The Worst Fear (Alternatively Titled: “Oliver’s grandmothers probably shouldn’t read this…”)

Since I’m fairly certain said grandmothers have not heeded my advice, I’d just like to put it out there that everyone is OKAY.

With the exception of maybe me… Though my robotic ability to shut down emotions when they threaten to render me unable to cease crying for the rest of my life did kick in about five minutes into my nervous breakdown. So that’s good.

This talent of mine serves me well because at the core, I’m a very fearful person. I worry about everything. When I was little I would worry about tidal waves and twisters. I worried about nuclear war and my parents dying. I had night terrors and no matter how irrational, I couldn’t stand next to my bed after dark without imagining a hand reaching out from under to grab my ankle. The world was fraught with danger and I was keenly aware of every awful thing that could possibly happen to me. I saw shark infested waters – both literally and figuratively.

So now, I disconnect. I just don’t think about it anymore. I simply don’t have time. I have too much to juggle and it’s made me very practical. I’m a good person to have around in a crisis. I’m calm and analytical. I wait to hear all the facts before forming an opinion. And I don’t consider the worst until the truth grabs me by the neck and slams me against the wall. Even then I’ll hold it together. For me, it’s a matter of survival.

But we all have our breaking point. And I hit mine yesterday when for about five to ten minutes in the late morning, I lost Oliver. Meaning, I searched my immediate neighborhood and I couldn’t find him anywhere.

One minute I was walking in my front door to get Eleanor a cup of water and the next I was racing around our block, frantically calling his name.

When I left him, he was sitting about ten feet away from our house in (of course) a patch of dirt. He was drinking the first cup of water I brought out for Eleanor since he drained his own so quickly that I just gave him hers and ran back in to get more.

When I stepped back outside, I found George engrossed in turning on the water for the garden hose and the absence of Oliver. A yellow plastic cup lay on its side on the patch of dirt. No spills – no mud. He drank all of it.

Ignoring Eleanor’s constant chatter behind me, I asked George to turn OFF the water – he knows that he’s not allowed to play with the hose – and WHERE did Oliver go.

My younger son pointed vaguely down the block and said, “down the hill.” It was obvious that George had no idea where his brother went, but I started walking in that direction. It was as good as any other.

Oliver tends to wander off. Never far, and typically to predictable locations, but I always have that brief pang of “what if?” The one that we barely register since it borders on unnecessary drama and fully crosses the line of unlikely. And by the time it could possibly gather momentum, the child appears – blissfully ignorant of the big bad world and its predators lurking behind every theoretical corner. Then we yell or hug or get distracted by another child. But the resonance of that pang stays with us long enough for a glimpse of perspective. What truly matters in our lives. Those lost earrings become a welcome price to pay – the trade off for this moment of relief. So lucky…a charmed life I’m living, really.

But when I reached the end of our townhouse row and turned the corner, my child wasn’t there.

And when I turned the next corner, he still wasn’t there. Or the next corner. Or the next. And suddenly, I was back where I started.

I looked at the strange men doing landscaping and noticed for the first time that they all drive vans. Then I asked George again, “WHERE did Oliver go? Is he inside?” Before even hearing his answer, I crossed the street to look in the good climbing tree. Then I doubled back to try the path to the bridge where we throw rocks in the water. Our neighbor was walking his dog there and said he hadn’t seen Oliver. So I went up another set of steps that would lead me back to the area behind our house.

Then I quickly returned to the front and ran into the house, still calling for him. Eleanor said he wasn’t there but I kept calling. At the door to the basement, I heard how hoarse my voice sounded. I didn’t notice that I was still holding Eleanor’s second cup of water until I hurled it down the stairs.

Back outside. More searching.

Too much walking and running and calling “Oliver…Oliver…OLIVER…OLIVER…OLIVEROLIVEROLIVER!” The twins echoed my calls and I realized that they were now both on the front lawn, trying to aid me in my search. Within minutes they would be lost in the neighborhood too, so I pushed-dragged them to my friend’s house two doors down, and barked, “stay there I don’t know where Oliver is stay THERE!”

We had all been at this house earlier for a casual brunch, and several other mothers were still there. My friend asked if she should call the police and I think I said yes – but I may have just showed her the yellow cup in the patch of dirt. Because he was JUST there a minute ago.

But more than a minute had now passed. Many minutes. Too many. And with each one, the vapor of “unlikely” continued to gain substance. I ran back across the street and through another cul de sac, distantly aware of other voices calling my son’s name.

It was only when I was looking down a hill at the nearby creek that I heard my name. Someone (or everyone) was calling for me. And that meant they found him. It never occurred to me that it could have been anything else. Anything else would be unbearable.

As I rushed back up the street and my house came into view, I saw another neighbor helping Oliver step out of my car. MY CAR. He was in my car.

Me – the city girl who once never left her car unlocked for a single minute. Not even to run into the house for forgotten sunglasses. Because leaving a car unlocked meant that strangers could get in. Maybe steal it. At the very least, pilfer the meter change hidden away in the glove compartment. That city girl, now lulled by her quiet suburban neighborhood and distracted by multiple children let locked car doors fall off the radar. Constant vigilance was reserved for boiling pots of water on the stove and cleaning fluids locked under the sink. Not the car.

And my five year old son climbed into a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows and child safety locks in 90 degree weather.

If one of my friends hadn’t seen a flicker of movement, who knows how long it would have taken for me to find him there. And what that could have meant.

Let’s play hide and seek mommy! Where’s Oliver…

That is real fear. The vampires and sharks of my childhood look like Smurfs and Care Bears when pitted against the fear of losing my child.

I barely said thank you to the people who helped me search for Oliver as I silently led him into the house. And the minute the door closed, I burst into tears. I was SO scared. I couldn’t find you. You were LOST.

I could have yelled or spanked him. I could have sent him to his room for the rest of the day. I could have held him tight and asked if he was okay, told him everything would be alright. I’m here now. Mommy’s here.

Instead I sat and cried and said I was scared. So scared.

At first he laughed. The nervous laughter we’ve all experienced when faced by something impossible. It wasn’t just a crack in his mother’s composure. I dissolved before his eyes. I fell to pieces and I couldn’t help myself.

But I think this probably made more of an impact. If he was scared while locked in the car, he didn’t show it. He has his own walls – his own habits of disconnecting with reality. But he too has a breaking point, and apparently, it’s me. We both cried and said we were scared. And said we were sorry.

Then joined by the twins, we fell into a teary, sweaty heap in front of the TV and decided not to leave the house until it was time for Oliver’s therapy appointment.

I sat with all three of my children and basked the luxury of knowing that they were safe. Nothing bad could happen to them in that moment – I could protect them with four walls, air conditioning and the tedium of passive parenting. With my physical presence. As long as we could see each other, nothing could touch us.

Hours passed, therapy was received, and commuter traffic was endured. And when we returned to the slower speed limit of our neighborhood, the last traces of our anxiety dropped away. I opened the windows and turned up the radio. Warm air rushed in to remove the chill of fear.

In my side mirror I saw Oliver putting his hand out the window to feel the breeze. Part of me thought, “keep arms and legs in the vehicle at all times…” but I remember pushing my own palm against the wind when I was his age. No tree limbs or other cars ever came close enough to hurt me. I never worried about that. Earthquakes maybe…but not losing my hand to swerving motorcyclist.

So I decided not to worry about it now. I put my own hand out the window and felt the pressure of wind. My own flesh and bone, solid and invincible against the blast. With a little tension and concentration, I couldn’t be moved. I could even push back.

The what ifs will never go away. They linger on the edges of our every movement, decision, omission… And sometimes they catch up with us. There is always a terrible story to hear. To simultaneously feel sorrow for others and immense gratitude for our own luck, grace, karma.

I once read a brilliant line about what it means to become a parent. While the source left my memory long ago, the sentiment stayed with me – that someone’s child was born and “fate took a hostage.”

Every day I feel the truth of this. And it humbles me. I have to take responsibility for my power and accept my powerlessness and ultimately just hope that my luck will hold.

And I do that every day. I guess we all do.

It’s a charmed life I’m living. Really.

*I wrote this in June 2010. Christy posted Ava’s Rule on FaceBook and it reminded me again how important it is to LOCK YOUR CAR DOORS. Not to protect your GPS or meter change. To protect children. Any child can open a car door – but only if it’s unlocked. Forward this reminder to everyone you know. Not this link – this is just a cautionary tale that people may not get around to reading. The postcard for Ava’s Rule says it all, “Always lock your car and store your car keys out of kids’ reach. Verify your kids know to NEVER go to the car unsupervised. Actively seek out sheltered locations to park your car.

Stay cool and stay safe this summer!

10 thoughts on “The Worst Fear (Alternatively Titled: “Oliver’s grandmothers probably shouldn’t read this…”)

  1. Catherine

    Thank you for posting this! I never thought about this happening, but it easily could. I live in Texas, and cars can easily reach well above 100 degrees in the summer, and kids die too frequently here that way. It’s usually a terrible accident brought about by a change in routine (Dad forgetting to drop baby at daycare, and going to work with baby still in the car), but this is definitely something to keep in mind. Great post.
    Catherine recently posted..Happy Birthday, Baby Boy!My Profile

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  2. Nancy

    thank you for reposting kate! so important to be reminded of simple ways to keep our children safe.

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  3. K A B L O O E Y

    I missed this the fist time, so thank you for reprinting. And thank you for putting the good news up front, or I would have been completely undone. We know what can happen in a moment and it does take us to that worst, darkest place. Like you, I’m good in the crisis, but the aftermath tears me up. I had the exact same reaction when I lost mine for the first time this spring, and like Oliver, I think my tears had the biggest impact on my daughter. Whew. We’re blessed, so far. I hope forever.
    K A B L O O E Y recently posted..Is It Just Me? Vol. 28: Or Is Mercury in Retrograde*?My Profile

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  4. Missy

    That panicked feeling about a minute in when the blessed child isn’t where he/she “usually” is… that’s enough to do me in. I’m so glad to read that this was an older post and one that ended happily.

    Thank you for the important reminder about car safety for our kidlets’ protection. So many forget that it’s not only who can get in, but who can’t get out!
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  5. annechovie

    Wow, I actually was feeling the tension and then the great relief, Kate. You truly have the gift for writing and current or not, so happy this story had a happy ending!
    Hope you have a relaxing weekend. xo
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  6. Loukia

    I cannot even imagine the fear you went through. Well, I can, it’s happened to me before, but for like TWO SECONDS. It is the worst feeling ever, completely horrific. I am scared of everything, I worry non-stop about everything, I panic the second my kids aren’t right there in front of me, I think the most horrible thoughts and I can’t stop worrying. The reason I’m like this I think, is because I know bad things happen – all the tim – to normal families, to people who really don’t see it coming, either… I have friends who are much more calm and rational than I am, but I can’t ever just be like that. I wish so badly I wasn’t so worried all the time, but then reading a post like this, no wonder we worry… you know? Sigh.
    Loukia recently posted..No Sleep Till BlogHerMy Profile

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