It was just a simple cargo net, made of chain, bridging perhaps five feet from the ground to a platform on the playground equipment of one of our local parks.
I hated that cargo net.
I hated it because Ryan could not, would not (and I know now, was not ready to) climb it.
The net vexed him long past the age when his peers, and even younger kids — including his younger sister — scrambled up and down it with ease.
Ryan wanted to climb the net. That much was obvious. We took him over to it and stood behind him, ready to catch him if he should stumble. But there was a combination of factors — developmental delays/low muscle tone/sensory issues that caused him to fear putting his feet into the loops/take your pick — working against him.
He tried. Over and over again he tried. Over and over again he could not conquer the cargo net. After a few unsteady attempts, he’d head to the slides or some other part of the playground that he’d mastered. He was seemingly undaunted by the defeat, but I wasn’t.
For me, Ryan’s inability to climb that net the way his peers did was a symbol of everything he could NOT do. I was not yet at the point where I had learned to ignore “typical” timelines. Those were lessons Ryan had yet to teach me. No, every unmet milestone stuck in me like a splinter. Not a constant pain, but one I was reminded of every time I brushed against it.
How many years did we take Ryan to that playground before he conquered that damn cargo net? Two? Three? Five? I don’t know exactly. It was long enough that Ryan was able to tell us that he got “nerves” around other kids at the playground. It was that prompting by him that led Veronica to seek out additional help for him in the form of a social skills group he would attend for years.
I remember a feeling of satisfaction the first time I saw him climb up that net, unsteady, uncertain, clearly nervous. He was probably chewing on his shirt collar as he gingerly placed each foot.
Friday, I took both kids to an aerial adventure course. Riley has wanted to try it since it opened a few years ago. Ryan never expressed the same sentiment, even though we drive past it all the time. I knew that it wasn’t fair to deny her the experience just because Ryan wasn’t ready. But, much like I dragged my feet on teaching Riley to ride a bike, I didn’t offer.
Until Friday. Maybe it was because we went bike riding Thursday and I was reminded of all those milestones Ryan has put in the rear-view mirror simply because he was ready.
Riley was, of course, up for it. To my surprise, Ryan was enthusiastic as well. There are two courses, and I figured the junior course, with obstacles no more than 10 feet off the ground, would be perfect for Ryan. Before I could even float that idea, Riley announced that all her friends told her you HAVE to do the adult course — with obstacles 30-35 feet in the air — because the other course is for little kids.
Ryan looked nervous. I wasn’t sure about this at all, and immediately regretted suggesting it. We found some YouTube videos of people on the course, including the optional zip line at the end.
Ryan sat and watched and said he thought he could do it. Riley has done similar things before. I knew she would be fine. There was no backing out now. We made reservations for Friday afternoon. I figured the worst case would be Ryan freezing and having to be guided down. I decided it was worth the cost of admission to find out if he could do it.
We arrived at the course with no sign of nerves from either child. Then I spied the obstacles up close for the first time. Was I nuts? There were tight ropes and swinging bridges, suspended 30 or more feet above the ground. Climbers were attached to a safety harness, meaning you couldn’t really fall if you lost your balance, but still. On many of the obstacles, there was no obvious place where an employee could fetch a frozen child and guide them to the ground. Worse, the obstacles had to be attempted one at a time, meaning if anyone froze, everyone else would have to wait for the situation to be resolved.
I pulled Riley aside. I asked her to keep an eye on Ryan. I hated putting the responsibility on her, but I did it anyway. Fair or not, she’s used to it, and promised she would help him if he needed it. She volunteered to go first on each obstacle, so that Ryan could model her. I debated my decision not to do the course myself.
Before I knew it, they were both strapped in and marching off towards the first obstacle. Much of the course was hidden by trees from the parental viewing area, so I had about 15 minutes to sit and hope that everything was going OK before the kids emerged into my field of vision. During that entire period, I kept my eye on the series of tight ropes, strung between vertical poles like telephone posts. Flashing back to that kid on the cargo net, my mind could not conceive of how Ryan was going to tackle them. Not seeing an obvious extraction point, I wondered how Ryan would get down if he froze and held up the entire line.
When I finally saw the kids, I was amazed. They were both scrambling across obstacles with ease. On each new one, Ryan would hesitate momentarily and start with an unsteady first step. It looked just like the cargo net so many years ago. Only, sometimes after a false start or two, as soon as he started an obstacle, he never looked back. He crossed them confidently, just as Riley did.
Even the tight ropes. Veronica, who joined us at the course after work, and I watched in amazement as Ryan tackled them with barely any hesitation. In fact the only part of the course that seemed to give him any trouble. It involved a — you guessed it — cargo net. The small net led up to horizontal tube made of slats. Ryan hesitated to put his weight onto the first step of the net and pull himself up into the unsteady tube. But on about the third try, he figured it out, and was soon across it and on to next obstacle.
The kids soon arrived at the zip line. Ryan yelled instructions to me to film him with his phone so he could post the video to Instagram. The instructor hooked him to the line and he stood on the launch platform. I could tell he was nervous. It took him several attempts, like a kid going off a diving board for the first time, before he pushed forward and zipped the 100 or so yards to the other platform, letting out a scream of satisfaction as he did so. Riley soon followed — she let him go first on the zip line, perhaps out of nerves — and we were reunited on the ground.
To Ryan, the whole thing was no big deal. But I couldn’t stop thinking back to that cargo net at the playground. To all those failed attempts on that cargo net and the feelings of anger and frustration they left ME with. I hated that damn cargo net. I really did. I hated how it made me feel, how it forced me to compare my kid to all the others at the playground at a time before I had learned the fallacy of worrying about timelines that were anything but Ryan’s own, and come up with the conclusion that Ryan was somehow inadequate next to all the other kids.
Ryan absolutely crushed that aerial course. Even the cargo net. Of course he did.
He was ready.
And so was I — ready to appreciate it for what it was. Not a developmental milestone. Not a check mark on someone else’s timeline for my child. It was so much less significant than that, and yet so much more.
It was a boy putting all his hard-won skills to use. The strength, coordination, communication, self-confidence and self-advocacy. It was a boy having a fun afternoon among peers, and blending in perfectly among them.
It was beautiful.