught him, I basically tricked myself into going out on the damn Ledge. Parenting is such a pain.  

So naturally, when we got to the 103rd floor, the 8-year-old spent a few exciting minutes treating the guardrails in front of the windows as he would a set of monkey bars, which is REALLY HARD TO NOT LOSE YOUR MIND ABOUT, especially when he's standing on the bars leaning forward a few feet and pressing against the window with his head. (This is probably against all sorts of security restrictions, but it's hard to be an active, attentive parent when your torso is paralyzed.) Honestly, it was almost enough to make feel better about getting to the Ledge.

Ha! Just kidding. The Ledge is horrifying. There are actually four Ledges, so you pick one, and then you wait for people who are taking pictures of themselves lying down on the glass floor, or jumping up and down on the glass floor, or pretending to fall backwards off the glass floor, or generally taking forever on the glass floor so you can't just get in there and take your stupid picture with your over-animated son and get the ruddy hell out of there.

Of course, to take that stupid picture you have to stupid step out on the stupid Ledge, which again is something that may or may not require five to 400 seconds of Mental Preparation, depending on how effectively one imagines the entire apparatus shattering with that first step and dooming one to a colorful and splattery plummeting. Also, 40 seconds after the photo was taken, cut to my son splayed out on the floor, face down on the glass staring downward and imagining, I'm guessing, that he was a helicopter, which probably raises as many cleanliness issues as it does safety ones, but we'll just take this one horror at a time. "I think Dad didn't like it," my son reported later, and I had to stifle the urge to say, "YES STARING DOWN 13,000 OF STRAIGHT VERTICAL DROP WAS A LITTLE UNNERVING, AND YES I KNOW IT'S ONLY 1,300 FEET BUT YOU TELL THAT TO MY SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM."

"The things we do for our kids," a friend wrote reassuringly, which is true. Except that I'm no longer doing anything for this kid. We're done. We're even. Actually, counting saving for college, I am WAY ahead of you, grumpy pants.

Jeff Vrabel should not have to endure cracks about thinking the fragile glass floor of death is an irrational fear on Facebook. He can be reached at and/or followed at