It's a mind-blowing, life-changing fact that from the minute you become a parent--the minute you hear that first snatch of breath and that first cry, you see the world forevermore through the eyes of a parent. When I was single I saw the world through the eyes of a single person. When I was married my attention was always drawn to other married couples. When I was pregnant I was haunted by stories of other pregnant women--joyous stories, tragic stories, but they resonated with me in deep and consuming ways. But even then, even with a baby inside of me, I still didn't quite fathom what it meant to see the world as a parent--as the protector of something so absolutely precious you'd give your life for it.
Yesterday, driving home from L.'s school with the kids in the back, I saw a terrible thing. The road to and from L.'s school is heavily trafficked--too heavily trafficked for its size. It's one of those old Southern thoroughfares that cut through the town, with trees and homes lining both sides. But too many people zip back and forth, talking on phones, sipping lattes, hurrying from one place to another. I wouldn't be lying if I said I saw an accident--usually a fender-bender--every single day. But yesterday I saw worse. Traffic slowed near an intersection and I saw cars stopped at angles next to each other. Another fender bender, I thought, while the kids squabbled in the back. But as we pulled closer I saw a body on the ground, and passersby bent over it, and moving around it in that frantic, helpless way. Someone stopped their car right in front of me and tore out, rushing to see if he could help. Me, I wanted to get out of there fast, so the kids wouldn't see anything; but because traffic slowed so much we ended up stopped too close. There was an upturned bicycle near the man, front wheel turned at an angle. As our van rolled past the scene I caught a glimpse of the man on the ground--youngish, thin. And someone was bent over him, doing chest compressions.
Years ago, when I was in high school I saw a very similar scene: upended bicycle, man on the ground, bent front wheel. Except that time the man was covered with a sheet someone had draped over him, two ankles poking out of one end. It was the first time I had seen someone dead. I remember that while I was completely horrified and haunted by the sight, I though mostly--because I was a teenager and young people tend to be self-centered that way--about myself. What if something happened to me? What would my parents do? How would they live without me?
Yesterday, though, all I could think about was whether that young man had parents somewhere, a mom and dad going about their business--maybe somewhere far away from there, maybe somewhere close, unaware of the upturned bicycle, and the drama playing out on that street. They would get a phone call, and their world would spin out of control, or maybe they'd snap to with practical tasks--booking tickets, making arrangements to get to the hospital. I couldn't wait to get home with my own kids, get them safely inside the house; I had the urge to lock the front door behind us, barricade it with my shoulders to keep out all the horrible things that can go wrong--or could go wrong.
No matter how old our children get, I think we're always that parent haunted by the what-ifs; worried not as much about our kids growing up, or how far their wings will take them when they leave the nest--but about the world around them, filled with twists and turns, temptations and unseen dangers. We're forever those parents standing on the front porch, a lump in our throats, as we wave our kids off for the day, and cast a wish out to the universe for their safe return.