In January of this year, as I was walking downtown between meetings, I came upon a car idling at the curb. I heard the sound of its muffler gently rumbling and saw a thin stream of exhaust rising up in the cool air. As I made my way past the car I peeked into the windows and what I saw stopped my heart: two children no older than 5 were both buckled into car seats. In an idling vehicle. On the side of the road. I dropped my purse in shock and stood stock still, looking around wildly for the responsible adult. When I saw no one, I angled my body casually so as not to draw attention to myself, and I stood by the car until the harried parent ran out, jumped in, and sped away, the entire scenario likely forgotten within minutes.
I was shaking so badly that I had to put my hand over my heart to steady myself as I walked back to my office. I was breathless from fright and from confusion over my own feelings. More than anything, I was filled with a surprising rage; not for the unwitting parent, but for the fact that a scene very similar had turned out so very differently for my family.
Early on the morning of August 1, 2014, I dropped my 9 year-old daughter off with her dad, Rich, who would drive her to summer camp. I had gotten her dressed, made her lunch in her pink sparkly lunch box, and kissed her goodbye as her dad waved from the porch. An hour later, as I worked busily in my office, my daughter and her dad climbed into his car to begin the quick trip to camp. Noticing that his windshield was dirty, Rich ran inside to grab a few quarters for the carwash, leaving Adela in the car. Moments later, when he ran back out, he came upon our daughter screaming in panic while his car was driven first into a fence and then skidded around the corner and out of sight. He lunged after the car, running frantically, before falling and skinning his knees, elbows, and cheekbones, ultimately ending up with a black eye that would linger for weeks.
A neighbor heard Adela’s screams and ran from her house, calming her while they waited for the police. Rich’s cell phone was still in the car which made it easy to find a few miles away, deep in an orchard. Adela was driven to the orchard in the back of a sheriff’s car, behind plexi-glass that muffled the voices of her dad and the officer, so that she could identify the man who had stolen the car. She was kept out of sight while the man was pulled from the car, and she indicated that, yes, he was the man who had gotten behind the wheel right before she jumped out. I would meet him for the first time in criminal court when I spoke to the judge about the impact to our family. I would meet him again in court just one month later after he violated probation on our case and stole another vehicle. And I would see him one final time when I attended his sentencing for both felonies. An experience nearly as terrifying as your child enduring a life-threatening crime, is hearing her name called out over and over again by complete strangers during court proceedings. Adela will never be the same after her experience, and I will never be the same after mine.
I have always believed that time heals all wounds and that children are resilient. Both are true in this case and life really does go on. But, the scene plays out in my mind over and over again as I carry on with seemingly routine daily tasks. When I approach my car after grocery shopping, I look around suspiciously as I prepare to load my groceries and snap my toddler into her car seat. I never leave my kids and my keys in the car at the same time, even if the keys aren’t in the ignition. I don’t trust anyone who approaches our car for any reason and I have to fight back the urge to counsel parents on decisions that involve kids and cars.
Life has a strange way of segregating itself into compartments, and there are certainly moments we can all point to that separate then from now. Before the carjacking, I was a trusting and empathetic parent. During the months of court hearings and sentencing, I was angry and bitter, seeing only the dark side of the world. In the months afterward, I felt wounded and exhausted, my adrenaline still running at full speed. Now, nearly one year later, I have insights into myself, my daughter, and my life that I never would have had. I fear tragedy in ways that are probably irrational, but I am also giving myself the space and time to go through whatever is in store. Adela is strong and mighty, but she can’t yet talk about what happened. This one little moment in our lives taught me that even when we share an experience as a family, we are each on our own individual journeys. I think what hurt me worse than nearly everything else, was the realization that no matter what I want or plan for my daughters, their lives will unfold in their own ways. I am no more in control of their lives than I am of my own, even while they’re young and living under my roof.
However, I have gotten to see something in my eldest child that gives me peace: her powerful ability to think fast and protect herself against danger. In its own way, this is a blessing. I am a better parent for what I’ve learned and I hope, if nothing else, that sharing our experience makes the world and our kids a little bit safer.