Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Playground of Death

When I decided to take the job as nanny for my friend in Switzerland, I had no doubts if I could do the job or not. I had several nieces and nephews who I’d taken care of, knew how to change a dirty diaper and worked as a camp counselor. I had my Masters in Business, worked for some of the toughest bosses around and pulled a pirogue through my daddy’s crawfish ponds at the crack of dawn. None of this, I soon realized, prepared me to take care of Lea.

My first indication that this job was going to be more difficult than I’d expected was on the day of my arrival. I had met Lea twice before. Once, a few months after she’d been born and again, this past summer when she was still crawling. This time when I met her, she ran past me to her mom. She had a small bump on her head, which her mom, Heather, said had happened that morning at the playground, while Lea was riding a giant, wooden rooster. I wondered how Heather could have let that happen. I thought that if I had gone with her, I would have wrapped the rooster with a blanket. I learned about twenty minutes later that there is more to a play ground than wrapping things in blankets.

When we got the park that afternoon, I saw the rooster that Lea had bumped her head on. Because of its shape, I decided that if I were to wrap a blanket around it that I should probably use some gray tape just to ensure that it stayed on.

Lea didn’t ride the rooster on this visit. Instead she went straight to the slide, which Heather had said she’d gone down by herself earlier that morning. I stood at the bottom of the slide while her father, Seb, brought her to the top.

This was when I started to feel nervous for the first time about taking care of Lea. I felt like I was being interviewed for this nanny position and this was my test. I imagined her sliding through my hands onto the cement. I couldn’t let that happen, so I squatted down in a football position and rubbed my hands together. I was determined not to let her fall.

She started sliding down and I thought to myself, “I can do this. I can catch this little girl. I can be a nanny.”

But then, without any foreshadowing of any kind, her shoe stuck to the slide. Her body lifted up in the air and headed towards the side. She was only about mid-way, about five feet from the ground and the fall would have surely caused a badly skinned up face and maybe even a concussion. I stood there shocked and frozen. Surely they couldn’t blame this for me? I wasn’t the one that suggested it, and I specifically called the bottom of the slide. Had I failed the nanny test? Would I be back on a plane that night to New York, where I had no place to live? Where all I had was a packed storage unit I shared with a friend?

Before I could answer any of these questions, Heather came from out of nowhere and pushed Lea’s body back to the slide.

“Oh, oh,” she laughed. “You almost got away.”

My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it would come out of my chest. Was everything O.K? Was there judgment in her voice? How could she have just laughed and when did she become so lightning fast? Most importantly, how can they have such a dangerous piece of equipment on the playground for children to access?

When I caught my breath and realized that the child wasn’t going to smash against the pavement like a pumpkin, I asked,

“Do the people at 911 speak English?”

I was only joking to help ease the tension, but it in fact made it worse because I found out that not all of the people speak English and it’s not 911 here. It’s 144 for the hospital, 117 for the police, and 118 for the firemen. Three numbers just like 911 but different. How was I supposed to remember these new numbers while running around with a child with a split opened head and trying to translate in French, “She fell off the slide. I was watching her but her tennis shoe got caught. Nobody told me this was going to happen! How was I supposed to know!”

I of course knew basic things like to not let a child near a hot stove, not to let her near the top of a flight of stairs, not to give her a fork and tell her to play with an electrical outlet. However, what I did not know was that no matter how safe a situation looked, something can happen. I began to wonder if I was in over my head. Maybe taking care of a baby wasn’t going to be cake like I thought it would be. I had imagined my biggest headache would be trying to change her diaper without getting peed on, not saving her life from an unforeseen incident.

Later that night I talked to Heather about it. She confessed that she’d had many close calls with Lea herself. Even Seb, her father, had had a situation when Lea fell against a table and cut her head. He was six inches from her at the time.

“It’s gonna happen,” Heather told me. “You just have to be ready. And remember if anything happens to her, I’m gonna kill you.”

Our conversation did not put me at ease because I knew Heather and that she was capable of killing me. And I knew her well enough to know that she would do it slowly so it would be even more painful for me.

I’ve been with Lea for a week now and the worst thing that has happened was that I allowed her to stab herself with a cheese knife, (it didn’t break the skin) and I partially blame her mother because she’s the one that gave it to Lea. I realize that this job is harder than I initially thought, but I’ve also realized that so is life. So each night I go to bed thinking about what I’ve learned and how to use it the next day to protect Lea and myself. Tonight’s lesson, “A cheese knife is still a knife.”

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