Just after four o’clock my eyes fly open. It seems like I’ve heard Nels, up from his nap, paddling through the house. I lay staring at the ceiling, my sleeping four-year-old on top of the quilt next to me. I am completely, solidly, through-and-through awake. After a few minutes of silence I slip out of bed. The three of us have been asleep almost two hours; surely, children will be waking soon. I peek in his room. He slumbers still, his soft brown skin and angelic curls belying the Menace he has become.
I have been edgy for several days. Over my son. I am worried for his safety. In part this is due to valid concerns that accompany his adventurous, physically-capable self. In part, it’s something else, something I can’t quite isolate and analyze, something to do with the state of my emotional health.
Yesterday he got out of the house. Now I know why every time someone tells a story about their young child escaping the safety of the home (even if it was an episode that occurred decades ago), there is always a note of apology, and in the past I’ve interpreted that the storyteller is feeling he or she could have been held accountable if anything would have gone wrong. Now that it’s happened to me I realize this note of apology isn’t really insecurity or shame: it’s brokenness, thinking over what could have been, but wasn’t; the dreaded he-was-just-here-a-minute-ago accident that haunts every sensible parent now and then. After all, no one can reasonably expect the parent of a toddler to create a system where the child could never possibly get himself in an unsafe situation (friends with young children know this; the judgment of friends who don’t have children does not concern me or my friends with children). In short, our parental responsibilities in keeping our children safe and the fact the world is not always safe can create a constant undertone of vulnerability, fear, and a sort of spooked paranoia. I’ve been lucky that for years I’ve resisted that undercurrent; it seems now I am going to live with it for a while.
As to the actual escape, it was brief and uneventful but nevertheless unnerving. I was in the kitchen washing dishes and he was having a snack in the dining area. I suddenly got an eerie feeling and looked out the window to see my neighbor Megan and the mailman in my driveway, upper bodies bent at a slight incline and smiles on their faces, obviously talking to a chatting toddler. I rushed out, apron and all, and scooped up Nels. I know I told the Samaritans thank you, but I was too rattled to do much other than physically function and say the niceties. I didn’t even elaborate on how scared I was to my helpers or explain where I’d been or what I’d been doing during his escape. And I didn’t punish The Boy, of course. I carried him in against my thumping heart and buried my face in his hair. I latched the door and sat down on the couch for a minute until my ears stopped ringing.
This weekend he journeys with my husband and daughter to my in-laws in Eastern Washington. I tell my friends how excited I am to have the house to myself for a weekend (the first time since the children were born). My girlfriends spin tales of me passed out on my living room floor (after a night filled with various acts of debauchery) amongst empty liquor bottles, and a crumpled novelty t-shirt. The truth is, a big part of me will be relieved and content just to know Nels is under the care of his Papa, sister, and two doting and watchful grandparents: and for a few days, not me.
As I wrote this story my husband puts away dishes and makes ready for dinner. Nels creaks the door open and comes running out, clad only in socks, to be swooped up into waiting, loving arms. In the moment, he is completely unaware of anything other than the joy of being alive.