Katarina was about three years old when we went to a restaurant with the biggest indoor play structure I have ever seen. I can picture it in my mind right now. The tunnels were tall - nearly two stories high. It was very intricate.
She was all excited to go in and play, until she got about ten "steps" in. Then she wanted OUT!
Thomas and I stood outside the tunnel and encouraged her to climb.
Another kid came by, introduced himself, and showed her how to climb up the tunnel.
A few more hesitant crawling steps in, and all was okay, until he started going too fast for her.
Her new climbing buddy was gone, and she was frozen in that spot.
I stuck my head up in the tunnel and called out to her, "Just back out and come down. You don't have to stay up there if you don't want to."
"No, I want to go down the slide," she called back through sniffles and tears.
"Okay honey, then just crawl up those platform steps. Once you get to the top, the slide is right there."
"No! I don't want to go down the slide by myself. I'm scared."
She stayed frozen in her spot.
Thomas and I looked at each other and he said, "Well, I guess someone has got to go up there and bring her out"
You know who that someone was, right?
Tracie is the someone who had to climb in there after her.
It wasn't the first time this had happened.
There we were, at a busy playground, twenty kids crawling all through that thing. Thirty parents standing around calmly talking while their kids played.
And then there was Tracie.
The only adult taking off her shoes and kneeling down to crawl into the play structure.
I shimmied though the tunnel on my hands and knees.
I contorted my body around the platforms that were just the right size for small children to climb, until I reached Katarina.
Once she saw me, she started to calm down. But she wasn't ready to move yet.
After a couple of minutes, we didn't have much of a choice about moving, because there was a backup forming behind us.
I climbed over her, trying hard not to squish her, or land on her head, or get stuck in the tunnel.
"Okay honey, just follow me."
We worked our way over to the slide, and I realized as we get there that this was the BIG slide. I knew that she had to go down first, or she would just sit there afraid to move again. I told her to climb over me and I would slide down right behind her.
She looked down the dark slide tunnel and shook her head back and forth. "That slide is green".
"Green is a great color. Go ahead, and I will be right behind you."
"No mommy, green is the color of the BIG slide. I don't want to go down the BIG slide."
I tried to breathe.
I tried to not yell out in pain as a kid squeezed behind me in the tunnel, stepping on both of my hands.
I tried to not lie to my child.
"Um, are you sure honey? Sometimes the green slides are the little ones. I think this is a great slide to go down."
See, not lying.
"No mommy, on this playground the green slide IS the BIG one. We have to find the yellow one."
Okay. My non-lie didn't work. Tears were filling up her big brown eyes.
It was time to keep moving.
I told her to follow me, and shimmied through the tunnel.
By this time, my knees were screaming at me, and my hands still hurt from that kid stepping on them.
We reached a fork in the tunnel. One side looked like it headed up, and the other side looked like it went straight. Up was harder on the knees, so I picked straight.
Then the tunnel turned a corner, and we were plunged into a ball pit.
One word: Gross.
The ball pit was huge. It was deeper than Katarina was tall. It was inhabited by four kids. They all looked up, surprised to see a grown woman climbing down into the pit.
"Hey, you are an adult," one kid called out to me.
"Yes. I know that."
A second kid headed in my direction, and said, "Can you help my brother? He is stuck in here."
All I wanted to do was hold my kid up above my head (to keep her out of the gross ball pit), get out of there, and find the yellow slide so I could leave this playground. But I couldn't just leave them stranded, so I waded over to the other side, and helped the younger brother climb out. The other three boys quickly scampered out of the pit after him, and sat in the tunnel peppering me with questions.
"How old are you?"
"What is your name?"
"Are you her mom?"
"Do you want to join our club?"
"Do you always play in the tunnels? My mom never climbs in these."
I hoisted Katarina up and placed her in the tunnel. Then I climbed out of the pit. This tunnel was smaller than the one we had just left. Great. Not even enough room for me to be up all the way on my hands and knees.
The kids were all around me, and the questions kept coming as we wound our way through the tunnels. At one point we had to climb down a rope ladder, and then later, back up a rope ladder.
There were red tunnels. Orange tunnels. Green tunnels.
Somehow we got to a tunnel that had little port holes on the sides, and I could see that we were over the top of the ball pit.
Then we got turned around and almost ended up back in the ball pit.
We were going in circles. And when I say we, I mean, me, Katarina, and the four boys that I had inherited in the ball pit. They were sticking close to me, climbing all around me.
I told the boys that we were trying to find the yellow slide, and they assured me they knew exactly where it was. I just needed to follow them.
They started telling me this elaborate story about how the tunnels were an underground city and there were these bad guys they were hiding from....
I shimmied, and crawled, and pulled myself through the tunnels until we reached one of the platform places.
Finally I could sit up for a minute and stretch.
I popped my back.
This resulted in a whole new barrage of questions.
The four boys started whispering together.
I was looking out of a little porthole window with Katarina, trying to figure out which way we needed to go to reach that yellow slide.
It was no use, the window didn't face the right direction.
One of the kids tapped me on my shoulder. "We have something to tell you."
"Okay, what is it?"
"We all talked it over, and we decided you are the queen."
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"You are the queen. Of our city," he replied. "We have elected you queen."
I had this sudden flash of myself stuck in this tunnel forever. Wearing a crown made of paper rings. Not able to leave. My four subjects holding me hostage forever. Katarina sitting there beside me as Princess of the Tunnel People.
I had to get out of that playground.
"Thank you very much. I appreciate being made queen, but we really do have to go as soon as we can find that yellow slide."
"Don't worry Queen, we will get you to the yellow slide!" said one of the boys, and they started out, going through the tunnels again.
We wound our way around and around until we found...a red slide. This was something I hadn't planned on encountering. From the outside of the play structure we had seen green and yellow slides, but not red.
I looked at Katarina and said, "A red slide? How fun! Let's give it a try!"
"But, Mommy, we don't know if that slide is big or small. How can we go down it without knowing? We need the yellow one. The yellow one is definitely the right size."
"I know, honey. But, see, I am the queen of this playland, right? So I know. I know this slide is just the right size for a Katarina, and I know you are going to love it."
One of my subjects piped up, "Would you like me to go down it first, Queen? Once I get to the bottom, I can call up the slide to let her know it is okay."
"Sure, that is a great idea," I responded.
There are some good points to being queen.
After he called back up that the slide was safe, not too big, there were no bad guys, and it was definitely smaller than the green one, we were ready to go.
Katarina climbed into my lap, and down we went...down...down....twisting around and around. This slide was definitely bigger than the green one, but she didn't seem to mind.
We finally made it to the bottom of the slide, and ran around the outside of the tunnels until we found Thomas. I was busy breathing fresh air while Katarina told him excitedly that I had been named Queen of the Tunnel People, and I had found the best red slide ever to get us out of there.
I leaned over and whispered to him that as queen, I was officially decreeing that this was my last trip up in the tunnels. In the future I would be ruling my kingdom from the outside, where it is safe.
Did you ever have to climb up in one of those tunnels to rescue your kid?