"I can keep trying"

Toddler boy emerging, elated, from the bottom of a twisty slide.
May 2022.

There's a specific type of heartbreak in parenthood—a painful joy—that comes from watching someone you love become more of a human right in front of you. I had this experience recently when I took my energetic toddler to the playground and watched him conquer his fears.

We arrived at the playground on the heels of a rainstorm. Nobody had ventured back out yet to play, so he had the equipment all to himself. His heart's desire was immediate and clear: to go down the covered two-story twisty slide on the set of equipment designated for the "big kids."

Slides of this height and style aren't new to him. But what upped the level of difficulty in this case was the path to the coveted slide. Whereas most playground setups have a linear climbing route to the tall slide, this one offered a tricky interruption—an open, circular rope ladder that created a pit between two platforms, wide enough that even kids with longer legs probably wouldn't want to jump across the chasm.

For my little guy figuring out how to get from point A to point B, this unusual feature was confounding. He kept climbing onto the playset, walking to the edge of the rope pit, frowning at it, and going back the way he came as if doing so would make a connecting path magically emerge. He did this several times, each time getting more frustrated that a solution wasn't materializing, because he understood where he needed to be but had no clue how to get there. And as I watched him do this again and again, I heard him saying to himself over and over through his threatening tears, "I will do my best. I can keep trying. I will do my best. I can keep trying."

I almost cried myself right there on the playground. To listen to his wavering voice, to witness his self-encouragement, to watch him be brave ... it's what every parent fears and dreams of. Fear, because you want to make the way smooth and easy for your beloved, even though you know life doesn't work that way. But dream of, too, precisely because life doesn't work that way, and you want to be sure that your child ultimately has enough courage and fortitude to chart their course on their own.

Besides, how many times has my own psyche spoken in that same wavering voice as I stared at a seemingly uncrossable pit? How will I publish a book? How will I find a new job? How will I parent two small children? How will I have that hard conversation? And underneath all the questions, the same shaky but determined mantra: I will do my best. I can keep trying. My son's experience was not exclusive to childhood. It was resilience embodied, grit in formation, a necessary part of our shared human condition.

Eventually, I suggested that I could stand inside the ladder and help him across. Now, mind you, I wasn't feeling confident or secure in this suggestion. It required me staying balanced on a jiggling rope ladder while supporting a nervous, not-quite-coordinated, 38-pound toddler across an 8-foot drop. But he had inspired me with his own courage, so I said a silent prayer to the patron saint of climbing equipment and finagled my adult body into the ladder. Inch by inch, move by move, together we managed to get him to the next platform, which then enabled him to continue to the slide.

Never have I seen a kid so jubilant to hurtle himself down a dark tube. Boy, did he earn the thrill of that ride, and I imagine the twists were all the sweeter for the uncertainty preceding it. He showed me he could do it. More importantly, he showed himself he could do it.

See what I mean about heartbreak?


Prayer #378: Playground

Pump your legs harder than you thought you could

Jump off the swing at the height of its arc

Suspend yourself in midair, weightless,

Buoyant with possibility

while I, breathless,

wait for you to land.