When Mistakes Turn Tragic

August 30, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

What happens when you forget to mention something important to your spouse? When you are running late or distracted, for any number of reasons? Bills get paid late because you forgot to ask him to mail them, Johnny misses soccer practice because you forgot to tell Dad he needed to be there by 5, nothing is thawed to cook for dinner because you meant to ask him to pick something up on the way home, the transmission in the car drops a gear because, well, damn, you keep forgetting to mention that noise. He heard it a couple of weeks ago, shouldn’t he have remembered? He knows Johnny has soccer practice on Tuesdays; is it your fault they changed the time?? Is it your fault the online bill-paying system was down so you decided to write checks and pay the old-fashioned way instead?

So Johnny grouses around and you have to go grovel to the coach on his behalf. You pay the late fees on the bills and have to forego til next month that great new bag you’ve been coveting. You and he are forced to carpool til the transmission is fixed, and yes, that one you’ll have to pay for. And that supper you put together after foraging through the pantry and fridge wasn’t half-bad after all. Mistakes. We all make them. We fuss at each other about them, we try not to make the same ones over and over, but they are a regular part of life, our daily learning experiences, the gravel crunching under our spinning wheels as we move from today into tomorrow.

A few days ago, a young couple here in St. Louis had one of those mornings. She is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital, one of the best pediatric hospitals in the nation. He is a medical researcher for Washington University, housed just down the street from his wife’s workplace. They live in a tidy suburb on the inner ring and have a 5-year-old son. He welcomed his baby sister into the family late last winter. But this particular morning, St. Louis was anything but winter. We were suffering from a particularly bad case of “dog days,” with temperatures hovering near 100. The pediatrician was running late for a morning meeting. Normally, she’d take her daughter to the hospital’s day care before parking her car, but she was cutting it too close this day so she called her husband, already at work, and asked if he’d meet her so she could run into the meeting. He agreed, walked down and met her outside, drove her to her door and parked the car. Outside. In a parking lot, in the sun. He assumed his wife had already dropped their daughter off. She was sleeping quietly in her rear-facing carseat. Mom didn’t mention daycare drop-off specifically, assuming, well, that he would just KNOW. Or she didn’t mention it because she was distracted by trying to make sure she had everything together for her meeting. Or she was thinking about her sweet daughter snuggled back there and wishing she could hug her one more time before heading to work, and didn’t mention it because crying before a meeting was just silly. Or any number of a million different thoughts could have been running through her head. She trusted her husband to do what needed to be done, because he always did. He trusted her to have dropped off their daughter because, like I mentioned, she always did. And the sleeping, rear-facing baby didn’t make a sound.

By the time she was noticed by passers-by who broke out the car window and called 911, the temperature inside the car was nearing 140 degrees and 7-month-old baby Sophia was already dead. Both parents thought she was safely in daycare, delivered by the other. Neither felt any cause to worry or check. The daycare didn’t call when she didn’t arrive, because it is a hospital daycare. People work crazy shifts, changing shifts, in hospitals. It is, by all accounts, a wonderful facility.
The parents are, as few of us can imagine, devastated. Tormented by their miscommunication, distraught, and, I have no doubt, being eaten alive by their guilt. Unless one has lost a child, I don’t imagine one can fathom the depth of that pain. And to feel completely responsible for the avoidable death of your own child? This I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around. The parents have, not surprisingly, cooperated with authorities. The circuit attorney is reviewing the facts to determine if neglect or endangerment charges will be filed.

After reading the most recent article about this story on our newspaper’s website, I read a few of the readers’ postings following the article. I was, admittedly, expecting to see a few random ugly comments – those ‘blogs always seem to attract people with little more to do than slam others. But I was startled by the number of cringingly judgmental postings criticizing these people, insisting they are obviously too busy to have children, they should decide – career or family – obviously they can’t do both. “I would NEVER forget my child in the car . . . perhaps I was just obsessively careful with my own baby.” On and on the comments went, insisting they were bad parents, neglectful people, too busy to raise a family the “right” way. Couldn’t that be said for many of us – isn’t our entire culture too busy, often superficially so? These comments were, in my mind, heartlessly cruel.

Half of them had the facts wrong, with the mother leaving the baby in the car so the father could pick her up, etc. One likened her to another recent set of heat-related deaths, in which a mother intentionally left her children in the car with a bit of juice and water so that she could go to work when she couldn’t find child care. Both toddlers, both died. Tragic, too, but how does one become an adult, a job-holding adult, in this day and age and not realize that eight hours in a car in the summer is deadly? Not to mention all the other things wrong with leaving two toddlers alone for that long, even in cool temperatures. But since this particular woman was black and poor and the mom in question here is a white professional, it quickly spiraled down into a racial/class-ist issue, as if somehow these parents might be excused because of their race and their station in life.

No one seemed willing to consider intent. Few seemed willing to acknowledge that we all make mistakes. Am I the only one who’s heard a story about a baby being left behind when the whole family headed out on an outing? I remember a dear friend telling this story on her parents – middle-class suburban parents with four young daughters and a baby son. Off they headed, and several miles down the road one sister asked where Billy was. Billy??? NO ONE HAS BILLY???! They headed frantically back to the house, where poor Billy, strapped into his little infant seat, sat in the middle of the dining room table, waiting. The story is legend in their family, and when she told it, we all laughed and several other people piped up with similar stories – being left in the the grocery store, losing a sibling in the bathroom at the gas station – it happened then and it happens now.

I lost track of my own young daughter in the middle of China, in a tiny town where our bus had stopped for lunch. She walked to a park with part of our group after asking my permission; upon their return, each adult thought she was with someone else. I was panic stricken for all of 10 minutes, til my resourceful daughter came walking toward us, holding hands with a little Chinese girl who knew where the bus full of Americans was eating. We ran to each other and sobbed with relief – but what if she hadn’t found a kind stranger? What if something sinister had happened? I’d be living with unbearable guilt for the rest of my life – and I’d want to blame someone, anyone, for the loss of my child. But I’d know, as I know now, that it was an accident, a mistake caused by the very humanness that makes us all real. The people who’d walked with her to the park were horrified when they realized she hadn’t made it back, but the outcome would not have been changed by their remorse or my guilt.

This family has been shattered. They will never, ever be the same. They didn’t do anything any more wrong than the mistakes most of us make through the course of any given week. What is it that caused so many people to lash out at them, insist what they’ve done is worse, is punishable? The outcome was worse, yes – far worse than any of us are willing to believe might be possible in our own families, our own lives.

Ahhhh. And therein lies the rub. They MUST have done something more wrong – something so bad they must be punished, taught a lesson.

Otherwise, might this happen . . . to me?

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Category: American Culture, Communication

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I added the links to the Post-Dispatch article and blog, so that readers here could get a first-hand glimpse of this tragic story.

    I cringed at many of the comments to the post. Maybe this wouldn't happen to any parent, but SOMETHING LIKE THIS could happen to any parent. You might forget to hold your child's hand while walking through a parking lot, and someone backs over your child. Or maybe you left the stairs door open and your child, using one of those rolling walker-trainers, goes over the edge (this happened to a friend of mine). Or maybe, while you were in the bathroom, your child choked to death on a grape. There's a thousand other ways that parents can get distracted such that they fail to protect their children. And I'm talking about conscientious parents.

    The barrage of harsh judgment in the comments makes me wonder whether the people who were the harshest even had children. Some of them stated whether they had children, but many didn't. Until people find themselves raising children in this crazy, frenzied world that requires many of us to attend to employment duties FAR more than we'd like, taking us away from our kids, they'd be wise to temper their judgment.

    Until this accident happened (and it, indeed, was an accident), these two parents would never ever have been accused of being a danger to their children. The anger and the accusations are all based on hindsight.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's comment parallels my own. Accidents, to adults as well as to children, happen every day, and it has nothing to do with parental negligence. To criticize parents who have suffered such a loss is heartless in the extreme.

  3. t says:

    Thank you for your post.

    This tragedy happened very close to me, to people I look up to as role models. When I read what had happened, at that moment I couldn't imagine anything worse. When I read the comments on the P-D page… I literally cried. I, like you, expected a few crazy comments, but hundreds of hurtful cruel accusations…? Comments that people that busy shouldn't have children? That they should have their son taken away "in case they do it again", and then be jailed? That this is what happens when mothers try to have a career? That clearly, they were only working so hard because they are selfish ruthless brutes who value money and prestige over their kids – and that they deserve far worse than they're getting?

    Intellectually, I know that it's a defense mechanism – and that the closer parents are to the edge themselves, the more desperate they are to draw a line between themselves and a real tragedy. But right now, I look at the hours that people in my field spend in the hospital trying to meet the health care needs of this community… at the sacrifices we make and how hard we push ourselves for the sake of our patients… and I hear the comments from the article echoing in my head… and I just don't want to do it anymore.

  4. Mindy says:

    Ah, t, all I can say is – please, please don't stop doing it. I am the child of a physician, and while my family saw material gain once he finished all of his schooling/residency/internship, we also saw, firsthand, the sacrifices he made to care for those who needed him. Fortunately, my mom stayed home. But that was many years ago, in a different America. Now he'd not make nearly the money he did and still, he'd do it – because it was his calling. And he did it well, was well-respected among both his peers and all those with whom he worked.

    There are many more of us out here who respect and admire what you do – and understand how very dearly you are NEEDED by all those who don't appreciate the sacrifices you make and the strength you have and the incredible gifts you all are – not only the community at large, but to the families who love you dearly and who wouldn't trade being your children for the world.

  5. Mindy says:

    I would also like to add a note (and Erich, would you add the link because I still can't figure it out??) about a response by Sylvester Brown to this news story. While I continue to be appalled at the reaction of people to this young couple, I also agree completely with Sylvester's point that the media coverage of this story vs. the coverage of other stories, as well as the police handling of it, ARE different and ARE likely based on the race of those involved. I know Sylvester; his daughters and mine attend school together. He is not a knee-jerk kinda guy. This is definitely something we MUST acknowledge in order to fix.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Mindy: Here is the Sylvester Brown column to which you referred. Click here.

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