I had a baby panda moment with Lucy at the playground this week.
Lucy, our middle girl, is three, and she’s fearless. She runs headlong into life. Also furniture. Her knees are always scraped and bruised. My dad calls her Lucy Wallenda, like the Flying Wallendas of the 7 Man Pyramid tightrope act and more recently, Niagara Falls fame. I call her Dangermouse.
We checked out a new playground and splash pad this week. We splashed until they were soaked and Margeaux was tired, then moved over to the playground. There were benches close to the playground, but the sun was blazing hot and the temperature was close to 90. So I sat under a shade tree, a little farther back. I nursed Margeaux and watched D and Lucy bounce on the teeter totter and chase each other up the steps and down the slides. At the picnic table behind me, two young teenage girls argued intensely over whether their friendship could continue after one posted something mean on the other’s facebook wall during a game of Truth Is. A group of young moms spread out towels in the shade next to me and talked about what books they were reading, debating the merits of The Hunger Games and Heaven Is For Real. I watched the girls on the playground, the breeze felt good, a perfectly lovely summer afternoon at the park.
And then Lucy saw the ladders. She loves ladders, loves climbing. These are big ladders. She’s at the very top of the play structure, and it’s not one scaled for toddlers, but for elementary school kids. The ladders don’t connect to the platform, so she has to step across a gap to get her footing, and she has to let go of the platform rails and grab the ladder rails. Later, I stood on the ground at the base of the ladder, to try and guess how high up she was. I couldn’t reach the top step of the ladder or the platform, and I’m 5’6”. She’s more than 10 feet up. And this playground isn’t built for kids her size.
Her first trip down the ladder goes absolutely smoothly. She steps across the gap, sure-footed Lucy Wallenda, twists her body so she’s climbing down the opposite side of the ladder, lands safely at the bottom, looks around for her sister, sprints away, curly ponytails bouncing.
I feel relieved, and then a little foolish for worrying: I’ve seen her climb ladders like that before with confidence, helped her on the toddler-sized versions last summer till she knew how to place her feet and lower her body. I remind myself to trust my girls, trust their strength. Isn’t this exactly what I want for them, this body confidence?
A few minutes later, she’s up at the top again, contemplating the other ladder. It’s perpendicular to the platform, so she’ll have to take a bigger step, and her arms aren’t long enough to reach the outer rail. None of this slows her down. Instead of taking a cautious step, Dangermouse reaches up above her head and grabs the bar that goes across the platform, holds on with both hands, and kicks her feet out toward the ladder. But her feet don’t quite land on the top step, so she just swings, back and forth. My heart stops.
When the girls were tiny, we went to the San Diego Zoo. As we entered the panda exhibit, a volunteer pointed out the mama panda on the ground, and the baby panda impossibly high up a tree. We marveled at its distant cuteness. Then the volunteer said, “If the baby falls, don’t scream, because it will tense up and get injured when it hits the ground.” Presumably if we watch the fluffball freefall in silence, it will stay relaxed and safe as it thumps into the earth.
The baby panda did not fall on our watch.
Holding tight to the rail, feet swinging, Lucy didn’t look scared. She never looks scared. But I was terrified. How long could she hold on? I didn’t want to shout and startle her. I knew if I tried to put Margeaux down in the stroller and run for the playground Margeaux would scream, and I wasn’t sure I could get to a place where I could catch Lucy or support her while she found her feet. No one else was watching; the teens and the moms chattered while I sat frozen, heart pounding, terrified, no idea what to do, Margueax obliviously nursing and gently patting my shoulder.
Lucy tried to land her feet on the side of the platform and managed to get her flip flop lodged between a couple bars. Distracted, she let go, came down less than gracefully, and then moved away from the ladders to go down the slide. By the time she circled back around to the top platform for another go at the ladders, Margeaux was buckled safely into the stroller, sound asleep. I dashed over and climbed the ramp, hopped across to the ladder and got up on the platform with Lucy. I showed her where put her feet, how to grab the closest rail with both hands, then reach over for the far rail. She climbed down like a pro, a 3 year old Wallenda, ready for Niagara Falls.
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