There’s been a lot in the media lately regarding young children being left unattended in hot vehicles, many ending tragically. As always, these stories are are met with an onslaught of individuals who are quick to judge, ridicule, and condemn the parents. I suppose if it’s never happened to you, it’s easy to wonder how someone could possibly forget their child, but to assume that they did it on purpose because they couldn’t “handle” their child anymore, to say that they are undeserving to have children at all, or even wish death on the parents is what I don’t understand. I’ve seen the comments in my newsfeed and on the news sites, and I have to tell you that they are very upsetting to me. I can say that because I have forgotten my child was in the car. Surprised? Let me tell you how it happened.
It was July 10th, 2006, the day after my son, Noah’s, tenth birthday. He received numerous Game Stop gift cards and was eager to purchase some games for his PlayStation. I had four kids and my son’s friend at home that day and my youngest, who’d just turned one the day before Noah, had been fussy all morning. My husband worked from home and though I had every intention of leaving the baby with him while we ran to the store, I could tell he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. When it was time to go, I gathered the kids together and headed for the door, but Olivia’s screams turned me around. Reluctantly, and admittedly with some resentment, I picked her up and told my husband I’d just bring her along. He said he was fine with me leaving her, but I knew he wouldn’t get any work done if I did.
We loaded up the car, Olivia crying and screaming, and made a quick stop through the bank ATM. I had five kids in the car and my nerves were being tested by all the noise of their excitement. When we arrived at Game Stop, and before I had even pulled all the way into the parking spot, my son had already slid the door to the van open and was about to jump out. I slammed on the brakes and gave him a quick lecture that went something like, “I know you’re excited but you must ALWAYS wait until the car comes to a COMPLETE stop before you open the door!” By this time I’d finished parking and everyone else had already jumped out and was heading inside. I quickly grabbed my purse, locked the doors, and ran in after them, because as long as I was lecturing, you didn’t let a group of 9, 10, 12, and 13 year-olds run around a store unattended either.
By my recollection, we easily spent thirty minutes, quite possibly forty-five, inside that store while Noah picked up games, contemplated them a bit, then put them back on the shelf. When he’d finally made his decision, there were two people in line ahead of us and I remember being anxious to get home. Noah was in no hurry to leave, however, and wanted to look at a new controller, so we let someone go ahead of us. Then at the register I had to decide whether or not to purchase the membership in order to get the extra discounts and bonus points for trade-ins, which I opted to do, and we spent a few more minutes while I gave the cashier my information. The whole time I’m trying to keep tabs on the three other monkeys going in different directions around the store while Noah waited impatiently to be handed his birthday purchases.
Finally we were finished. We headed outside on that 100 plus degree day and I unlocked the doors and slid in the driver’s seat. Lindsay climbed in the back, then said, alarm in her voice, “Mom, you left Olivia in the car?” That was the last straw. I was in no mood for horrible jokes and I told Lindsay as much, then glanced in the rear-view mirror to make sure she understood her joke was not funny. But the expression on her face told me it never was funny, her eyes full of nothing but fear and shock. Suddenly the realization that my child really was in the back seat hit me and I sucked in what little oxygen was left in the car. I’d had every intention all morning of leaving her at home. How did she get here? My mind raced, trying to figure out how this happened, how I could have forgotten my own precious child. Panic shot through my body like voltage from an industrial power line and I bolted around to the back seat, my heart pounding in my throat. Olivia must have fallen asleep somewhere between the bank drive-through and the game store and I’d completely forgotten she was even there.
I can’t describe the terror that encompassed my entire being as I screamed and shook her lifeless body, her cheeks bright red from being locked in the stifling heat for so long. Slowly she opened her eyes and I burst into tears and kissed her sweet face over and over. I remember one of the kids begging me to take her inside the store so we could cool her off, but even in my relief that she was alive, I feared losing her. I didn’t want them to call the police on me. I was so terrified that they would think I was a terrible mom, that I didn’t deserve to have children, and that they would take them all away from me, that I just yelled at my kids to get in the car. Sobbing, I called my husband as the kids belted themselves in, then I flew down the streets towards home. When he answered, I hysterically cried for him to start a cold bath, my words barely coherent. By this time Olivia was wailing, most likely sensing my own fear and panic, but her crying was like a beautiful melody, not the least bit annoying anymore. I was more grateful than ever to hear that sweet sound fill my ears. A sound that others like me will never get the opportunity to hear again.
God saved my child that day, there’s no doubt in my mind. For years after that happened I tortured myself every time I got in my hot car, trying to see how long I could last in the unbearable heat just so I could have a taste of what I’d put my daughter through. I tell her all the time that God has great things planned for her. I’m sure God had plans just as great for the other children who were not as lucky as her, and my heart breaks for their families, especially the parent who forgot their child.
I understand there are probably some people who may have knowingly left their children in the car out of sheer stupidity, but I think that’s rare. What I want you to understand is that it is possible to love your children more than anything in this world, be a good parent, and still be distracted enough for something this horrific to happen. I have amazing children and am complimented often on my parenting, yet still I forgot my child in the car.
The hateful comments I see towards families, who have suffered far greater than me, hurt. Every time a new report of a child death is made public, I read the comments and they cut me deeply, because that could have been me. Had the game store we went to been in a mall, we probably would have shopped longer and I wouldn’t have remembered that Olivia was in the car until it was too late.
I would gladly suffer and die in a hot car a hundred times over before I would ever intentionally leave my child trapped in that hell. I was one of the lucky ones. I love my children more than life itself, but I am human. A human who forgot her beautiful one year-old daughter was in the car one scorching summer day. It happens, and it’s horrible.