By Leslie Srajek
Here’s the short version of this story: my 13-year old son got hit by a car while he was biking to school. The driver didn’t stop. My son was not injured.
The long version of the story begins the moment he was born and will continue for the rest of his life, because at its heart, this is a story about how to balance risk and safety, independence and caution, freedom and fear. A lifelong quest for all of us.
I will tell you the medium-length version, because as his mother, that’s all I get to participate in. Being a mother brings one hard human truth into very clear focus: you can’t stop bad things from happening. Not by eating the right food when you’re pregnant, if that is how you become a mother; not by breastfeeding, or buying organic baby food, or a car seat on steroids; not by sending your kid to Montessori, or in fact by doing any of the infinite number of things that make up the sandstorm of worry that can envelop motherhood.
My son has always loved to cycle and climb trees, which was fun and cute when his bike had training wheels and he rode around the driveway, or when the trees were 12-feet tall. Now, when he climbs 30 feet up into our linden tree, and bikes 4 miles from our home in Urbana to school in downtown Champaign, these are activities fraught with peril. For me, that is. For him, they are the paths to freedom.
When he told me that he was hit by a car, and that the driver didn’t stop, about 85 percent of me went into loud, freaked-out mother mode — I asked 100 questions, called the police, told my family, posted about it on Facebook and Twitter, and wrote a Letter to the Editor. But the other 15 percent was very quiet and calm, because I knew that he had something inside of him that enabled him to handle what had happened. That part of me saw that even though I had an important role to play in managing how we all dealt with this, what really mattered was his own ability to interact with the world around him in a way that showed strength, presence of mind, and a deep sense of who he is. That part of me saw him as separate, capable, amazing human being with a life electric with potential. Worry and fear seemed absolutely irrelevant.
There is a poem by Mary Oliver called “West Wind,” that has been my “life courage” poem. It describes a boat heading towards a waterfall. We are the boat, and the waterfall is our life, and her advice is: “When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it.”
A few years ago we took our sons to Niagara Falls and the sight of them standing at the edge of the enormous falls, leaning over the flimsy little railing looking for rocks to throw in, scared me so much I had to look away. I could barely breathe. But I remembered that poem, and I knew that I wanted them to live their lives with that kind of fearlessness and courage.
I know they’ll get hurt; I know bad things will happen to them, and I know I’ll worry about them forever. But I also know, I really, really know, that they didn’t come here to live in fear. None of us did. I want that driver to know she hit someone’s son, someone who is deeply loved; that she had been incredibly careless with something precious beyond words. But more than I want that, I want my son to stay on his bike, to climb the trees, to go as far and high as he can go, because when he does, when any of us do, we all see farther and higher because of it.
Leslie Srajek is the mother of three sons, lives in Urbana, and tries to keep up her blog at http://heartlandwriting.