Monkey Bars

By Michelle Jacobs
Web Exclusive – July 11, 2008

little girl on monkey barsI used to mark my kids’ milestones with a fierce devotion to the details of time and achievement: first rollovers, first words, first steps. Then, worn-out and overwhelmed with two toddlers discovering the world, many firsts went unrecorded and even unnoticed. When did my daughter taste chocolate for the first time? When did my son jump his first wave in the ocean?

Maybe I’m taking notice again of firsts because I’m aware of how fleeting they are. Soon my children will experience their firsts while I’m waiting at home: first dances, first dates, first kisses, first text message, first heartbreak.

So this year when my daughter mastered the monkey bars for the first time, I marked the milestone as carefully as if it were her first wobbly step.

I spent many afternoons on playgrounds last year with my daughter’s dangling legs secured tight in my grasp as she was lifted from bar to bar. Even she knew she wasn’t doing anything special. She never beamed with pride or demanded praise. She knew I was carrying her. An ancient memory of her in the womb flits across my mind, as her tiny hands—now on the outside of my belly—clambered across the bars.

Many times she would reach for the first bar by herself, so pensive, wanting to fling herself into the hope of strength and the cushion of air. But then she would call for me, “I need help.” And I would go to her, giving her my strength and knowing that one day she will stop needing me so much, and one day the obstacles will be far greater than a row of sky-high bars. Someday I will yearn for the simplicity of the playground and the clarity of my role in helping her.

My daughter spent last year with half her body awkwardly locked in my arms while her top half grew strong and memorized the rhythm of a monkey. This year, I picked her up from school one day, and she said she wanted to show me something. She reached for the first bar and swung her denim legs forward and backward, a new momentum untangled from my arms. She let go of one hand and hung miraculously by one strong arm. She was fearless and full of faith in the strength of her own body. She reached and swung and grabbed and grasped, and when she landed on the steady shore of the platform, she smiled the smile of accomplishment, of pride, of confidence: the smile of firsts.

This first is not unlike the miracle of reading as children move from letter, to word, to sentence, flinging themselves across pages with faith in the sounds they have learned. The words come like the momentum of swinging and reaching. And as with reading, I didn’t sow the final seed for fruition. Her teachers and peers at school gave her the final push. All she could tell me about her first time was, “I just did it.” I marked the date in her dusty baby book.

Now the playground is a land of conquered obstacles, and she surveys it with boredom and so invents new ways to shimmy across bars and slither down poles. She finds new ways to hang, dangling from the sky. I watch, wanting to run to her each time she falters, each time her arms seem to shake with weariness and her calloused hands pulse and burn. All I can see is the crumpled mess of hair and denim that she will be if I don’t catch her.

My heart bumps within my chest, drumming joy and thumping pain. I feel something inside that didn’t go with her when she came out of me—a light, a breath, a piece of her. That something swims inside of me, soothing sadness, singing celebration.

Michelle Jacobs currently teaches English at an American school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has two children, ages seven and nine.