I honestly can’t stop thinking about Leiby Kletzky (z”l).* Specifically, I can’t stop thinking about what his mother must be feeling, holding on to the last moment that she saw him alive and wishing with all of her might that she could go back and tell him, “No Leiby, you can’t walk home by yourself…. Because I’m your mother and I said so.” Just weeks before his story, my mind was spinning at the loss of Joshua and Robin Barry (z”l) of Houston who died in a car accident while on a family vacation, leaving behind their three injured children. I can’t imagine those children waking up in the hospital, hurting and looking for the comforting arms of their parents, only to find out they were gone.
I know these are isolated incidences and I’m not sure if this stuff lingers with me because I’m prone to dwell on awful things (I had to stop watching Rescue 9-1-1 when I was 10because I slept under my parent’s bed in fear of burglars) or because I am a parent, and an overprotective one at that. Several of us here have aired our crazy dreams of slathering our child in hospital-grade hand sanitizer and locking them in a plastic bubble for, well, eternity. I don’t let my child eat nuts, run ahead of me at the zoo, or ride forward facing in the car seat but yesterday I looked away for five seconds to check my email and he climbed a heavy wooden bookcase. Not to mention, it took watching this BMW commercial to stop me from talking on the phone while I drive.
When I was a little girl I played outside in the summer from sunrise to sunset. I rode my pink 10-speed to the baseball card store to get candy and then I was off to play in the woods behind my school. I remember one time my parents hired a babysitter and when they arrived home at 10pm she was eating Doritos on our couch, and my brothers and I were three streets over catching lightening bugs. When I was in eighth grade I would hide in big cement drainage tunnels and smoke cigarettes with the football team and as a teenager I jumped out my bedroom window into the night to kiss boys or egg cars and somehow managed to make it home just before sunrise. There were no cell phones or pagers and no matter what kind of periodic “update” I provided, the bottom line was: my parents had no clue where I was. My dad was a cop (!) and mom didn’t let me eat ice cream from the music truck because she was convinced it was unsanitary, so don’t go thinking I was some latch-key kid with no discipline. I was just a kid. I was independent and fearless and rebellious. Looking back, anything could have happened to me. I could have been snatched up in an instant or hit by a car as I ran around at night chasing boys. No matter how hard my parents tried to protect me, they couldn’t keep me safe 100% of the time.
That reality is my nightmare as a new parent. That nightmare is Leiby’s mother’s reality now.
Allowing an 8-year-old to walk a few blocks home after camp is perfectly reasonable. She honored her child’s request for independence. She mapped out the route and walked it with him several times. I’m sure they went over it again and again at the breakfast table that morning and she instructed him to ask for help if he got lost. And he did. And every other day he probably would have encountered a sweet person to direct him home, or at least use their cell phone to call his mother, but because the universe worked in some effed-up way that is incomprehensible to me – he walked into the hands of a killer.
Sure, we can dwell on terrible “what ifs” and never let our children leave our sight, but no matter what our current neurosis are there will always be something we are missing. An ill man who chose that day to capture a child or a driver who swerves left of center. “Shit happens” isn’t a comforting idea when it comes to my kid, so I’ll probably continue to watch his every move like a hawk. But I have a lot of wonderful memories of growing up, and I can only hope that my fear of the unknown doesn’t squelch my son’s independence or limit his childhood happiness.
*a Hebrew expression for “may his memory be a blessing.”
Here’s how to avoid becoming an overprotective parent.