Being a parent is scary business. Some close calls, things that happen in the blink of an eye, they play over and over in our minds when we try to go to sleep. When I was 4, I lived in Massachusetts during the horrifying early 50's of polio epidemics. My oldest sister, Sandy, caught polio when I was just 2. After that, during the hot summers that were muggy and miserable, we children weren't allowed in crowded places like stores or swimming pools because of the risk. Polio was an airborne disease and at that time there wasn't any cure. A few years later, after the panic was over and the vaccine was available , my dad asked me to go the store with him. He promised me a Tootsie Roll. We drove the few blocks to the store. My dad got out, closed his door, and started to walk to the passenger side to get me. In my excitement, I opened the driver's side door behind him, jumped out and walked right in front of an oncoming car. My dad saw what was happening, but couldn't get back around to stop me. The car hit me straight on, knocking me unconscious and I was taken to the hospital. Luckily, I just had a bad cut on my head. But my father was traumatized. Dad had nightmares for years about it. He saw himself running in slow motion trying to get to me before the car hit me, but he never could.
A few years ago, my children, now in their mid-thirties, told me about an incident that happened the day my son got his driver's license. He was 16 and my daughter was 13. Randy asked to take the car to go pick something up for me. I said yes. Even though my heart was racing, I knew I had to let him go. It was scary, but I let them go. I watched them drive away through the window. I prayed the whole time they were gone and whispered a thank you to the heavens when they returned safe and unharmed. Just a few years ago I heard what really happened. There were train tracks by our house that were on top of a small hill, then the road went downhill again. Apparently my son was still getting used to the stick shift and clutch. The car stalled on top of the railroad tracks, the warning bells went off, the barrier arm came down behind them. My son got the car started again, floored the accelerator, and they escaped. I am so glad I didn't know at the time.
The August after my daughter graduated from college, Elizabeth went to live in the South Bronx to volunteer teach for a year. The only way I could cope was to forget where she was. I called her, sent her letters and care packages, but mostly I pretended she was still at college. I know there are things she still hasn't told me, drug dealers with big snakes and pit bulls, but she did tell me a few years ago about being mugged on the subway.
All of these stories lead up to the question: What do we really control when it comes to our children's safety?
It's on my mind because Rebecca, my 5 year old granddaughter, sensible, smart, and fully schooled on the concept of making "good choices," took off on her bike, the first time she had a little freedom on her two wheeler and followed a little boy her age through the park, beyond her parents reach. She was entering a parking lot when she fell. It's what stopped her. She was so thrilled to be riding and to be free, Rebecca forgot how to use her brakes. The pure joy of riding and making a new friend overrode everything. Of course,she's only 5.
You can tell them everything they need to know. Right now, Rebecca adores climbing the small tree in her front yard. It makes her feel powerful and competent. I adore the fact that she climbs trees and loves adventure. She likes to scare me, too. That girl has been told to climb slowly and cautiously of course. Kids today wear helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads. She knows about the danger of strangers, walk don't run. We all tell them the same things. We punish them when they do something impulsive and foolish. Still, we cannot control everything. That's the hardest truth to accept so you just learn to give them what they need to know without turning them into neurotic nervous wrecks, pray continuously, and as they say in Nemo, "just keep swimming."