A few weeks ago, I took my Peppers with me on my errands while Fluffy and Salty were with the babysitter. He was so delighted to be out on a date with Mommy. Not a peep of protest did he make the whole way to the mall–very unusual for him. He was so quiet and content, that I got all the way inside the mall before my brain screamed PEPPERS!
Yes, I had forgotten he was with me, gone into efficient errand running mode, and left him in the car in the parking garage. I was like Catherine O’Hara in Home Alone bolting up in her airplane seat exclaiming, “Kevin!”
So I book it back out into the garage praying he is still there and safe. I never leave the kids in the car without someone watching. I run down the rows of cars to where I’d parked. The car is gone. Oh no! Someone’s stolen the car with him in it! No, is this the right lane? I mash the keyless entry looking for the lights to flash on my car. Nothing. Not this row, not the next, or the next. I run back to where I started and try again. No lights. It occurs to me that I’m unlocking the car for any opportunistic pedophile, baby-snatcher, car thief to just pop right in. I switch to locking the door. Mash, mash, mash, row after row. The car is gone.
Wait, what is that sound? I hear far away honking when I mash the lock. It’s coming from beneath me! My panic-addled brains have brought me to the wrong level. I dash back to the stairs, and down them. I run to the right row, and there, at last my car’s lights are flashing before me.
From the first PEPPERS! moment, I’ve been having an internal argument. One voice says, You’ve left him. You’ll never see him again. It’s your fault. The other voice says, He’s fine. It’s no big deal. People leave kids in the car for 5 minutes all the time. Your mom left you in the car all the time.
That is true. My mom regularly left the three and later four of us in the parking lot of Albertson’s while she did her grocery shopping. It quickly devolved into Lord of the Flies in a maxi-van, but she brought us cookies in the end, so all’s well that ends well. Except for that time my cousin Bethany burned her finger by sticking it into the heated cigarette lighter, but whatever.
Now, parenting norms have definitely changed. Leaving your kids in the car is neglect or child endangerment. I sometimes think I’m a bit silly hovering over my kids on the playground, micromanaging their every slide. My mom wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing. We spent hours or days swinging unsupervized on an old swingset that travelled around if you swang very hard or high on it. Our swingset also had a slide that you could use if you could clear the jagged rusty torn edges at the top. And we turned out fine, right?
I loved when the roads iced over and my dad would let me ski to school on my shoes while holding onto the tailgate of his truck. Those were the days, weren’t they?
One year for my brother’s birthday–I think he was turning 9 which would make me 10, my dad drove us kids and my cousins up into the hills over our town to go sledding. He dropped us off with innertubes, sleds and some thermoses of hot chocolate, and told us he’d be back in a couple of hours. It’s all fun and games until somebody breaks a bone–or in this case, two. About ninety minutes in, my brother flew up on the sled and landed on his leg snapping his tibia and fibula, both the bones in his lower leg. We all ran down to the bottom of the hill to see what had happened.
In addition to being my best friend in the world, my brother was a tough kid. He might have screamed at first, I don’t remember, but I remember that the vast majority of the time, he made no noise. He just rocked back and forth over his mangled leg without making any sound.
We looked around at each other. I remember thinking, Somebody has to come up with a plan. Somebody has to think of something. In the movies, somebody comes up with a plan. “Let’s put him on the sled and pull him up the hill to the road. Then we can try to pull him into town.” It’s me giving the orders. I try to say it with authority like I’m the calm one who figures this out.
We try to move him onto the sled, but it’s a non-starter. He’s in so much pain, he can’t bare to be lifted or even touched, let alone pulled anywhere on the sled. I try to explain it to him. He’s still not talking. He just shakes his head violently and rocks over his leg.
It wasn’t a good idea anyway. We’re miles from town. It would take us hours to walk back, and my dad should be back before we could get him down. Someone suggests going for help, but we’re not really sure of the trails up here and no one wants to get lost.
Quickly we realize our only real option is to wait. The minutes crawl by. After the flurry of panic and discussion dies down, we all stand around him stupid and silent as Johnny rocks and rocks. The whole time I’m praying, half to God, half to my parents:
Mom? Dad! Where are you? Come. Back.
An eternity later my Dad pulls up. He carts John off in the van and my mom drives him 17 miles to Beaver, the nearest town with a hospital. For some reason I don’t recall, they send them to Panguitch in my mom’s van rather than an ambulance. My mom says he didn’t talk or scream the whole 47 miles from Beaver to Panguitch, though he did yelp a couple of times on the bumps through the mountains.
Because John healed fine, that day didn’t become a defining moment in my childhood. Instead, this story just became my card to play when someone played the broken bones suit in conversation. Sometimes it took the trick, but not even that often. Later when I certified as a lifeguard, I would think back on that day with horror. It could have been his head. It could have been a compound fracture, and he could have bled out. He could have gone fully into shock. He could have died.
For decades, it never occured to me to look back on my mom and dad’s laissez-faire parenting that day with any kind of reproach. None of my friends would leave their kids in the mountains alone for hours now, but my parents certainly exercised the standard of care for the time and place of my childhood. That is also why kids I grew up with almost drowned in the flood control and shattered their ankles cliff jumping–and how my cousin Chris tore half his face off in a three wheeler accident. The doctors were able to sew it back on, fortunately, so my cousins all kept on ATV’ing.
As I run to the car in the parking garage, I’m thinking, Peppers is fine. People leave their kids in the car all the time. Your mom left you in the car all the time, and you were fine. But I don’t believe me. I see my brother’s distorted, gritted, purpled face as he writhes and rocks in wordless agony in the snow.
I make out the outline of Peppers inside the tinted windows. Thank God. I open the door. He looks at me with round mild eyes absent of reproach and reaches out. I tear off his straps and smashmouth kiss him full on the lips. I crush him to my chest. My Peppers, my Peppers. My little, bittle guy.
Moms like to discuss safety. Sometimes we detail the many ways we’re keeping our kids from danger to show each other and ourselves that we’re good, conscientious, responsible parents. Other times we brag about how hands-off and non-hovering we are compared to other moms. Our kids won’t grow up stiffled and unable to dress themselves. Pfft! I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack, really. There will be no more leaving kids in cars, though. No unsurveiled sledding and no three wheelers either.