Sunday afternoon a 2-year-old was killed at our zoo in Pittsburgh after falling into the Painted Dog exhibit.
The words “mauled to death” almost made me sick as tears welled up in my eyes. I take my kids to that zoo almost weekly. My 2-year-old just started walking on his own instead of seeing the animals from the safety of his stroller. I wear my infant and push the empty stroller, just in case he gets tired and wants to climb in for a ride. I am often preoccupied with the bulky stroller or fussy baby and he runs ahead a little. The other day I turned my head for a moment and lost him over near the Komodo dragon exhibit. A moment.
I recently had the TV on while I folded laundry and an episode of CSI–some-cop-show-I-never-watch-because-it-gives-me-nightmares–was on. A father was running through the subway with his child. He dropped a dollar and bent down to pick it up while his kid unknowingly ran ahead. The doors to the subway opened. The father looked up. A stranger pushed his son into the car and the doors closed. I sat there wishing the show was called “People Found Alive.” That father looked down for a moment. A moment.
This is something that has been heavy on my heart as my toddler starts to run, jump, and explore the world with excitement. He ventures further and further away from my side without so much as looking back when I call out to him. His once fearful demeanor is starting to peel away and shining through is a bounding little boy with all of the curiosity in the world. I am so proud to see him blossom but scared out of my mind of losing him.
Not losing the baby he once was. Literally, losing him.
When we are at the park he sometimes rides down a slide that is just out of my sight. As we left the museum the other day, I held the heavy door as he brushed past me at full speed into the parking lot. At the market, the elevator doors opened on a floor that wasn’t ours and he tried to run out.
I’m not as fast or as agile as he is. He doesn’t know that I can’’t see him on that slide. He doesn’t think about how he might have been hit by a car and had no idea that wasn’t our floor. But I did. And I died inside each time those few moments passed me by that I knew something bad could have happened to him.
That mother at the zoo will never get that moment back.
I lay in bed at night wondering how I can let my child be free to explore his world without holding my hand. I secretly judge the mother whose child I see wearing a little monkey backpack attached to a leash that she holds, following behind him. Perhaps I judged her because I wish I had a tether for my child. Figuratively, I wish I could wrap him in a shiny glass bubble to keep him safe from every danger, every heartache, every scrape or disappointment. Literally, I want his hand in mine whenever we leave our house. But the reality is that I can’t. I can’t put a bubble around him or have my hands on him every single moment and the helplessness that this reality breeds in me is consuming.
So I do what I can. I talk to him about danger, and strangers, and staying close to me. I remind him to hold my hand and when I look three steps ahead of us and see danger, no matter how minimal it might be, I grab him close while he wriggles in protest.
And then sometimes I let him go. I let him run a little bit ahead of me because he needs to find a sense of independence. I let him hold onto my pant pocket instead of my hand because he wants a different choice. And I won’t ever buy him an animal backpack with a leash on it because my childhood was freer and wider than anything he will ever experience. I spent summers outside barefoot and helmet-less riding my bike until dark. I caught crawdads in a mossy creek four blocks from my house, alone, in the rain. I flew on a plane unchaparoned to see my grandparents when I was 6. And I slept horizontal on the bench seat of our van while my parents drove through the night to New York City. My childhood is not his childhood.
Each night, without fail, I pray for the safety of my children. I humbly remind God how grateful I am for the privilege of being their mother. And I begrudgingly accept that our children are given to us for an undetermined amount of time. But aside from holding tight to their squirmy hands and praying for their well being, helplessness is just one of the many feelings that linger in the back of a mother’s mind waiting to consume us on days like today–when we hug our babies and pray for that mother at the zoo who can never again hug hers.