By Nicole King
My three-year-old son has a scar.
It’s kind of nasty—a road rash on the outside of his upper leg. It’s a whitish patch, bumpy to the touch, about the size of his little fist.
He gained it last summer, precisely a year ago, in August. My two little guys and I had just finished an early dinner, so to bridge the awkward gap before beginning the bedtime routine, I took them and the dog for a little stroll. I put the nine-month-old in his carrier, strapped snugly against my chest. The toddler, Ben, gleefully exclaimed “bike ride!” and ran to his tricycle. “Bike rides” for toddlers, as any parent knows, are really more like long stretches of staring at rocks, bugs, and/or cars broken up by periodic frantic pedaling. Or, in the case of my son, who wasn’t quite to the pedaling stage, pushing his bike along with his short little legs.
It was a lovely August evening—not too hot, a light breeze blowing. Part of our route was along the town’s river, which was full of boaters enjoying the weather. We crossed the busiest road in our neighborhood. Ben is naturally cautious, and he made sure all the cars were out of sight before even daring to edge his tricycle wheel off the sidewalk pavement. We headed off the river one block and turned right. At the next intersection, I heard the ominous, twinkling music of an ice-cream truck. I groaned inwardly. Ben would undoubtedly find the truck fascinating, and we would be stuck staring at it for who knows how long. For bedtime to happen on time, we needed to get home in 15 minutes, and an ice cream truck would delay my progress. I also didn’t have any cash on me, and didn’t feel like explaining that to a hopeful ice-cream truck driver.
“Let’s turn right, buddy!” I said cheerfully, hoping he would acquiesce quickly. “Let’s go fast down the hill!”
To my joy, he did. He cheerfully turned his little bike, and started pushing it down the gentle incline as fast as his legs could move.
Too fast. That busy road was only a half-block in front of us now. He always stopped at roads, but at the speed he was going, I wasn’t sure he would be able to.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Stop, buddy!” He always stopped when I yelled, but this time, he couldn’t hear me. He had already gotten too far away. I started to run, but with the baby strapped to my chest, I couldn’t move very fast. I was a little worried, but not too much. The road was still quite a ways off. I could run slowly and awkwardly and yell, and we would be fine.
Then I spotted the SUV. The driveways in my neighborhood feed into alleys instead of into the streets themselves. And right in front of my tiny son was an alley.
I screamed, and waved my arms, and grew sick. The SUV emerged from the alley, and Ben hit the rear passenger side door. He was so small that the driver didn’t even realize she had struck something, and she kept rolling. The SUV rolled the bike over, Ben falling with it. I kept screaming, and running, and finally, the driver rolled to a halt.
I cannot quite put together what happened in the next few minutes. Somehow, I was next to my son, who was screaming—wedged underneath the tire, but alive, and, thank the Lord, screaming. Somehow, I had pulled the baby carrier off of me, and set my 9-month-old on the sidewalk. The driver came around the back of her car, realized what had happened, and also began screaming.
In the next few minutes, a stranger showed up and directed the driver in backing her car up far enough for him to drag my son out and lay him on the grass. Other neighbors appeared. Someone picked up the baby. Someone grabbed the dog’s leash. Someone called 9-1-1. A man—not the first one, but another—tried to calm me. “Look, his leg has color,” he said. “There’s no swelling. He’s OK.”
“It’s okay,” I said to the driver of the SUV, while holding Ben’s head in my lap. “It’s not your fault. He’s okay.”
She looked at me, bewildered, her cheeks tear-stained. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I have babies, too.”
In the next 20 minutes, my husband showed up, the EMTs arrived, and they lifted Ben and me onto a gurney and put us in the ambulance. We arrived at the ER. They took X-rays.
By an act of God, he was fine. No head injuries, not even so much as a broken bone. His little leg was badly bruised, with a nasty abrasion on one side.
“Owie!” Ben told me for weeks when I put antibiotic ointment on his leg. “Owie, car!” he would repeat for a few months, looking up at me with a concerned expression and huddling close to my leg as we crossed parking lots.
“Why did this happen?” I asked myself countless times in the following weeks. Was I careless? I should have been closer to him. An ice-cream truck? Really? That’s why I chose to turn? Was I too hasty and irritable in trying to get home? What could I have done to prevent my little boy being struck by a car?
I still don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But several weeks ago, we were outside playing. We came inside for naps, and I changed my kiddos from their dirty clothes into fresh, clean shorts and t-shirts before putting them to bed. I caught sight of that scar, and for some reason—maybe I was overtired, maybe something else was eating at me and making me vulnerable—I choked up. I managed to hold back the tears until the kids were down. And then, in the quiet of a napping house, I crumpled against the wall in the living room and sobbed as I had never been able to.
“Was it my fault?” I asked again. And then I realized—did it matter? Wasn’t God great enough to take this from me?
Ben was okay. I may have made mistakes: let him get too far away, let him go too fast down a hill, not being aware of the alley. But “my fault”? I corrected the mistakes as soon as I realized I had made them. And far more importantly, God had allowed my mistakes to have limited impact.
A friend once told me that our children are not our own. They are given to us for a time, and soon enough, they will hit adulthood. They will, Lord willing, go on to college, or work, or spouses and families of their own. Hopefully all three. We forget this truth. That’s why we criticize so harshly when a mother lets her children walk to the park by themselves, or leaves them sitting in a cool, well-ventilated car for a moment while she picks up the dry-cleaning. “Things happen to children!” we scream. “Don’t be so careless! This world is sick!”
It is, indeed. And although I hate to even ponder this possibility, my children also may be taken from me in other ways. God is good, but sin is real, and this life is fleeting. They may suffer illness, or worse. Their faith may falter at some point.
They will have scars—physical and emotional.
The belief that we can protect our children from everything, and hence our harshness towards those mothers and fathers who fail to do so adequately in our eyes, is a reaction of fear. We fear losing our children, so we tell ourselves that if we are careful enough, protective enough, surround them with the “right” people at the “right” schools, our kids will be okay. That pastor’s kid who ran wild? His parents clearly weren’t around enough, too committed to other people’s children to tend to their own. Your niece who fell at the playground and broke her arm? Well obviously, your scatterbrained sister wasn’t watching her carefully. The teenaged son of your neighbor who wrapped his car around a tree and sustained head injuries? Well, if your neighbor hadn’t given a mere child a car, this wouldn’t have happened. Your friend’s ten-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer? Clearly something is going on in that family environment.
We try to make up reasons that things happen to children, because the reality of death or disease afflicting children indiscriminately seems too harsh. What kind of world is this? A vale of tears, God tells us. “The valley of the shadow of death,” the Psalmist writes.
But even our children are not our own. And this should bring us comfort, because we can’t even manage to keep them physically safe all the time, much less emotionally and morally so. My children have been baptized, and they are the Lord’s. He will keep them, better than I ever could. He has already spared them. I am but the steward of these little lives God has entrusted to me for this time.
And He will grant me His forgiveness for my mistakes.
Nicole is a writer and the Managing Editor of The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the quarterly publication of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. She is also the wife of Michael and the mother of two little boys and a needy German Shepherd rescue. When she isn’t writing or tending to children, she enjoys running, cooking, drinking coffee, feeling guilty about how said coffee is affecting the nursing baby, and pinning projects which she will probably never get around to.