You turn. You look away. You take off your jacket. You bend down to pick up the latest thing your child has dropped or thrown. You answer the phone, knowing this is a mistake. You take a sip of your coffee. You blink. That’s all it takes. Just a blink. A fraction of any one of these actions, so easily taken for granted. A fraction of a second even. And he’s gone. Off running away from you. Off and out of reach. And if you think little legs run slower, then you’ve never chased after a toddler. They are the wind. Fast, unpredictable, and nearly invisible when they want to be.
“Your kid is running into the street,” says the waitress, empty handed and going back into the restaurant through the side door, just as my son whizzes by her and towards the alley. Her voice rings of judgment and condescension. Of not having kids herself. Because if she did, she would know not to tell you that your child is running, because she would know you didn’t willfully choose to miss this. She would understand that it only took a second, you opening your wallet to get out cash for the bill, thinking, foolishly of course, that your son would stay put. That he would stay holding on to your calf with one hand and blissfully banging on the metal patio chair with the other. But in that second, he ran. He chose to run the way the wind chooses to blow. The way it isn’t a choice for either of them. It is what they are born to do. To blow and run and run and run. And it only takes a second.
You chase after him. You grab him just before he reaches the alley. You carry him back. He is laughing with his whole body, completely unaware of danger. He believes himself to be the wind, invincible. And the couple at the table next to you is staring. And you’re unsure if they’re like the waitress, thinking too, that you were being a bad mom. Thinking, you let your kid get away from you. You put him in danger.
You put him down for another second, and you don’t even know how it happens this time. Was it your fault? Did you get distracted? What happened??? But he’s off, flying, right into the big street, the one with cars, and there is a truck coming. And you didn’t know you had wings, but you fly too, and grab him. And he doesn’t make it all the way out into traffic, but it’s far enough that your heart leaves your body for that second. Your heart beats in time with his and you hold the whole of him with the whole of you. And again, he’s laughing, and you’re trying not to cry or shake. Breathe. Just breathe, you tell yourself, and strap him into the stroller despite his protests.
Now, that couple at the next table is certain you are a bad mother. You let this happen. Good thing it ended well, they think. Good thing the truck was far away and there wasn’t other traffic. You’re sure they aren’t thinking, good thing that you were fast enough to keep up. You’re sure they aren’t thinking, poor mom, that must have been scary for her. You’re sure of this because you’ve done it yourself. Placed blame without understanding that it only takes a second for something irrevocable to happen.
When a year ago, you read the story about the 4-year-old-boy thrown by a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo after having climbed into its habitat, your son was only 6-months old. You hadn’t fully discovered the rule of a second. He was just starting to sit up and not yet mobile. You could put him down, look away, walk away even, and he would still be right there, safe and smiling. Of course, you pitied everyone in this story, the scared boy, the innocent animal that had to be shot down, and the mother. But you also blamed her. You thought, how could she let this happen. How could she not have been paying attention to her child. And you believed the witness who said, “Unfortunately, it was a bad situation where a 4-year-old didn’t have the attention of his mother for seconds…I don’t think it was as easy as standing up and falling in. He actually had to climb under something, through some bushes and then into the moat.” You believed the mother had seconds to respond and didn’t. You didn’t understand that she was trying to catch the wind as it slipped through her fingers.
And just weeks later, you heard about the 2-year-old boy found dead in Florida after being dragged away by a gator into a lagoon near a Walt Disney World hotel. And of course, again, you thought, poor parents, poor child, damn that gator. But you also thought, those parents must have done something wrong to let this happen. You blamed them too. You thought, this would never be you. You would never let your child be in that kind of danger.
But today—and all days maybe—he was and is. Not once, but twice. Maybe more. Because he is like the wind, fast and unpredictable, but he is made of flesh—breakable. For him, danger is everywhere, though he fears nothing. For him, and maybe all of us, danger takes a second. Like when he ran to go pet that dog passing by. Or when he went down the stairs, not always holding on to the railing. Or when he climbed up onto the table. Or tried to ride the dog. Or, or, or… And you were there for all of it, a second behind him, maybe right beside him even. But that doesn’t matter, because it only takes a second for something to go wrong. Only a second to place blame or feel it placed upon you. And you hope that you can stay lucky and fast and alert. You hope you can stay ahead of him and the danger that is everywhere. You hope to be better the next day, always better. But tomorrow, you will still have to blink. And that’s all it takes.