Buying a giant waterslide for our youngest son was the biggest out-of-character purchase we ever made. And the best.

Nathan in front of waterslide
Credit: Lisa Tilley Newman

The Irresistable Splurge

The moment my husband, Bryan, laid eyes on the box, I knew he would be hauling the orange, yellow, and blue monstrosity home and installing it next to our tree house. "There goes 50 square feet of lush grass," I thought. Never mind that it was outrageously expensive and frivolous -- or that Bryan doesn't do outrageously expensive and frivolous. I knew he was buying it.

When our older kids -- Adam, 20, Natalie, 18, Steven, 16, and Michelle, 13 -- first saw it, they were shocked. I knew exactly what they were thinking: "Not in a million years would Dad have sprung for something like that for me when I was that age." Still, they were totally thrilled for their little brother, Nathan. They even helped their father assemble it.

When the continuous-airflow motor was connected, Bryan flipped the switch. Everyone watched in amazement as the Banzai Sidewinder Blast, a ten-foot-tall curving waterslide, rose from a puddle of vinyl and plastic into a bright, hulking mass of fun. We hooked the garden hose up to it, and within minutes there was an inviting pool of water at the base. "Go get Nathan," Bryan said, trying to stifle a grin.

"Why do you want me to put on swimmin' trunks?" Nathan asked me as I pulled off his shirt. "Are we going to the pool?"

"No," I told him. "Dad has a surprise in the backyard."

Nathan with dad, Bryan, and mom Karen
Credit: Lisa Tilley Newman

Nathan's surprise

Nathan, who was 6, had put his bathing suit on off-kilter. As I adjusted it, I noticed that the six-inch scar running down his upper chest had lightened considerably. It was puffy and shiny-slick but no longer the bright, angry gash he had acquired eight months back during open-heart surgery.

"I should feel grateful," I thought, as I escorted him toward the rest of his excited family. Nathan was born with Scimitar syndrome, a defect in which the veins from his right lung were connected to the wrong heart chamber, impeding both organs and leaving him prone to heart failure at a young age. After years of searching for someone who could repair it, our family of seven had flown from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where a specialist created a tunnel designed to redirect oxygenated blood to the correct chamber. The surgery had been tricky, but it worked: Whereas ascending a flight of stairs used to leave Nathan winded, he could now climb them with ease and even run a short distance.

His face was a sight to behold when he saw the slide. "Did you rent it?" he asked. We all burst into laughter.

"No, buddy," his dad said. "You get to keep it!"

Nathan's smile broadened. He raced toward his new plaything and scurried gleefully up the climbing wall. After pausing briefly at the top, he took the plunge, landing in the puddle with a squeal of pure delight. I watched him do this over and over -- climb, slide, splash -- and wished I could be as completely joyful as Nathan. But I knew something he didn't: His medical problems were far from over.

Nathan going down waterslide
Credit: Lisa Tilley Newman

Why We Took a Risk

We had known since birth that one of Nathan's vertebrae was incompletely developed on one side, but it seemed a minor concern compared with his heart. A doctor examined him at age 2 and told us no action was needed. With his heart repaired, we decided to have him checked again just to be sure. I told the pediatric orthopedist I was fairly certain he didn't have scoliosis. "You're right, Nathan doesn't have scoliosis," he told me after looking at the radiograph. "But I'm afraid he has congenital kyphosis." He explained that the bones above and below Nathan's deformed vertebra had collapsed, pinching his spinal cord into a V. "He's going to need spinal-fusion surgery," the doctor told me. "Without it, he'll experience paralysis as he approaches puberty." The recovery, he warned, was going to be rough.

"Watch this, Mom!" Nathan yelled from the top of the slide. "I'm going down backward!"

"No, no, no!" I yelled. He froze at the top, my intensity interrupting his innocent bliss. "Just?...?take it easy?...for now," I stammered, thinking it might not be such a good idea for a boy with a spinal-column defect to careen down head-first on his tummy. He nodded and slid down the usual way.

We got our $400 worth out of the slide that summer. As we rolled the deflated heap into the tightest wad possible, I observed the ring of dead grass beneath its footprint and didn't care one whit. The surgery was less than a week away, and I was glad Nathan had grabbed all the gusto he could.

Nathan with friends
Credit: Lisa Tilley Newman

Happy Kid, Healthy Child

That was almost two years ago. In that time, the grass has filled in nicely except for a small brown patch in the middle. When Bryan pulled the slide out of the garage again in April, I wondered whether it had rotted or mildewed.

Nathan, now 8, had been pestering us to let him use it. He had missed out on a lot of good times. He spent half of first grade in a body cast and the other in a fiberglass body brace. Then, on doctor's orders, he had to take it easy for a long stretch. No trampolines. No bouncy castles. No waterslides.

But that was ancient history as far as we were concerned. Nathan's heart was healthy, and his back was straight and strong -- we had the green light now. All we needed was some warm weather and clear skies to reopen Nathan's Backyard Water Park. That day came on May 2.

We flipped the blower switch and watched the contraption wobble and sway until it settled into its familiar upright presence, looking good as new. As water began squirting from the cannons and nozzles, tiny droplets formed along the edges and glittered in the sun. Nathan pounced on the slide without a care in the world. "Watch this, Mom!" he yelled from the top. "I'm going to go down backward!"

I opened my mouth to object to his plan but caught myself just in time. Instead, I smiled and nodded my approval in his direction. He swirled headfirst to the bottom with a great splash followed by jubilant giggling. It was glorious.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Parents magazine.