do or die, maybe

Lisa Belkin wrote a poignant piece yesterday on the parenting blog she writes for the New York Times. The topic: keeping children from harm’s way. I almost posted a version of what follows in the comments section. I decided to publish my thoughts here instead.

I had one of those crossroads parenting moments this past weekend. I was dropping Isaac off at a birthday party. I was chatting in the kitchen with the parents when the boys announced they were going to go up the street to play football in the park, before they played Dungeons and Dragons. They're 12 or turning 12, so it seemed reasonable. Then the birthday boy's father looked at the birthday boy's mother and said, "You know, there's a tornado warning." She seemed unfazed. It always amazes me, the safety differential between parents.

I was concerned. The sky did look kind of crazy, yellow and gray like a days-old bruise, and the air felt charged, just plain barometrically bizarre. I grew up boating, which makes me sufficiently attuned to rapid changing weather conditions, especially thunderstorms. Twice in recent years, I’d sensed a tornado in the vicinity. One time, Isaac and I were on the roof of a parking garage, headed into a grocery store. I could see a storm moving toward the city from the west, its clouds roiling like ocean waves. “This is going to be a bad one,” I told him. What I didn’t tell him was I thought there might be a tornado.

There was. That evening on the 11 o’clock news, I learned that a twister had swooped down and picked up a car on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Two sisters riding home together died. Their father, a university official, had told his daughters to leave campus, to beat the storm.

Remembering the consequences of that well-intentioned father, I wondered what I should do. My gut told me that the boys should play it safe and hang out on the front porch. Only I said nothing. I’ve been through this scenario many times before with my son’s father, the rush of analysis which suggests a risk but is followed by silence, my silence. Shared custody accentuates the aforementioned parental safety differential. The week my son spends with his father at the beach every summer, I worry that someone will miss some urgent sign or fact, like the lifeguard’s flapping flag that signals strong currents, or the unassailable knowledge that sharks like to feed at dawn and at dusk.

Only there’s not much I can do, except remind them of the obvious. Last weekend, the moment the mother said, “They should be fine,” I decided not to speak my mind. I accepted their offer of a glass of wine and waited it out, waited for the boys to return all in one piece. All the while, I knew that if anything had happened, if a tornado or high winds had done harm to any of these boys, I never would have forgiven myself. That's parenting. Sometimes it's literally do or maybe, just maybe, let them die. Later, Isaac come downstairs while the others still played Dungeons and Dragons. "What are you doing here?" the birthday boy's mother asked. "Oh, they killed me," Isaac answered, without a care in the world.

Today's sweeps is for a trip for four to Washington, D.C. (This is one I won't be entering!) The prize includes a visit to the National Zoo, to see the pandas. The zoo has a special place in our hearts. We live within walking distance. I credit our frequent visits there when Isaac was younger for his profound affinity with animals. Now that he's older, we don’t go as often as we used to. But when the wind is right, we can hear the gibbons’ early morning territorial cries. To enter, click HERE. The sweeps closes March 15.