When I was a little bit older than Charlie is now, I fell down the stairs. We lived in Ohio at the time and my parents used to make us go upstairs to the shared hallway bath to wash our hands before dinner. We weren’t allowed to use the half-bathroom on the first floor because that was for guests and also: RULES. So, I had headed upstairs to wash up as my family sat down to eat dinner.
I remember the fall, too. I remember standing at the top of our stairs looking down and then… tumbling. I remember my mom and dad rushing to the bottom of the stairs and I remember being alright. Mostly, I remember vividly that my mom was unable to eat dinner that night. She was so upset by the fall I had taken that she had lost her appetite. This seemed odd to me at the time.
Over thirty years later and after having three kids of my own, I better understand that pit-of-your-stomach distress that comes when children in your care escape serious injury; the nausea that comes after a particularly close call.
Over Christmas, we trekked to Bob’s hometown in upstate New York to visit with family. Our holiday trip there is one of our favorite traditions. New York is almost always guaranteed to have snow by the time December rolls around and watching our Virginia-bred kids delight in such a novelty is fun for everyone.
My brother-in-law and his wife live on several scenic acres just down the street from Bob’s childhood home. Their house is Charlie’s favorite place to visit. Bob’s brother has all of the fun equipment, like four wheelers and tractors, that one needs when caring for a large piece of land. So, for Charlie, it’s like someone dropped a John Deere dealership in the middle of Disney World and gave him the keys to the city.
Their property also allows for relatively independent play as it’s tucked up in the hills, down a long driveway, far from the road. As Henry and Charlie have gotten older, we’ve relaxed our “eyes on them at all times” policy. After so many, many visits we worry less and less that they’ll wander off or get into trouble. The boys know the lay of the land by now and are firmly past that death-defying, curious toddler stage.
So, it was with confidence in their ability to police themselves that Bob and I left Henry and Charlie to play outside in the snow the day after we arrived. We had all been out in the elements for a good bit that afternoon so Bob, Millie and I headed to the house to warm up while leaving the boys to play in the yard. Time passed and Bob eventually went to put Millie down for a nap while I chatted with my sister-in-law in the kitchen over coffee. I was decidedly groggy from spending thirteen hours in the car the day before.
During a pause in the conversation, my sister-in-law looked out the front window and, after not being able to see Henry or Charlie, said, “You know, I’m going to go check on the boys.” A thought that hadn’t even occurred to me in too many minutes.
She spotted the boys at the pond. I could hear the urgency in her voice as she ran out of the garage, around the corner, hollering at them to return. I got there in time to watch them trudging down towards the house to the sound of her voice. Instead of sticking to the large side field or playing in the huge front yard with the perfect slope for sledding, Henry and Charlie had headed in the back – up the hill – to a small pond on the property. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. I assumed they had been up there for just a short amount of time, poking around and playing. Henry and Charlie returned to the house, removed layers of inadequate outerwear and headed to the basement to play.
The alarm bells in my head didn’t ring until hours later, when my nephew sat down before dinner and asked, “Who was walking on the pond?” He had been out on the property and spied one set of little footprints in the snow circumnavigating the dock that extends several feet into the water. The water that is not that deep but is plenty deep enough for a little one that can’t swim. He tried to investigate further but couldn’t because the ice covering the pond had turned to mush under his shoe.
It was then that I panicked. That my eyes got wide. That my stomach turned. That the realization sunk in.
The boys had been up there for a good while. Longer than I had realized. Long enough to get into trouble; into danger actually. Charlie had headed out onto the pond. The pond covered in what was only a thin layer of ice thanks to the warm spell the week before. All this while we weren’t looking. While we weren’t even paying attention.
My mind immediately started with the “what-if’s” and would not let go. What if Charlie had fallen through the ice? What if Henry had gone in after him? When would we have thought to look? When would we have realized something was amiss? What if we couldn’t get there in time?
My sister-in-law, knowing that disaster was averted, worked to calm me down, reminding me that nothing did happen. That the boys were fine. Still, I was deeply shaken and grateful the weather turned cold and kept us all playing inside for the remainder of our visit.
We waited until our return home to have a discussion with Henry about what had happened at the pond; the danger of what they did and what the consequences of their actions might have been.
Charlie is so much younger and his understanding of the events are clouded by naiveté. However, one afternoon, when I was lying next to him, trying to rouse him from a deep nap time slumber, I asked Charlie about the pond. I asked him why they had headed there. Why he had walked out onto the water. He explained, with the logic of a four-year-old, that they were “clearing the snow for the ducks.” Because the ducks couldn’t land on the snow, you see. So, Charlie walked out to fix that.
“But there was a hole,” he said.
“A hole?” I asked.
“Yes, where you could see the water,” he explained.
This close. We were this close to something so terrible.
Parenthood is a never-ending series of close calls. Of lessons learned and humbling encounters. Of thwarted tragedies. From the womb on, the risks are high. I am exceedingly grateful the outcome of this latest near miss wasn’t so much worse.