© JoAnn Reno Wray
Years ago when our children were toddlers, my husband, Roger, brought home brochures about Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, dancing like a big kid over the prospect of visiting there. Big problem. I battled claustrophobia – especially in dark caves.
My problem with tight places started at age five when exploring my grandfather’s garage. I climbed into an empty storage cabinet, then shut the door which wedged tightly closed. Although only in the cabinet for thirty minutes before being found, it felt like hours to me. I pounded, shoved the door, and cried; the air became warm and close; I knew I was going to die in that dark hole. The problem was bad enough for me to avoid elevators and, if I had to ride one, I’d hold my breath and close my eyes. I hadn’t told Roger – and being a guy, albeit my favorite husband (and only one), he hadn’t noticed.
I suggested a fishing weekend. Roger frowned, then waved the brochures at me. “Look how cool this cave is!” He watched as I looked at the photos, his eyes hopeful.
How could I say no to his baby blues? Gulping at the lump of fear, I reasoned with myself, How tight can a cave called Mammoth be? “Ok, but you’re in charge of the kids,” I agreed.
Inside the cave’s massive entrance, illuminated brightly with electric lights, air currents rushed past. The vast openness and refreshing breeze on the hot day gave me false confidence. This is easy. What was such a big deal? I thought.
Walking through the huge underground rooms awed me. Stalactites created fantasy images while swirled patterns etched on ceilings reminded me of the great flood when “all the fountains of the deep broke up.” (Genesis 7: 11, NASV)
Deeper we walked, pausing to admire formations. Then we entered a small side cave where the guide turned off all the lights. My pulse hammered in overdrive. Cold sweat beaded my forehead. The guide’s voice sounded a million miles away. Claustrophobia was squeezing me tightly!
I grabbed Roger’s arm, pressed close, and loudly hissed in his ear, “Get – me – out – of – here!”
When the lights came up a surprised, red-faced stranger had permanent imprints of my fingernails in his arm. The poor fellow cleared his throat. I let go, then turned away, frantically searching for Roger – for the express purpose of punching his nose. He knelt a few feet away, his arms protecting our kids who’d been frightened by the dark.
I stomped to his side. “Where did you go?” I shouted, mad and scared. The combination of claustrophobia and PMS simultaneously did not make for pleasant conversation that day.
Roger calmed me down — for a while. Then we came to a section of the cave called “Fat Man’s Squeeze.” First, the name ticked me off, then it scared me!
Feeling adventurous, Roger was more than ready. “Let’s go!” he said with a big grin, kids in tow, leading the way. I hesitated, my imagination conjuring up images of getting lost, of accidentally triggering the action of ceilings and walls closing in with a groan when I stepped on a hidden lever. For a second my feet felt stuck in wet cement – the quick dry type. Maybe I should just turn around and go back to the car, I thought. I looked over my shoulder, then back at Roger already a few feet into the tunnel.
Returning to our car would be circuitous, long, and often dark. We’d been walking in the cave for over forty-five minutes by then. The rest of our tour group had all opted to push on. Now they waited on me to step into the tunnel. Some were getting ugly about it. “Get a move on, woman!” one man shouted harshly. I had no choice but to follow Roger.
On first entering the tunnel, the footpath easily held two people. However, it quickly narrowed to single file, heel-to-toe. Finally, I was completely hunched over, my breath more shallow with each step. My shoulders brushed the cave’s walls. My hands and legs were shaking.
Suddenly I froze, suffocation blanketing me! My vision blurred in the dim tunnel and my head spun. I was back in that cabinet at age five again. I screamed out, “Roger! I can’t breathe! I’m going to die!”
Holding our infant son in the crook of one arm, daughter hanging on his back, he reached for me with his free hand. Holding my shaking, icy hands, he gently pulled me forward. “Come on, honey.” He coaxed.
At first I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Twenty-some people behind waited, their muttering growing louder by the second as they stooped in awkward positions. Finally, I closed my eyes and as Roger repeated over and over, “Just one more step.” I imagined Jesus leading me, holding my hand, even carrying me.
At last we entered a vast underground room, four stories high. I collapsed shakily onto a bench. Roger hovered near, leaning down to ask, “Are you okay?” He laid his pocket Bible on my lap.
I leafed through the pages trying to forget the suffocation of the tunnel. Then Psalm 118: 5 leaped from the page:
“. . . the Lord answered me [and set me] in a large place.”
I looked around the immense room in awe. Far from home, sitting underground, God had sent the perfect word of comfort.
Healing laughter bubbled up as I prayed, “Lord, Help me keep my steps on Your narrow path and my eyes on eternity. Hold my hand. I give you my claustrophobia.”
That day my suffocating fear was buried forever—deep in the recesses of Mammoth Cave.