This column won’t make you laugh. In fact, if you even crack a grin, then I’ve done something wrong. But I have to talk about this issue because it haunts me, and I need to believe some good will come from airing it.
Every year in this country, about 20 infants and young children die after being accidentally left in a car. Not left for 30 minutes while a frazzled mom runs into a Walmart. Not left for an hour while a delinquent dad ducks into a bar. Those are just bad decisions: deliberate and ill-advised.
I mean left for hours upon hours in a closed-up car, where temperatures can climb to 125 degrees, by otherwise responsible but disastrously distracted parents who forget that their baby is strapped in the backseat and so get out of their vehicles and go blithely about their lives while their child suffers heatstroke and dies alone.
It’s horrific. Gut-twistingly, skull-throbbingly unthinkable. Yet it happens all the time. It happened to babies in Virginia and Maryland over the Fourth of July weekend. It sounds like something that only happens to soft-headed imbeciles unfit to reproduce. But it’s happened over the years to a college professor, a cop, a rocket scientist, a clergyman, a nurse, a social worker, a pediatrician… It happens to protective parents who put foam bumpers on every sharp corner in their home and organized parents who start college funds while their babies are still in utero.
I know because it happened to me.
My husband and I took turns driving our son to daycare each morning. It was my day, so I strapped him into his rear-facing car seat in the back and began driving. Exhausted from months of predawn feedings and anticipating the demanding workday ahead, I unconsciously steered my car onto the well-beaten path to my downtown office. I turned on the radio, slid into autopilot, pulled into the office parking lot, killed the ignition, and grabbed my purse. When I reached for the door handle, something stopped me cold.
My son made a sound in the backseat.
I can’t tell you if it was a coo, a cough, a cry. All I remember is feeling startled, then slightly sick, then going ice-water cold with the shame and unshakeable horror of what might have been — what almost, dear god, was. I had almost gone inside and worked an eight-hour day, certain that my son was already safe at daycare.
I’ll spare you the details of what happens to a baby whose body temperature spikes to fatal heights. My son and I never found out. And that doesn’t make my error excusable — but it keeps me from being a criminal.
Some parents have been tried for manslaughter for this mistake; others are left alone to somehow live with what they’ve done. There’s no justice in any of it, and I don’t even know if there’s a lesson. We should all slow down and focus? We shouldn’t operate heavy machinery until our babies are sleeping through the night? We should never assume that we know what the hell we’re doing?
I’m telling you all this because summertime is when this accident most often turns to tragedy. Here are some tips from KidsAndCars.org, an advocacy group that works to prevent these types of deaths:
• Keep your purse or phone next to the car seat so you’ll never leave the car without seeing your child.
• Keep a large stuffed animal in the car seat when it’s not occupied, and move the toy to the front seat when your kid’s in the car seat, so you’ll have a visual reminder next to you.
• Ask your child’s babysitter to always call you if your child doesn’t show up.
And slow down and focus while you’re at it. It can’t hurt.