I’ve never written about this day.
Sure, I’ve talked about it often. I’ve spoken in front of moms groups or chatted with other moms and dads about that late June day in 2007. I’ve shared statistics about the number of kids that fall from windows annually (which is upward of five thousand) and how windows now days are made for the screens to pop out in case of a fire.
But I’ve never written about it.
Until I received an email from a reader asking me for advice on how to console a friend of hers who almost lost her daughter to an accidental drowning and was wrestling with almost inconsolable guilt.
I understand that guilt. That shock of having something happen to the little ones you love – the little ones you’d jump in front of a moving truck to save – the ones you stay up all night – those ones. And then, then when the unfathomable happens and once the dust settles there is this moment of gut crushing, racking sobs worst parent in the world feeling of guilt.
You love them.
It was eight years ago.
The evening before we went on our annual trip to the lake. I was busy – you know the crazy kind of busy that one gets before they pack up their family and trek to a cabin that is much too small and yet you have to pack enough stuff to survive for a month? That kind of busy. So on that night I went into the upstairs bedroom to change a diaper and noticed that the room was a bit, well shall we say, smelly.
So I decided at that moment to open the window just a bit more.
This room had a bed near the window – a bed that had six inches of it under the window sill. I always was nervous about that and never ever opened the window more than two to three inches. But this day I was in a hurry – that packing, trying to get everything ready, hurry. And as I pulled the window open twelve inches or so I had that little voice – oh how we should pay attention to that little voice that whispered what if Caleb falls from the window? – and yet I just opened the window and moved on with the busy.
We were all moving around.
Busy and crazy and the kids were up in that room playing – Caleb who was just under two and Brennan who was four and my older girls – and we were packing. And in that moment after that diaper change and pulling of the window open, I decided, on a whim, that I was going to quick move the sprinkler in the front yard. I had the sprinklers running because we were in the middle of a drought and we were going to be gone for a week and for some reason the green grass was important.
It should only take two minutes, right, to quick move that thing?
I told the kids I would be right back and to keep playing blocks and told the older girls and ran down the stairs, out the door and to the whirring sprinkler pulsating away.
Well, I only made it to my mailbox where the sprinkler was and heard a noise – a soft not normal thud – and then saw my screen fluttering to the ground in slow motion to the ground ten feet below.
Oh, knife in the heart, I knew.
Even in writing this that feeling of horror comes back and my pulse quickens.
Oh sweet moms and dads who have dealt with tragedies you know that feeling. That pit in your stomach you can hardly move feeling of horror and as I ran to that spot I tried to scream but I couldn’t. And there he was, blue and not breathing and on the ground two inches from rocks that line my flower beds resting there.
The screams came then.
Screams and those words of no no no not now emerged from me as I knelt over my lifeless toddler.
Neighbors came running and 911 was called and to this day I believe in angels because as it happened my neighbor who is a sheriff drove down the street and saw it all happen and gave the testimony and so forth to all the sheriffs and paramedics who came because I was in shock. He came running up and knew that we couldn’t move him but ran with oxygen from his squad car and put it on Caleb.
It was so fast, my friends, so fast.
That’s the nature of tragedies and accidents. They’re fast. Unexpected. Think of every one that you’ve read – it happens in the second and one is never ever prepared. And in tragedies and accidents is never a qualifier of parental worth. Never.
The next thing I know and I was in an ambulance racing down to the level one trauma hospital with Caleb. They had him on a back board and his numbers were stable and were given him oxygen. He had woken up at that point and they were working on him and I was in shock and just praying that his brain wasn’t damaged. I knew he was alive – I didn’t even know that when I found him – but now, now I didn’t know if he’d be the same. The fear was intense.
And in that moment of fear I had the beginnings of tremendous bone crushing guilt.
I am so sorry – I cried it over and over and over while I rocked my boy (this phrasing caused someone to question this story – which is so sad to me – rocked is an expression, perhaps the wrong words, but I remember holding him and leaning over him and rocking him the best way us moms do in the moment) while looking out the back of the ambulance windows watching cars pull over and then realizing they were pulling over for me. I think ever since then I’ve told my kids to utter a prayer when they see an ambulance pass because the person in the back of that racing van needs so much prayer and hope at that point.
We raced into the hospital – no waiting – and they ran us on that gurney back to the emergency room. There was no paperwork time, no nothing, and before I knew it Caleb was in the back getting a ct scan and I was on the floor crying. Crying and crying and crying.
What I didn’t tell you yet was that by this point I knew his brain was okay. We had been sitting in the er with him on my lap and he looked down at his yellow shirt with the Batman logo on it and started singing the nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah batman! song over and over. He was my boy – you know how you just know? I knew he was okay, but now we just had to wait to see if internally everything was okay as well. And by then the cat scan came back normal. And he was good.
And after four hours or so they were going to let us go.
And I, while so grateful, felt like the absolute worst mom in the entire world.
They must have seen it. Felt it. Dealt with it (shall we go back to the stats and number of kids who accidentally fall from windows?). I just wanted to say again and again and again that I was a good mom and that I loved my kids and that I was so so so sorry.
And in that moment mixed with gratitude and grief the kind emergency room doctor walked in, saw me rocking my sweet Caleb, looked at me and said:
I just want you to know that you are a good mom. You are a great mom. These things happen. They are accidents and they don’t mean you are not a good mom. Please remember that.
And then he walked out.
A good mom.
Did you hear that?
He told me I was a good mom. Me the mom who made a mistake. Me the mom who was so angry at herself. Me the mom who felt like she was the worst. Me.
How did I deserve those words?
I know that there are so many of you who have dealt with horribly hard accidents or that know another mom or dad that is racked with that same guilt. I know. I get emails and emails and emails from you all. And for some reason today was the day to write my story and to tell you those words from the doctor.
If I could go back and change it I would. I would have let the room stay stinky or I would have picked up that 22 month old of mine and put him on my hip for the two minutes it would have taken to shove the sprinkler to the front side of the lawn. I would have done everything different. In fact, for days afterwards, when we were up at the lake I was in shock and would just cry and cry and cry. That’s grief. That’s normal. To all of who you have dealt with any of this – know know know that crying and grief and replaying it is normal.
So today, today my Caleb is nine (that’s him with his brother Elijah who I was 34 weeks pregnant with when this happened). We’re going to the lake in a couple weeks and this year will be the 8th year since that fall – my siblings still ask him if he jumped from a window again this year. He doesn’t like heights and part of me thinks it’s from that moment. And he’s as smart as a whip and kind and one of the most caring kids that I’ve known. He’ll give up his good stuff for someone else to make them happy and he’s the one that tells me almost every single day you’re a good mom, mom. It’s like in some way he’s been given the role in life to tell me even when I feel the opposite.
And I figured if eight years have passed it’s finally time to write and share about it. First, and of course, to bring awareness to the dangers of upper story windows – especially in newer homes because of fire codes. Be careful with furniture placed by them. We were lucky, by the way. Do you remember how I said it was a drought? Well, my yard right where he fell was soft and mushy because the sprinkler that was running at that point dripped and water ran down the hose and pooled a bit in that spot. And lucky that he missed those rocks (those rocks still bring nightmares to my brain). And lucky that the sheriff was there right then. And lucky that the paramedics arrived in five minutes. But that’s not why I’m writing.
I’m really writing to bring a bit of hope.
To be a voice for all of you who have dealt with accidents and wrestle with guilt. To let you hear those words of that Minneapolis, Minnesota emergency room doctor who took two minutes out of his busy schedule to come in a room with a crying mom rocking her toddler and to tell her the truth.
Because sometimes we all need to hear the truth.
Time moves on. And we learn. We become a voice. We fight. And we learn to forgive.
Yes, ourselves. That horrible evening was an accident.
And that doctor was right.
I was a good mom.
And to all of you – you are too.
You are a good mom and a good dad.
Please remember that.
ps. Accidents can happen to anyone. Any parent. No matter how many safety protocols and everything you have in place. I have outlet covers and safe guards and carseats belted in and so on. An accident is exactly that – an accident. In those moments the most important thing one can do for a friend is love – not judge, listen – not fix, learn – and share.