Empathy

I heard the siren approaching as I pedaled down Easy Street, two helmeted toddlers tucked safely into the trailer behind me, holding matching water bottles and watching wide-eyed as the town passed by.  I saw the firetruck over my shoulder as I turned onto Broad Street, and momentarily wondered if I could keep going; if I could make the turn towards Children’s Beach before it reached me.  Deciding against it, I peddled up onto the curb, cheerfully warning my sweet passengers of the bump.  Blaring sirens and flashing lights sped past, and in a toddler’s excitement, Nora exclaimed, “Firetruck!”

I asked her if she saw the sirens and lights.  She said yes, and happily added, “Mama hear sirens, too.  T—- hear sirens, too.”  Racing past gray shingled buildings in a blur of red, the firetruck was a beautiful thing.

“We hope everyone’s okay,” I said to Nora, more out of habit than concern, and then followed the firetruck around the corner and out of town.  It sped ahead of me and was soon forgotten as we peddled a few short blocks to the playground.

The ritual of arrival meant finding a shady spot to chain my bike, spreading our beach blanket across cool grass, unbuckling helmets to reveal tousled and slightly sweaty hair, and freeing little bodies to run across the field as if their legs had been chained for hours.  The sound of sirens punctuated each step, first a police car, then an ambulance and another firetruck.  Five or ten minutes later, another police car.  By then, I was coaxing a half naked little boy back onto the beach blanket to put on his swim diaper and trunks, watching Nora run hundreds of feet away from me, her pink and white dress a bubble floating above the grass, and thinking about slathering sunscreen across chubby baby cheeks.

I remember thinking that it must be a real emergency for there to be that many sirens.  But that too was quickly forgotten as I was called into a game of “Mama get you!” followed by pushing the pair of them in the swings, T—- babbling away in the safety of the baby swing and Nora an impossibly big girl riding a normal swing.  We climbed the play structures and slid down the slides; we “drove” cars and reminded the little one not to eat wood chips.  We built sandcastles and waded in clear blue ocean.  We cheered Nora’s bravery as she ventured further and further out into the salt water on her own, last summer’s fear nothing more than a memory.  I reveled in the joy that is my amazing little girl and her friend on a perfect summer’s afternoon.

After hours of sunshine and cool Nantucket breezes, we waved goodbye to T—- and his mama, settled Nora sandy-toed and sun-kissed back into the bicycle trailer and headed home.  There, I began our evening routine, started dinner and lazily scrolled through my news feed.

A little boy drowned today.

For his family, the morning must have been much like our afternoon: running through sand and surf, laughing and enjoying the day.  Until all of a sudden they weren’t.  Who knows: maybe he went too far out, maybe someone wasn’t paying attention, maybe it just took a second.  But at a beach with no lifeguards, no facilities, and many steep steps that must be descended to get to the sand, a family’s life was forever changed.  When I read the short post on the newspaper’s webpage, it took my breath away.

Since becoming a mother I see horrible things everywhere.  I rarely write about it, but fear is there.  Worry and agony are there, all just below the surface awaiting nightmare turned reality.  It’s not that I’m more aware of awful things now, but that, since the moment of Nora’s birth, I feel them.  It’s as if motherhood has opened up a new well of understanding within myself.  I used to laugh at the stereotypical mom who tears up at a Hallmark commercial or refuses to read any news about children that isn’t positive.   I didn’t realize it right away, but I’m that mother.  Maybe we all are.

Before becoming a mother, I read Deep End of the Ocean which I found to be a sad, but excellent book.  Now, I would never pick up a similar novel.  I used to be able to watch shows in which babies were sick or miscarriages happened without any deep emotional response, but no more.  To this day, there is one episode of Gray’s Anatomy (my favorite show) that I will never, ever watch to completion.  I’ll never forget sitting in front of my computer in our New York house, my daughter just weeks old cuddled in my lap and nursing, as the image of a baby whose arm had been severed during a c-section was flashed across the screen.  Instantly, my heart began to pound and I gasped as tears rushed to my cheeks.  I turned the show off.  All I could think about was my perfect daughter and her perfect arms; about the story which my brain knew was completely fictional but my heart did not.

Now, I tear up reading birth stories, both good and bad.  I avoid at all costs news stories which detail real-life trauma and heartbreak.  What happened to Leiby Kletzky made me sick to my stomach.  This is one of the ways that becoming a mother has changed me.  I’m not by any means paranoid and I’m not handicapped by fear, but I have a much greater understanding of emotional empathy and things which might have previously seemed insignificant now stick with me to the core.

When I first came across today’s news article, I misread the boy’s age to be two years old.  Despite reading it twice, I saw the number 7 as a number 2 (and that might be why single digits are supposed to be spelled out).  It wasn’t until hours later when I saw the article again on Facebook that I realized my mistake.  Perhaps I was guided by my own inner fears.  Perhaps it was that motherly empathy causing me to see the age as that of my own child.  Perhaps it was the not so distant memory of a split second of fear when a little over a week ago, I looked up and saw T—- toddling waist-deep into the ocean.  I was there in a second, scooping him up and telling him it was not safe, but I spent the rest of the afternoon (and several days afterward) thinking about what could have happened if he had lost his balance and I hadn’t been as near as I was.

Two or seven, it’s heartbreaking all the same.  As I put Nora to bed tonight, I lay curled up with her in her toddler bed so she could nurse and I wanted to stay all night.  Usually, it feels cramped and confining and my mind spends the time thinking about when I can get up and get on with everything I have to do before I finally spread out in my own big bed.  Tonight, I hugged her close long after her breath had evened out and she had drifted away to sleep.  Before I got up, I thought of that boy’s mother and felt tears on my cheeks.  I hope she has a room full of family tonight.  I hope she has someone to squeeze.  I hope she knows that other mothers, women she’s never met, are crying for her.

Comments

  1. Amber says

    Thank you for the comments. Since becoming a mother, I have such a hard time processing these things. I can only hope that the family will find strength and support in this unbelieveably tragic time.

  2. Rachel Dowling says

    I didn’t think I would be able to read this. But it helped me. I hope she knows that we’re crying for her, too.

  3. says

    I identify with so much that you have said. So much of the time, I imagine what could happen to my two-year-old son. We live in DC and he loves to run. Keeping him on the sidewalk can be a challenge and I often wonder if my reaction time slowed, what would happen. I cannot imagine his smile dimmed or his laughter permanently snuffed.

    I suppose we could not feel the deep love we have for our children if we did not understand the limits of mortality or the dangers that exist. I find I, too, am drawn to stories of little children torn from life too early or mistreated by adults. I cannot understand how such things can happen. That such tragedies could befall people who have not had the chance to do anything or that anyone could be capable of injuring or worse little bodies that cannot fight back.

    Thank you for writing this post. I wrestle with these thoughts often. I am sorry for the boy’s family and I wish they did not have to realize the pain of losing a child.

  4. says

    yes. thank you for this.
    we returned from martha’s vineyard last night where we spent nearly every afternoon on a beach like the one you described. while my two children played in the surf with no cares (save the sand in their swimsuits) i stood fixed on their little bodies. every bone in my own tense until they were back safely on the shore. yes, i let them play. just as i did as a child in the same stretch of sea. but it’s all different now.

  5. says

    I couldn’t even read all the details of your post, because of that mom trigger that sent me flying to the bottom of your entry. I’m with you. The stories break my heart. I love how you ended this post though, so true, and so kind, and yes, I did shed a tear for that mama.

    We are just back from a big vacation which went off without a hitch except for one thing. I haven’t told anyone at home about this, but I lost my four year old, in Venice, in a crowd, for about five minutes. I was that mom, from a movie, who was at first calling, then shouting, then fairly screaming his name as I ran down the street. Strangers were saying, “little boy?” and pointing me onwards. “Please, please….” I shrieked as I ran “little boy, little boy?!” gesturing wildly with my hands and I’m sure with my eyes. Finally, someone had the sense to stop him, and not just point me to him. He was hysterically crying and just kept saying, “mommy, I couldn’t see you.” It was awful and I was shaking for a while.

    I wouldn’t let him go for the rest of the trip.

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