The directive was simple: Hold your brother’s hand when you cross the state highway.
It was a spring weekend and my brother and I were begging my mother to let us go to the elementary school playground with a group of our friends. I was only seven years old and my mother was reluctant, even with my 12-year-old brother. She finally relented, but not before haranguing us about crossing at the light and “hold your brother’s hand.”
I can’t tell you how it happened. I did as I was told on the way over and, probably because I could – he would have no choice but to cross anyway if he wanted to get home – refused my brother’s hand on the way back. I probably went into what, in my family, was known as my “prima donna routine.” I don’t remember how it was I wound up lying in the middle of the state highway, having walked into a moving car. Both my mother and brother were devastated.
Fast forward a few months to a family weekend in Atlantic City. My parents, brother and I had gotten up early in the morning to rent bicycles to ride on the boardwalk. My brother and I convinced my parents to allow us to ride on our own. After all, you couldn’t get lost and hardly anyone was up and out that early for us to plow over.
So off we went to the end of the boardwalk closer to the ocean, where there were no stores and hardly any buildings. Somehow I got ahead of my brother and noticed a man with his leg over the boardwalk fencing.
“Come here, little girl. I can’t get my leg off here,” he beckoned.
I’d like to say I hesitated, remembering that cardinal rule: Don’t Talk to Strangers. But I didn’t. I dismounted and was putting down my kick stand when I heard the crash of a bike slamming down and felt a hand on my shoulder tugging me back. “Get on your bike, quick,” my brother said and I guess his voice was intense enough for me to obey.
Later on I was still clueless and “tattled” to my mother that Art had refused to help a man who may have been in trouble.
Move to decades later and I’m a parent myself to a 2-year-old Heir 1. We’re at an organization picnic held on the banks of the Shenandoah River. Everyone is wading in a shallow area of the water, but Dirtman was adamant that we not join them. As a former EMT and funeral home employee, he’d pulled out too many bodies from the changeable and sometimes volatile Shenandoah, where the river bed can change drastically overnight.
So I stand behind Heir 1 on the bank throwing rocks into the water. All around us, only a foot or so away, toddlers are splashing around in the ankle-deep water. Without warning Heir 1 steps into the water and disappears beneath the surface. I reach down and grab whatever part of my son I can reach and pull him onto the bank.
He is choking and coughing and breathing. I am crying. Dirtman is scolding – and crying.
The reason I’m dragging you down My Memory Lane is not to give you the impression that I draw bad luck into my life – I don’t. I have no doubt anyone you ask can relate similar incidents where a decision led to dire consequences.
The point is that more times than anyone can count, similar decisions led to absolutely nothing happening. Decisions, judgement calls and risks happen all day long and fade from memory because, while they are part of life and a huge portion of parenthood, the results are uneventful.
It would do us all good to remember this when we attempt to stand in judgement of the parents of Madeleine McCann, the 4-year-old abducted from her rented condo during her family’s vacation in Portugal.
No one would accuse my parents of being negligent, and don’t dare accuse me of being negligent. But parents are constantly walking a tightrope between being over-protective and being totally careless. More times than not, we happen to luck out when leaning too far in one direction.
Let’s not selectively filter memories of our own experiences when we think about the McCann’s. Because for all the head-shaking and “tsk-tsk”-ing going on around the world, it will not come close to the self-flagellation the McCann’s are inflicting on themselves.
Let’s leave it at “there but for the grace of God go I” and pray for the safe return of a child to her parents.