When the kids were little, we spent way too much time at McDonalds.
I have no real justification other than to say that the combination of cheap edible food and giant indoor playsets was too enticing to resist. I know most McDonalds don’t have those play places anymore, but fifteen years ago, they were a staple of our life. They even had them in Argentina. They were warm, they felt like home, and they gave our monkey of a daughter the space she needed to climb, climb, climb, climb.
That girl loved to climb. Even when she could barely walk, she’d scoot up the plastic tubes, bracing her bare feet against the sides to get up and out of reach of anyone taller than five feet. That’s why, when she was three and Scott was one, I didn’t think anything of letting him follow her into a set of hollow plastic blocks that rose twenty feet into the air.
At that point, it just seemed like a thing kids did.
What I didn’t calculate was the unique blend of determination and fear that my son inherited from his father. I didn’t plan for him to push himself to his limit. I didn’t know that when he discovered it, his fear would overtake him in a place out of my reach.
We were finishing up our cheeseburgers when Ellie came to tell us that Scott was stuck. The play place had clear plastic sides, so it wasn’t hard to spot him, four blocks up the climbing tower, perfectly safe but also perfectly frozen.
At first it was a little funny. He wasn’t crying and he wasn’t in any danger. He was just a little guy, laying his chubby cheek against the blue mat and holding perfectly, and I mean perfectly, still.
It seemed like an easy problem to solve. We sent Ellie up to encourage him. We called up to tell him that he was safe, that we were right out here and he could climb down to us. That we wouldn’t let him fall. Ellie tried to show him the way. Scoot back. Dangle one leg down. Find the step with your foot. Climb down.
It wasn’t enough. He didn’t move. We could see in, and he could see out. He could see how high he was. He could not convince his brain that he was not about to die.
We tried comforting him. We tried coaxing him. We tried commanding him. We offered incentives like ice cream and a trip to the dollar store. We tried waiting a bit.
But his fear was just too great.
So, finally, Nate folded himself up and squeezed into that play place. Ellie and I watched from below as he slowly made his way up to where Scott was clinging to the blue plastic step. When he arrived, he started to talk, his voice too low for me to make out the words.
They were there for a long time. So long that Ellie and I ran an errand and then came back for them. When we arrived, we saw Nate helping Scott off of the bottom step.
They had come down together.
I used to think of myself as someone with very little fear. But now I think maybe Scott didn’t get that blend of determination and fear only from his father. Maybe I also push myself to my limits and then find that I want to cover my eyes and pretend that I’m not where I am.
I can’t tell you how many times I have needed someone to calmly reassure me, to talk me through each step so that I can move again.
I can tell you that shouting instructions from a distance doesn’t help. It’s the quiet voice, the person you trust who’s drawn close, that makes a difference in the end.