Yesterday, my youngest child came within inches of getting hit by a car. I’d love to tell you that it was an avoidable tragedy, that I totally could have seen it coming. That I was neglectful, irresponsible, not supervising her properly. But unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. My child almost lost her life in a split-second series of events that didn’t smack of tragedy in any sort of way. And that’s got me thinking about the fragility of life.
Here’s what happened: I was playing outside in the cul-de-sac with my three kids, who have been expressly told (many, many times) not to ever leave the safety of the cul-de-sac and venture further down the road without a parent. When it was time to clean up, I grabbed the mail and noticed that my daughters had a few toys strewn in the neighbor’s driveway. I asked each of them to grab one toy and put it in the garage, then follow me inside. My daughters are five and seven, and the toys were maybe 25 feet away from our garage. Pretty simple, right?
What I didn’t realize is that as soon as I went in, one of the friends we had been playing with started chasing my five-year-old, who in turn decided to run up the street, away from our home. She then ran into the street and was narrowly missed by an oncoming car driven by a teenager in our neighborhood. My friend screamed for my daughter, which is probably the only thing that saved her life. She returned my traumatized daughter home safely. But it could have gone so differently.
It didn’t take long for the gravity of the situation to hit me full force. Waves of guilt and dread washed over me, rising up and choking me with invisible fingers until I could hardly breathe. If my parental anxiety had previously been close to reaching the brim, now it overflowed as I thought about the what ifs. What if the driver had been going faster? What if he had been texting or not paying attention? What if my friend hadn’t yelled loudly enough? And what if my daughter had died, scared and alone? What if I didn’t get one last chance to tell her how much I love her?
And in that moment I had one singular thought: I am not enough. I am not sufficient. I am less than the what ifs.
The source of my parental anxiety was instantly validated, and it is this: in normal, everyday situations, even when you are present with your kids and fully aware of the surroundings, tragedy lurks. Quietly waiting for that one single second. Out of the most mundane situations can arise an outcome that’s so far beyond comprehension, it’s unfathomable. And as a parent, this is a heavy burden. This is what they mean when they talk about how hard it is to be a parent. This is what causes the gray hair and the sleepless nights.
My daughter’s toy was in my next-door neighbor’s driveway. All she had to do was pick it up, put it in the garage and follow me inside. It should have taken 30 seconds. Her big sister was out there with her, also cleaning up. Instead, she chose to run up the sidewalk and dart into the street in front of oncoming traffic. Never, not in my wildest dreams, would I have anticipated that.
Was I irresponsible? Was I neglectful? Of course, I could have stood out there and shuttled them all inside, making sure I was the last to come in the house and locking the door behind me. And maybe next time, that’s just what I’ll do. But I can’t help wondering how that will teach them self-reliance, responsibility, and obedience. I gave a simple, age-appropriate task, and my child almost paid the ultimate price for it.
As the sun rises this morning, I still have my daughter, and I know I’m lucky for that. There are so many who don’t. But I can’t help but wonder how yesterday’s events will influence every decision I make from now on. In what was already one of life’s greatest guessing games, I feel stripped naked, unprepared. The years of parenting experience that I have feel irrelevant now. And I know that the what ifs will be my constant companions today.
When I made the decision to write this down and share it, I searched for a positive conclusion—you know, the happy ending. The lesson. The takeaway that others can learn from and in turn do better than I did. But in reality, while my story ended on a happy note, there are many others that don’t, every single day. Sometimes in parenting, there is no happy ending. And what’s worse, there is no reason why. That linear formula ingrained in us during childhood—you know the one: good things happen to good guys, and bad things happen to bad guys—simply doesn’t apply.
This morning there are thousands of parents whose stories would sound much different from mine. Those who know the sting of tragedy that I so narrowly avoided. I got a glimpse into the fragility of life, while these parents could write a dissertation about it with nary a blink.
And if there is anything good about this, it’s the appreciation that comes with remembering not to take life for granted. Yes, it’s stressful. Yes, it’s busy. And yes, I will lose my patience with my kids again—many, many times over. But I will always carry a piece of yesterday’s events with me, and hopefully, over time, it’ll make me better. Maybe there’s a reason why bedtime with kids is so famously difficult. Maybe it’s a small penance to be paid for the gift of another day.