In the first few seconds after my son was struck by a car, as I panicked and fumbled to get to him in the dark night, I was certain not only that I had lost him forever, but that I was completely at fault.
I approached him as he lay face down on the pavement. He was unconscious, his limbs flung out like the form of a chalk body outline.
Later, when I relayed this vision to him, he laughed — an eight-year-old boy’s humor is both sophomoric and dark.
“You were screaming,” he said then, remembering. “I woke up and I heard you screaming.”
Indeed, after the accident when my cell phone had gone AWOL and the driver of the car that had hit my son simply stood there in shock, I began screaming for help. I knew that I had led my three children to this dark place in the middle of the road, and I was the only one who could lead them away.
That night I had been out with my children, playing a friendly pre-Halloween game where you drop a bag of treats — candy, plastic spider rings, temporary tattoos — by the front door of a friend’s house. Then you ring the doorbell and run away. It’s like Ding-Dong-Ditch, only nicer.
The next house on our list sat high above a busy road. I concocted a safety plan out loud: I would pull over and put my hazards on. My children would exit the car onto the sidewalk and wait for me. When the coast was clear, I would get out and help them cross the road.
I’d forgotten that in a quieter neighborhood minutes earlier, in the name of covertness, I had turned off the buttons in my car that keep the lights on when a door is open, or the headlights on when the engine is off. Also, I parked on a sliver of road without a single streetlight. We were vulnerable there in the dark, but I thought I was in control.
While I sat behind the wheel, waiting for a car to pass by, my son suddenly tried to cross the road at exactly the wrong moment. Dressed in his black costume skin-suit, he was invisible to the other driver.
Hours later in the emergency room, after determining that there were no serious injuries beyond a concussion, a neurosurgeon told me over and over again how very lucky we were. Then he checked my son’s cognitive abilities.
“What’s your name? What’s your mom’s name? Are we at the circus?”
“No,” my son shook his head; this was not the circus.
* * *
Oh, but for my family, life had been kind of a circus lately.
My husband and I had been separated since May and our dog had died in early October. If bad things really do happen in threes, then our son being hit by a car had completed our 2016 trifecta — our beautiful, seemingly perfect life reduced to the lyrics of a bad country song.
It wasn’t just the fault in our stars — I had chosen to end my marriage. I had chosen, finally, to put down our beloved, thirteen-year-old dog. My son, my introvert, had been struggling with the death of our dog and with finding his place in our changing family. Even in a normal year, he tends to get lost in the slender space between his charming, outspoken siblings.
But that night, he was brilliant. He had worn a black ninja skin-suit to slink between the bushes outside our friends’ houses, drop candy, and run back to the car, unseen. I laughed at his enthusiasm, encouraging him, and he reveled in my praise, something he so often had to share with his siblings.
In the days after the accident, even when my mother swooped in to help, I walked around like a zombie. Who cared that the oranges from the produce department appeared to be rotten, or that there was more traffic than usual on a Tuesday morning? I was overwhelmed by anger, guilt, and fear of what else might come my family’s way. I wondered how long I would remain there, suspended in isolation.
Then, I remembered a conversation I’d had with my younger, four-year-old son, two weeks earlier. He was sitting on the toilet, apparently contemplating our family’s difficult year.
“Everyone’s gonna die and the house is gonna crumble and fall,” he said.
I stopped at the top of the stairs, stunned by his candor, and the weight of his tender, worried heart. I sat on the edge of the bathtub. I told him that our house was not going to crumble and fall, and I asked him if he knew why that might be (a question will always buy you time). He shook his head, no. “Why?”
“Do you know how much love we have in this house?” I answered.
He stacked his elbows on his knees thoughtfully, listening. We numbered aloud the people and things we loved: his siblings, Dad, stuffed animals, each other.
“Wow, that’s a lot!” he said, now smiling.
* * *
In the earliest hours of the morning, after an MRI had finally put my older son in the clear, I lay next to him on his hospital bed. Someone wheeled us away from the ER, while I nuzzled the back of his neck and breathed in his smell: warm, sweet, dirty, alive. I closed my eyes to the hall lights whizzing by and the people staring at my son’s bloody road rash drawn on his face like thick lines of poster paint.
We entered a pediatric trauma room where my son’s bed was made up with a cozy fleece blanket in a tie-dye print. “Cool,” he said, tucking under it and falling asleep, both of us relieved.
The next day, when my son was being discharged, a nurse told him he could take the blanket home. “It’s yours now,” she said simply.
He spent the next week sleeping, lying on the couch, and eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the blanket close by.
When he returned to school, life crept back from its precarious edge toward the center again. Whenever my son was out of the house, I began wrapping his blanket around me. Perhaps, I thought, his luck could rub off on me. In this way, I began to accept that the accident had been just that — an accident, and not some punitive, karmic retaliation.
In parenting, guilt does not help or heal. If we find our way to it, we must also find our way beyond. Now, for my children and myself, I focus not on the overwhelming shape of this difficult year, but of what remains beneath. That, it turns out, really is love — love and gratitude.