Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Road to Gratitude

Something happened to me recently that I have not yet shared – mostly out of embarrassment because it violates so many lessons I thought I had already learned. The few people who know the story have attempted to reassure me with the “it happens to everyone” consolation speech. That may be true, but it didn’t eliminate the sporadic, intrusive, unforgiving thoughts about what almost became the worst day of my life. I’m sharing it now because I have finally started seeing it not as a mark against my parenting skills but as a window to stronger faith and deeper gratitude.

Back in May, we discovered that some mice were living in our garage. We ended up catching them, but not before they left a trail of droppings around the perimeter of the floor. Reese’s birthday party was scheduled for that weekend, and we use our garage as the main entrance to our house so I decided that it needed to be cleaned up before the party. I never do anything without a predetermined schedule, so I picked a day (Thursday) and decided to clean the garage during naptime. Of course, Reese took a short nap that day and I was in the middle of my project when I heard her voice over the baby monitor. A more flexible, laid back person would probably have realized that vacuuming the garage while watching a toddler is not a good idea, but I have neither of those qualities so I hauled Reese outside and fired up the shop vac.

She made several attempts to get my attention, but I was bound and determined to finish the job. On her fourth attempt, she asked me to take her for a walk. Instead, I roller her toy stroller toward her and said, “Mommy’s busy right now. Why don’t you take your doll for a walk?” She seemed content with that idea and I returned my focus to the never ending trail of what I pretended were black rice pellets.

When I finally looked up, I couldn’t see her. Every parent knows how immediately the panic rises from your gut to your throat when your child is out of sight for even a second. My eyes darted around the front half of our two-acre yard thinking that she couldn’t possibly have gone that far in under a minute. I widened my gaze beyond what I thought was a reasonable distance and that’s when I saw her at the end of our driveway pushing her stroller off of the gravel and onto street.

Our house sits at the bottom of a hill on a country road, and I knew an oncoming car would never see her in time. I screamed, “Reese Margaret, stop!” and took off in a full sprint, but our driveway is long and it took almost 10 seconds for me to reach her. My eyes were immediately blinded by tears as I repeated, “Please let me get there,” down the full length of the driveway. I tackled her in the middle of the street and my screams startled her into a fit of sobs that mirrored my own. Her toy stroller went sailing into the ditch leaving her Minnie Mouse doll sprawled on the pavement. We cried in unison as I scooped her up and headed back toward the house.

We were less than halfway up the drive when a car flew over the hill and barreled through the empty air where Reese stood just moments before. I fell to my knees in the gravel, not noticing the pain of the rocks digging into my skin. I cradled my baby in my arms, looked up at the sky, and thanked God out loud between sobs. The car continued on into the distance, its driver completely oblivious to what might have been if he had left his previous destination just one minute sooner.

By the time we returned to the house Reese was already calm. She grabbed her pink teapot and poured me a fake cup of tea as if the events of the past five minutes had suddenly been erased from existence. My recovery was not quite so immediate. For the rest of the day and through that night I struggled to keep my thoughts from wading through horrifying alternative outcomes. Two days later our friends and family came to celebrate Reese’s second birthday, and the possibility that we could all be gathered for a very different reason stewed on the back burner of my mind.

As the saying goes, “When you know better, you do better,” only that’s not what happened. I know better than to take my eyes off a toddler. I know we live on a dangerous road. I know it wasn’t necessary to clean the garage according to my preferred timetable. But my actions on that day didn’t reflect what I know. Instead, they reflected a deep-seated, subconscious belief that I am somehow immune to the life-altering, split-second tragedies that seem to only affect “other people.” I never stopped to think that to everyone else in the world, I am “other people” and I am not immune to anything.

I’m not sure that vowing for greater attentiveness, higher awareness, or better future decisions wouldn’t just reinforce the belief that I can somehow safeguard my life against the tragedies of fate. Instead, I am humbled by the realization that no amount of preparedness can do that. Of course, I will never repeat the same incident again, but that doesn’t mean she will never wander away from me at the mall or choke on a nickel while I’m in bathroom. 

As moms, we feel as though we should be able to protect our children from all of the world’s dangers, and the guilt that results from our inability to foresee every accident and evade every mistake can be deeply painful, whatever the outcome. I believe the events of that Thursday afternoon were not the result of anything I did or didn’t do as a mother. They happened because I am human, as human as every other parent who can’t possibly lead an infallible life.

Now, every time we walk through a parking lot or see cars passing on a nearby road, Reese repeats the lesson she learned on that day, “Mommy, me not walk in the street. Cars go really fast.” Each time she says it, I can’t escape the stinging reminder of my susceptibility to human error or the stabbing guilt over what might have been. But something else happens to me in those moments, too. As scary as it is to admit that I am not invincible, the fear is overshadowed by the comfort of knowing that my life is in the hands of a God who is. The guilt over what could have been gives way to deep gratitude for what is and I am reminded that life is precious and too often taken for granted. 

None of us is guaranteed a completely safe passage through life, and the events that lie ahead can never be known. Instead of using that knowledge as a reason to be imprisoned by guilt from the past or worry for the future, use it as a reason to cherish the blessings that come with each single day and to be overwhelmed with gratitude because, in this very moment, life is good.

1 comment:

  1. Oh I know this! The first winter when we moved into our house (on a busy street) from the city (where we lived in a courtyard apartment) we were outside and I was shoveling. I took my eyes off the 18 month old toddler assuming she would stay with her brother and know that the street was dangerous. I looked up to see her sitting on the snow piled up on the shoulder of the road, inches from cars that could have hit her.

    We all have those moments mama and they teach us and our children. So thankful that everyone is safe.