“Pittsburgh Zoo Accident: Two-Year-Old Dies After Falling into Wild African Painted Dog Exhibit”
When I read about this tragedy, I thought to myself, I would never do that. I would never prop my two year old son on the top of a railing over an exhibit for fear that he would wiggle too hard or struggle or squirm, and I would lose my grip, watching helplessly as he fell into the pit down below. Which is apparently exactly what happened to a woman in Pittsburg who then experienced the unbearable, helpless horror of watching her child being mauled to death by a pack of Wild African Painted Dogs. Completely out of her reach, there was absolutely nothing she could do to save him.
As a mother I have always been what would be considered by some to be overprotective. Both of my children only walked at seventeen months, and although I was never outwardly accused of thwarting them in any way, and doctors explained their delay as a result of genetics, inwardly I always wondered if maybe they were a little delayed because I was always so quick to carry them over hurdles, protect them from stairs, and keep them on the floor rather than let them figure out how to climb down from the couch for fear that they would fall. I wanted them safe. I was afraid they would be hurt, and now that they’re older, I continue my protective ways. I insist on bicycle helmets for some toys that other parents don’t. If something moves faster than they walk, they wear a helmet. Period. There is a play place that is particularly popular for birthday parties in our community. Everyone loves it. It terrifies me to the core. A warehouse of blow up bounce equipment complete with a twenty-five foot slide, the kids all bounce in mass chaos nearly missing cracking their collective heads open in each successive moment. They careen down the slide, one on top of the other with no employee to ensure that the first child is out of the way before the second comes screaming down at twenty miles an hour on top of the former. Attending the first few parties, I bit my lip and left with sugar overload and a stress-induced migraine. After having researched just how many serious injuries occur in bounce houses, I learned that my fears were justified so I sent my kids to the next party with my husband and handled my anxiety at home. That day he came home and reported that the birthday girl’s brother had broken his arm while in the throes of chaotic bouncing and sliding fun. Now I politely refuse party invitations to that particular establishment. My kids are still young enough that I can get away with it. We miss a fair number of parties.
But even with my tendency towards overprotection, there have been moments; moments when my judgment lapsed that could have resulted in catastrophe if things had differed even by a fraction.
Close to a month after my son was born, I was home with him doing laundry, enjoying my new role as a housewife and mother. I was upstairs and needed to take a load of laundry and my baby downstairs to the laundry room. After a moment’s thought, I placed him on top of the laundry in the basket and proceeded down the stairs. He was not strapped in or secured in any way but simply lying on top of the laundry. As I made my way down the stairs, my mind started to turn. Upon reaching the living room, I realized how utterly stupid, dangerous and irresponsible what I had just done really was. If I had lost my balance, slipped, caught my foot on the stair or jerked even slightly, my hands firmly grasping the basket, he would have been catapulted, practically weightlessly through the air, down the flight of stairs and against the wall at the bottom. Broken. Shattered. My baby. My life. I was holding him now. Shaking. Crying. God had given me this child, and I was unworthy. He wasn’t even a month old, and I had already jeopardized his very existence. What the fuck was wrong with me? I was unfit. I had to think harder, more clearly, more carefully. In every moment. Every moment! I had only been spared by luck. It was as simple as that.
In Denver our garage was a separate structure from our house that opened onto an alley that ran along the side of both buildings. People used that alley as a back road speedway, and it never bothered me, as many things didn’t until I had my son. After giving birth these people became a clear menace, and I was furious that they were speeding by our home. For various reasons as people do, we began to consider a move out of the city. One afternoon I decided to take my baby boy for a stroll around the neighborhood. The stroller was in the trunk of our car in the garage. I carried him out to the garage, opened the garage door, opened the trunk, set up the stroller and put my baby in the stroller. The floor of our garage merging into the alley did not look like an incline. But apparently an incline does not have to appear as such to in fact be an incline. In the time it took for me to turn my back to shut the trunk, the stroller had rolled across the alley. Horrified, I ran across the street to retrieve my son. He had not been mowed down by a speeding car, nor had a car had come to a screeching halt with someone leaning out the window screeching, “are you crazy lady! He could have been killed!” There were no cars in sight. But while I thanked God for my unbelievable good fortune, I was sick. I hadn’t locked the wheel of the stroller. I didn’t know it was an incline, I argued with myself, but I was always supposed to lock the wheel of the stroller. I had turned my back and left my baby to roll across a dangerous alley in his stroller. I didn’t sleep for three nights. He hadn’t been killed in our alley by a speeding car because I got lucky. It was a simple as that.
In California when it came time to move my son from a crib into a big boy bed it was a big deal. We bought the bed rails to ensure his safety and he chose beautiful bedding. He was so excited. It was also a bit of a challenge because he has the smallest room, so configuring the furniture was difficult. We settled with his bed up against the far wall underneath a small window. The window had a large heavy plantation shutter covering it so we didn’t see any potential danger. He was happy in his big boy bed. Six months later, I heard some strange noises coming from his room an hour after putting him to bed. I walked into his room, and to my utter shock the heavy plantation shutter was wide open. He had climbed up into the narrow windowsill and wedged his hands and feet into the frame of the window. His entire body and face were pressed against that single pane of glass as he stared out into the night sky. I screamed for my husband as I ran across the room and snatched him away from the threatening dark night. When I explained the scene to my husband, he reiterated that he didn’t think our son could open the plantation shutter. Obviously we were very wrong. My husband moved a tall dresser in front of the window. The bed was now partially blocking the bathroom door. Small sacrifices we should have made in the first place. We put our son back to bed. Given more time, could he, would he have managed to open the windowpane itself and simply, silently slipped out of the house? Was he capable? We didn’t know. We were almost afraid to ask. My husband turned to me, “Do you think the pane could have given way?” His face was pale, stricken. “I don’t know,” I replied. Forty pounds pressed heavily against the window, I questioned. “Possibly given the right circumstances. We didn’t think he could open the shutter. Who’s to say he couldn’t have broken through the glass? It’s just glass.” My husband stalked the hallways, flipping on lights in dark corners, chasing shadows, and checking locks on other now threatening windows. I took a sedative and lay on the bed staring at the ceiling.
The next morning, I looked at the dry cracked dirt and sparse shrubbery at the bottom of the long drop from my son’s room. I knew that if he had fallen he never would have survived. He hadn’t fallen because we got lucky. It was as simple as that.
These memories creep around the crevices of my brain, the way demons stalk the hallows of hell stoking the fires, torturing me when I am tired, or in the dark, late at night or read a story like the one about the woman in Pittsburg reminding me of how vulnerable, how very close I have come to the unbearable.
When I think of the woman in Pittsburg I admit that I wouldn’t put my child up on a railing over an enclosure at the zoo for fear that he would fall. And at the same time I can see how she might. Maybe the dogs were his favorite, and as they approached the exhibit she saw his little face light up, a face she loved more than life. Maybe he even uttered the word “puppy,” one of his first. Proud of her smart little guy, she wanted him to have the best zoo experience possible. To be the happiest boy at the zoo that day, and she decided that just for a moment she would hold him up so that he could see just a little better, making the dog exhibit just a little more memorable. After all, he’s not a wiggler. Just for a moment.
Yet I feel so much empathy and pain and kinship for this woman because as much as I may not have made the exact same miscalculation she made, I could easily trade one of my miscalculations for hers and have been left with a similar devastating result. We are no different, she and I. We are two women who have fallen victim to momentary lapses in judgment, regardless of good intentions, regardless of how much we adore our children. Unfortunately lapses in judgment are often painfully, regrettably, irrevocable and clearly identifiable only in hindsight. The only difference between us is that I have had better luck. So far. It is as simple as that.
We are given these children, these amazing creatures to love, and we love them in a way that is so profound, so unshakable that it is somewhat unearthly, perhaps even super human. Yet we are merely human, vulnerable to all of the mistakes and foibles that humans unfailingly make. Living with the knowledge of this contradiction on a daily basis is terrifying. For me it is definitely the hardest, scariest part of being a parent.
My love and prayers go out to the family in Pittsburg.