A few weeks ago, a seven-year-old boy in our town lost his life in a tragic freak accident. The incident happened in public after the local holiday parade, and as you might imagine, the loss rocked the entire community.
As the mom of a seven-year-old boy, the news struck me especially hard. The moment I read the headline, I felt sick. When I saw his name and his beautiful little face on our community Facebook page, my heart broke.
The little boy was in my son’s preschool class.
Suddenly, this accident felt really personal and terrifying. It was nauseating, infuriating, cruel and unfair.
My son and this little boy stood on the same stage in the same tiny blue caps and gowns just a year and a half ago. That night they graduated to “big kid school” and moved into the next chapter of their lives.
It was just another part of the first chapter, really. Just the very beginning of everything they would go on to become.
How can one of their stories already be over? His entire book is already written? How is it possible that this tragic public accident on an otherwise ordinary day will be the most memorable part of his legacy?
Nothing about this is fair. It’s incomprehensible. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare playing out in front of the entire town.
Because of the public nature of this accident, I’ve seen a few people on social media expressing thinly veiled statements of blame. They say things like, “I hope his parents can forgive themselves,” or “I pray they’ll work through this guilt.”
I realize that his family may feel some completely unfounded feelings of guilt because grief is complicated. I hope and pray they feel completely supported as they work through the entire range of emotions that comes with an unspeakably early death.
But assuming they feel guilt or hold blame is hideously unfair. What are they guilty of? Not reading the future? Leaving the house? Thousands of kids woke up that morning and participated in that parade. Only one didn’t make it home.
His parents did what everyone else in town did, but fate handed them a devastating blow that most of us will never have to understand.
The idea that we can’t stop tragedy from choosing us makes us feel powerless. Blaming the family feels better. If you can blame the parents, you can convince yourself that you’re more conscientious. Your child is safer because they’re in your care, and you’d never make the decisions those other parents made. You’re exempt from tragedy because, let’s face it, you’re just a tiny bit better than they are.
Except you’re not.
None of us are.
His parents loved him the way I love my children. I know that because I have seen it with my own eyes. I was there, and I saw them adore him. The fact that he’s gone in an accident is not a reflection on them. It’s just one of the most unfair, unimaginable parts of life on this flawed, spinning rock.
And if just one tiny thing had gone differently for any of us, we could be the ones making the news.
It could have been us the evening my husband jumped into a pool to rescue our child when he got too brave and hopped in without his life jacket.
I could have made headlines when my child saw my dad across the parking lot at Starbucks, and for the first time in his entire life, he took off like a shot and didn’t wait for me. By some miracle, he heeded my blood-curdling scream and turned back — just in time for a pickup truck to come flying around the very corner where he would have been stranding if he kept going.
I have been very, very lucky.
And so have many of you.
All of us whose children are alive and well have benefited from sheer, undeserved fortune. Even the most careful, loving parent is susceptible to a freak accident.
I’m not suggesting we live our lives in paralyzed fear because of that understanding. But it’s really important when tragedy strikes someone else that we never lose sight of how easily it could be us. We need to be careful to maintain gratitude for the way life has smiled on us so far.
Yesterday, I was exhausted. My kids’ energy levels were off the charts. I just wanted to listen to grown-up music for the ten minutes we had left on our car ride. I turned on Idina Menzel, but I wasn’t even halfway through the first song when my seven-year-old said, “Mom, can we listen to ‘Catchy Song’ from The LEGO Movie?”
I wanted to say no. No part of me felt like listening to T-Pain repeat, “This song is gonna get stuck inside your head” over and over for four minutes.
But I looked in my rear-view mirror and I saw my boy in the back. He was safely strapped into his car seat, looking up at me expectantly, waiting for my answer. I immediately thought about the mom who, just last weekend, laid her baby to rest in a box in the ground.
I knew she would listen to the LEGO soundtrack on repeat forever if she could have her son back in her car for just one afternoon.
At the next red light, I turned on “Catchy Song.” I watched my kids bopping along in the back, and I started to cry. I pulled into the next Sonic, bought them lemonades, and we sat in the parking lot and sang along to the next three songs on my kids’ playlist.
That night when they asked to fall asleep in my bed, I said yes. As their little eyes fluttered and finally closed, I listened to their steady breathing and watched their faces in peaceful sleep. I did my best to drink it all in. I sang their favorite lullabies, just like I used to do when they were babies.
Even when they were both fast asleep, I kept singing.
For the boy whose life was just too short.
I cried for the living child who will never fall asleep next to his little brother again.
One extra song to honor the mother whose lullaby days are over too soon.
I sang, and I cried, and I realized that the only difference between me and her is that I’ve been so, so very lucky.