Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One For the Baby Books

When did I become the one? For years I have casually sailed through life, relying on and trusting others to protect me, to warn me of harm, to ensure I would be safe if I unknowingly ventured into dangerous territory. Growing up, it was my dad. I knew if he said it was okay, I would be fine. There was comfort in this knowledge. In college, I lived in a kind of sheltered independence—making my own decisions, but always under the relatively safe auspices of the university or the student housing in which I lived or the company of my other sensible friends.

And then there was Josh. Walking through city streets at night, sleeping in our mountain home that backs to forest, traveling to exotic cultures and repelling through waterfalls or zip-lining through rainforest canopies, I trust I am safe if we are together, whatever befalls us. His presence and wisdom is reassuring. We can talk through options or scenarios, and I know I am not alone. If I falter in any way, fall into danger for any reason, he will stop at nothing to make sure I am okay. It may sound old-fashioned or like antiquated chivalry, but it is true of us.

Yesterday, however, I realized—with a sharpness of insight that comes only in moments of vulnerability—that I am one of those people for Ben and Abby. Our outing this morning added an exclamation point to the realization. They see both Josh and me as that buttress of strength, that refuge of security, that voice of reason. If we say it’s okay, they proceed with faith in our presence and wisdom. If they get scared, they trust and expect that we will come to their rescue. It is as it should be, but to some degree, it terrifies me. I know, after all, that I am merely human. That I don’t know everything. That I have physical limits, and blind spots.

We went to the beach yesterday after naps, and Josh took Abby out into the surf to cool off. The flag indicating the water conditions was yellow: proceed with caution. If it’s green, all is calm. If red, the sign warns, “Danger.” They bobbed and splashed happily, and it only took a few minutes for Ben to realize the sand, while full of construction possibilities, was too hot. He asked to go out with me.

Walking into the water, he wanted to hold hands at first, but as the water got deeper, he asked to be held. This beach is a little tricky because it has a shelf-like effect, dropping off in short, quick slopes. Knowing this, I took it slow, holding my ground every few feet to ensure my less than towering five-foot-two-inch frame would remain above water as the waves came in. As I reached a spot a comfortable distance from the shore, a wave came in, and while I was plenty high as it moved past us toward the shore, the sand eroded beneath my feet when it receded, leaving me a few inches lower. This proved precarious when the next wave moved in, the currents first pushing us strongly toward the shore. I held my ground with a little effort. But then the current tried to pull us further out, insistently, forcefully, and here I had trouble maintaining my footing as the sand slid out beneath me. It was in this struggle that I recognized my vulnerability—and how essential it was that I keep us upright until the tide came back in and allowed us to walk further into the shore. I took a few steps in the shoulder high water, held Ben tightly, smiled and joked to keep him calm—as I’m sure he recognized I was not steady—and somehow managed to keep us above water level in spite of the strong undertow. Once the water began to fill in again, I carried him quickly back into the beach, telling him the currents were too strong for us to play in the water. He ran off into the sand to plow roads with his bulldozer, unaware of my internal panic. Not five minutes later, they changed the flag to red.

I was starkly aware that I alone was the only variable determining whether this trip into the ocean would create more memories of fun or trauma.

Then this morning, the punctuation. We visited the Puerto Vallarta Zoo, which showcases an impressive variety of animals—from toucans to camels to mountain lions—made all the more remarkable by how little separates us from them. Here, the rules of Darwin reign: none of the giant gulches to separate spectators from predators, no signs advising against leaning over the walls or putting fingers through the fences, no warnings, no precautions, as one would find in the carefully constructed U.S. zoos. Just faith in our common sense. Only a chain link fence, sometimes in two layers, separates us from lions and tigers and bears—oh my. We were sold a bag of carrots, peanuts, and small seeds that we were allowed to feed to the animals at will. They assume we know that handing peanuts through the fence to a hungry bear is a bad idea. High on the freedom and responsibility not generally bestowed upon us in the land of legal liability and lawsuits, all four of us had a blast feeding monkeys, giraffes, zebras, camels, and other wild animals.

The highlight came when we were offered the opportunity to play with the baby tigers and jaguars. Seriously. About halfway through the zoo, this teenage kid says, “If you want to come down here, you can pet the baby tigers and jaguars and then come back out and finish your trip through the zoo.” We looked at each other and smiled and followed him down to an eating area with a large set of cages at the far end.

Another couple, probably honeymooners, went in first, so we were able to watch how they interacted. The young woman played with a tiger, four months old but probably weighing a good thirty to thirty-five pounds—smaller than Ben in stature but about his weight. The man held and petted the nine month old jaguar (which we would call a black panther) that was leashed in the larger cage into which the younger tiger was brought for his play time. He was at least as big as Ben. They were beautiful. We saw that they were playful but relatively harmless, occasionally nipping at the couple as kittens might but never dangerously or painfully. The trainer was with them the whole time, admonishing the youngsters if they got too playful.

Then it was our turn. We had decided that Josh would go in first with Ben, so I could take pictures. Then I would take Abby in after. Josh and Ben played with the tiger, which mostly amounted to Josh holding and petting it and keeping it still so Ben could cautiously venture over when he felt comfortable. I took pictures over the fence, but the trainer invited me in to get better shots. Since Abby was playing happily in the restaurant area, closed in on all sides without another person in sight, I joined them to get some less limited shots. Then the trainer suggested that Abby come in, too, so I could take pictures of all three together.

This is where our logic broke down.

Sure, we thought. Abby walked in and over to Josh, and Ben hung back toward the door. At some point, the trainer encouraged them to come further out in the caged area where there was more space. Josh sat on the floor holding the tiger in his lap (I can’t believe I just wrote that) and Ben tentatively walked over to pet it. Then Abby walked up near its face, so we quickly cautioned her to move away, which she did, but in her easily excitable way, she pranced over to the other side of the cage, shrieking with delight, which happened to be where the baby jaguar was leashed and lying in the corner.

We saw what was coming, but before any of us could get there, the jaguar—seeing a playmate—jumped excitedly on Abby, knocking her over, and then grabbed her leg with her mouth.

Please pause with me for a moment, here, and feel the rush of adrenaline and panic that immediately invaded my body.

We are in the Puerto Vallarta Zoo petting wild animals—a feat unthinkable in most other countries—and my not yet two-year-old-daughter is in the grip of a black panther. Visions of puncture wounds and blood and infection and visits to the hospital and the very unbelievable story I would have to tell our pediatrician, not to mention our friends and family, washed over my mind in a flood of shock and regret.

I was at her side in seconds, the trainer right behind me, who simply shooed the jaguar into letting go of his toy. Truly, the jaguar had no mal-intent. She saw another creature her size and pounced benignly as kittens do, though it was horrifying to me.

I carried Abby out of the cage, settled her down, cleaned off her leg with a baby wipe, and silently berated myself for our carelessness. I was shaking from the adrenaline—and on the brink of tears. Fortunately, Abby’s skin was barely broken in one place, though there were a few red marks, akin to those left by our kitties Jasmine and Kashmir when they nip, left on her leg. She was fine, and seemingly un-phased as she gladly passed peanuts to the monkeys through another chain link fence less than ten minutes later. I, however, did not regain my wits until the kids were tucked safely in bed for their naps about an hour and a half later.

In those short, eternal seconds of uncertainty, the veil of “protection” we supposedly provide between the kids and the world proved remarkably thin. I should have known Abby would get excited. I should have known she needed to be holding one of our hands, at the very least. I should have known the trainer wasn’t thinking about the volatile nature of kids’ behavior when he suggested we get a picture all together. We should have stuck with our original plan. And we didn’t. And it could have been very costly.

Could have. Should have. Would have. This is what is so excruciatingly painful about parenthood. Our kids suffer our mistakes. The stakes are so very high.

Thankfully, this trip ended well. Abby is just fine. Josh insists she was never in danger. I try to believe it. We did indeed pet baby tigers and jaguars. We returned to the resort, ate lunch, and took naps, just as we do every other day. And now, Abby will be able to say she was bit by a jaguar when she was almost two. That’s a serious game winner when it comes time to play “two truths and a lie” in high school ice breakers. This near-tragedy ends as pseudo-dark comedy instead. Another memory for the dinner table. Another photo for the baby album.

Oh my God. Thank you.

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