to boldly go
10 October 2001
A year ago, Damian was afraid of the slide. We didn’t understand.

He suddenly became afraid of swings somewhere around age two. We couldn’t understand that either -- he used to love them, what happened?

He was terrified of jungle gyms too. He’d climb up the steps (he loved stairs) and then stop at the top, look down through the Swiss cheese flooring, and freeze, then oh-so-carefully ease himself down onto all fours and slither across the floor until he got to his goal. And of course we couldn’t understand that either.

Not until this spring, when we understood all of it and so much more.

Heidi, his occupational therapist, explained his playground phobias. Damian has some sensory integration issues. The input he gets through his senses is sometimes out of whack. There are the five senses we normally think of when we say "sensory", but there are other senses as well: vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (body position), and motor planning, or praxis. If you don’t have a good vestibular sense, you can’t trust your body in space. Swinging and sliding are terrifying. Think vertigo. Think fear of falling. And if your proprioceptive ability is off, you don’t have a firm idea of how to control your body -- you can easily take a misstep, you can stumble and fall. That fear of falling? Magnified.

No wonder Damian was afraid of the playground. He could handle running around, and he loved digging and flinging sand, but the way the other kids clamber on the ladders, shout with glee as they shoot down the highest slide? Not for him.

That was then. This is now:

Saturday we went to the park with Diane and Darin and lovely little Sophia. Damian ran over to the jungle gym steps and headed across the mesh platform to the small slide. Slid down with no hesitation. Slides are no problem now, at least not the short ones.

Sophia, though -- little Sophia who’s not even two years old yet -- scrambled up the steps and over to the second tallest slide (the tallest is huge and enclosed and altogether frightening, even to me). She slid right down that swirling helix of a slide and ran to the steps to do it again. Her smile was wide. Her eyes were bright. She was completely fearless.

Damian went over to the metal ladder -- the spokes are curved, making it harder to climb. He usually climbs two rungs and then goes back down. This time he went up four rungs before he gave up. Progress. Of a sort.

Sophia tried them too, but her legs were too short. I can’t remember how far she got, but I do remember being impressed at her determination. Damian’s always been too afraid, too keenly aware of his lack of body awareness.

We adjourned to the sandy toddler yard and that was it for their daredevil young lady and my still-unsure little man. I’m happy that he’s doing more, I’m happy that he’s progressing. It’s all good, even if it’s sometimes not as fast as I’d like.

But something struck a chord in Damian’s head. Monday morning on our way from school to his occupational therapy session, Damian said, "I want to go to the park." I replied, "Right now we’re going to see Rivka. Then we’ll have lunch and maybe take a nap," (wishful thinking, that) "And then we can go to the park. Okay?" "Yes."

When we got home, life had a way of taking over. I talked on the phone and did chores, we played and snuggled together, and then it was six o’clock. "What do you want for dinner, Damian? Pasta or salmon?"

"I want to go to the park."


"Why do you want to go? What will you do there?

"Swing and slide."

He really did want to go. And Dan wasn’t getting home till late. And I’d promised.

What the hell.

We went to the park. It was almost dusk by the time we got there, the shadows blue-gray and the trees dark masses. The playground was empty except for one father sitting on the swing with his very small daughter.

Damian had a mission. He let go of my hand and ran into the big kids’ yard, through the wood chips straight to the jungle gym. He climbed up the steps. I positioned myself by the little slide, expecting to see him zip down any moment. He didn’t. He crawled through the tunnel and up another set of steps to the Big Slide, the one Sophia went for on Saturday. He’d been storing up the thought, trying it on in his mind and deciding it was worth the shot.

I ran like hell to the other side of the jungle gym to watch him go for it. I got there just in time.

He slid down that sucker like he was born to it.

You know what he did then, don’t you? He went up the steps again and down that slide again. And again. And again. Grinning sometimes, dead serious other times. But completely focused on the joy at hand.

Then he decided to give one of those curvy ladders a try. I don’t know why, instinct maybe, but I held back and watched. I wasn’t going to boost him up unless he asked. He didn’t ask. Just scaled that ladder like a monkey. No, like a typical three year old. A three year old without sensory issues. A three year old glorying in and living in his body, attuned to his senses. Enjoying life.

He went up that ladder dozens of times. Went down every slide on the jungle gyms. Climbed up a rope ladder. (Commenting, "They have a rope ladder at Rebecca and Jessica’s," a friend's house, where he first learned to climb up rope ladders.)

I just sat on the edge of the wood chip area and watched in wonder.

Damian spotted me and said to himself, "I have to talk to Mommy now." He headed over to me.

I asked, "What are you going to say to Mommy?"

"Hi, Mommy."

With that, he ran back to his appointed task of tackling every inch of playground equipment.

I wandered over as he was crouching down to slip through a tunnel. He smiled out at me. I asked, "Monkey, what’cha up to?" Not expecting a response to my quirkily worded question. But no, he answered, very matter of fact: "Climbing through the tunnel." Showing a nice understanding of idiosyncratic English.

He ran off and I couldn’t find him. I shouted, "Damian, where are you?" He answered, "On the baby slide!" Sure enough, there he was, truly sampling every single slide the park had to offer, even the easy ones. He climbed up the monumentally tall stairs that led to the enclosed orange slide, but he got scared and wanted to walk down the steps. I suggested we go down the slide together. He didn’t want anything to do with that scary tube and besides, he wasn’t so sure he could get down the steps again on his own. So I walked up to the top, my hair kissing the trees, and helped him back down, step by narrow step.

You know what he did then? He climbed right back up the steps and said, "Go down the slide together." So we did. I sat awkwardly at the precipice. Damian slithered into my lap. I took a deep breath -- I have a touch of claustrophobia -- and slid down into the abyss. Down and down and around and twisting and swerving and Damian shouting and chirping and grinning and down we went and oh, it was so worth it.

We went down through the orange darkness again and then Damian ran off on his own. He clambered back up on the jungle gym, through that short tunnel and down the big slide, shouting "Climbing and climbing! Sliding and sliding!" He got to the bottom and exclaimed, "It’s getting colder and colder. It's getting darker and darker." Which it was. We were there well past dinner time, in fact we skated right into bath time. He didn’t want to leave. Hell, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to watch and watch and watch.

I stood there for the longest time Monday night, letting the dusk turn to night. Laughing through my tears as he climbed and slid, climbed and slid, as he clambered around the jungle gym with ease and joy. My miraculous monkey.

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copyright 2001 Tamar