Children Left in the Back Seats of Cars to Die.Posted: February 11, 2010
When a story appears in the news about the death of a toddler from hyperthermia, due to the child’s having been left strapped into a car seat in a parked vehicle by a forgetful parent, people react with outrage.
“That parent deserves the death penalty.”
“Subconsciously he must have never wanted that child.”
“Any parent who could do that is a monster.”
“She should be sterilized so she can never bear children again.”
Read this article from The Washington Post, written in March of last year, and you won’t feel that way.
We construct narratives to reassure ourselves that we could never commit such a deadly, tragic error. These narratives demonize those who do. The narratives have the purpose of making us believe we don’t live in a universe in which anybody can make any mistake, because the idea of living in a universe in which anybody can make any mistake is too terrifying for us to live with. But those narratives are wrong.
We all make mistakes we live to regret. Usually these don’t involve responsibility for someone else’s death, but they can produce guilt nonetheless. For example, as the first anniversary of my mother’s passing approaches, I am tormented by feelings that I should have flown to Baltimore to hold her hand in her last days. It was a Friday that I learned she had only a week or so to live, after years of declining health due to congestive heart failure. I would have flown to her side that day or the next, but I teach Sunday School, and I felt it important to honor that obligation. So on Friday I reserved the first flight to Baltimore on Monday morning.
At my temple on Sunday, just before Sunday School was to begin, I received a call from my wife that my mother had not lived several more days as expected, but had died in the night. I flew out to Baltimore as planned the next day, but now the purpose was to arrange for my mother’s funeral, rather than to comfort her in her last days of life.
I had reasons to choose the way I did. I was told by her doctor when I called him on that Friday that my mother’s death was likely not imminent within 72 hours. I had a responsibility to my Sunday School children. I felt my mother would approve and be proud of my taking care of that responsibility. My mother was in a morphine state in which she probably would not have been aware of my presence had I been with her. All these things are true. Yet I am still having a hard time forgiving myself for the choice I made. I’m haunted by images of her passing into death frightened and without either of her children by her side, even as I know, or at least hope, that the morphine made her journey a peaceful one.
If the article in The Washington Post can make us understand and forgive even the terrible mistake a parent can make by leaving an infant in a locked car — and if you read it, I think you’ll agree that it can — maybe there’s hope that we can forgive ourselves for the choices we make. I hope there is.