I remember when my daughter was a toddler, I avoided taking her to the park because it always drew her to the colorful big toys and the noisy energy that came from the playground. As I watched her beautiful brown eyes sparkle with excitement, I cringed with apprehension. It hurt me to see her lovely face turn shades of pink and her cheerful smile turn upside down when I said things like, “Uh...we’ll come back tomorrow, ok honey?”
There were a few occasions when I gave in to her sulking. While other moms sat on the sidelines and exchanged parenting stories, I was a nervous wreck and constantly ran behind her. I was that mom. My levels of anxiety soared way past ten. I chose the equipment she could play on, which took away her chance to learn what she liked. I helped her climb up and down; instead of allowing her the chance to learn those skills on her own. I picked her up when she fell; instead of letting her learn to pick herself up. She is now 30 years old, and, to my chagrin, I still do those things. But I digress.
I would always cut the playtimes short, despite her tearful protests. One day, when I felt she was old enough to understand, I explained the reason for my fears.
Back in 1959, my father was in the military, and they stationed my family overseas in Germany. I was four years old, and everything appeared large to me from my viewpoint as a small child, including the equipment on the playground in the community park. They built the towering swing sets with long steel poles that had large, rusty metal links that extended from the top and connected to the side of curved seats made from thick slabs of flexible black rubber. The swings were my favorite. I pumped my legs hard and swung so high that I could almost touch the clouds.
Then there was the slide, which was as tall as a skyscraper. It seemed as if I had to climb a hundred stairs to get to the top of this shiny silvery, heavy-duty metal contraption. It was massive! Its surface was smooth and once I let go at the top to slide down, it was impossible to stop. It curved like a rollercoaster and was so slippery that it generated speeds that tossed me several feet into the air once I reached the bottom.
Most parents held their children in their laps to go down this monstrous slide. I remember the day when this mom climbed the steps with her small child in her arms and after she placed her little girl at the top, the mom let her go to slide down. As her child barreled down with incredible speed with no way to slow down, she became terrified and clutched onto the sides with all her might. When she reached the bottom, her mom caught her and noticed an enormous amount of blood. She screamed loudly and ran in circles with her baby in her arms, not knowing what to do or what had happened.
The sides of the slide that her daughter clutched onto so tightly were an unfinished, rough metal that made them as sharp as blades. By the time her little girl reached the bottom, eight of her fingers were severed, almost completely off.
One day, my mother took me to the playground, and she sat on a bench nearby as I spun around on the merry-go-round with children my age. It was a gigantic circle of weathered, old wood and thick, rusty steel bars that extended outward from the center. I liked to feel the gentle pull of gravity against my body as we went around in circles.
Suddenly, a group of older kids jumped on and their teenage friends began to push it. What was thrilling at first- quickly turned tragic. They pushed it around and around so hard that it felt as if it would never stop. I felt dizzy and confused. All the surrounding kids screamed and cried. The pressure against the bars got stronger and more painful.
The harder they pushed the sweatier my hands became, and I felt them begin to slip away from the metal bars. I yelled to the teenagers to stop, but either they didn’t care or were completely oblivious to the terror I was experiencing.
The food in my belly rose and moved up into my throat as the centrifugal force grew stronger as the speed got faster. The constant spinning made it impossible for me to focus on anything. I saw my mother, but only for a fleeting moment with every spin. The entire playground whirled around.
“Stop!! Stop it! Mommie!” I screamed as loud as I could.
My mother could finally distinguish my screams from the other kids. She saw I was not having a fun time and sprung up from her seat to help me. That was when my hands slipped; I couldn’t hold on a second longer. I lost my grip and was thrown from the marry-go-round with rocket speed. I flew headfirst onto the large, protruding screws and bolts that were used to hold up the bench where my mother sat. It felt as if my nose and lips were torn from my face and then, like a rubber band, quickly snapped back in place. The impact caused an explosion of blood. Tissue, teeth, and bone fragments were scattered everywhere. My face shattered as my nose imploded. For a moment, I couldn’t hear. Everything was a blur, and I slumped to the ground. The pain and swelling came immediately.
The instant I realized where I was, a surge of adrenaline caused me to leap to my feet. I looked up into my mother’s eyes and noticed she had the same look on her face as the mother whose three-year-old child had lost her fingers on the slide days before. It devastated her. She was in shock and cried as if she felt my pain. She scooped me up into her arms; her yellow summer dress saturated with my blood. My mother carried me back home, where she called my father, who to me to the hospital.
I endured months of healing pains. Scabs covered my entire face and skin stretched itself to cover exposed bone and tissue. My jaw was fractured; it was hard to breathe and see, and impossible to chew.
I sipped liquid food from a straw and suffered unrelenting headaches. I never returned to that playground and tried to avoid them all.
Of course, playgrounds have improved since then. These days most slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds are well-constructed and made of durable plastic with rounded corners. They are also built on a much smaller scale. For me, however, in my mind, it will always be a place where injuries occur.
My daughter understood the reason behind my fears. If you, too, can sympathize with my aversions to playgrounds–wait until I explain my issues with lawnmowers.
That’s another story.