When the Death of a Baby is Just a Symptom

Car Seats

There was a news story on the radio this morning about an 11-month old baby who died.

“The infant’s body was found strapped into the car seat of his father’s car, outside a child-care centre in Perth. The discovery was made after the father went to collect his son, and was told by staff at the centre that he hadn’t dropped the baby off that morning.”

The reporter went on to say that the infant’s death was being ruled a “tragic accident”. But I wasn’t really listening.

I wasn’t even there.

I was in that child-care centre with that father.

And my heart was breaking.

I’m there when he rushes in after work. He’s pressed for time, as always, because the day’s work ran longer than expected. I see his forced smile and his tired eyes when he greets the staff. He’s thinking about the next thing he needs to do, always the next thing, pick up the baby, get home for dinner,  put the little one to bed, so much to do, so much to do.

I’m there when the staff double-checks their records and says, “No, you definitely didn’t drop him off this morning. Maybe he’s with your wife?”

I feel the father’s confusion and fear. I want to lash out with him, to demand answers.  Where is my baby? I did drop him off! I remember strapping him into his car seat and…

And he was in a rush.

And he was stressed.

And he was driving on auto-pilot, his mind already on the work he had to do that day.

I feel the moment when it hits.

I feel it like a spider-bites and extreme heights and all-consuming darkness.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there when the father turns and runs — runs! — out to the parking lot. He sees his car, parked just where he left it. And he stops.

Because he can’t do it.

He can’t walk a single step closer. The dread…

I feel the dread like a barrier of pain.

We both know what he’ll see when he looks into his car.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

…but I don’t remember getting him out.

In my mind, I’m there. I see him take one step. And then another. Because the dread has hold of him now. It’s got him through the heart, and that hook is barbed. Oh, is it barbed. It draws him closer, closer, closer.

The tears run down his face. He doesn’t know. And if he did, he wouldn’t care.

Because he can see his little boy now. His little angel. So peacefully resting in a sleep that will last for an eternity.

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there that morning. That fateful morning, It’s so early, and the baby is asleep, and we have to wake him up and make him eat and get him dressed and put him in the car and there’s no time for cuddles and games and time. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Or on the weekend. Yes, definitely the weekend. But today, we have to get to work, to pay the bills, to run the errands, to do, do, do, do, do, so hurry up now, hurry up, we’ve got to get you to child-care, and I need to get to work, and pay the bills, and run the errands, and do, do, do, do, do.

And as I watch the father stare through the window at the body of his beautiful baby, I know he’s reliving that morning, too.

And I know that he would be willing to do anything, give up anything, sacrifice anything, for just one more smile. One more cuddle. One more day. One single opportunity to do things slower, and be present in the moment, and do whatever it takes to not end up here. Here. Standing in the hot sun. Staring at the single greatest “tragic accident” of his life, and knowing that nothing, nothing, will ever erase the pain he feels right now.

He will be standing here for the rest of his life.

I love this man.

I love him because he’s me. And he’s you. And he’s every single one of us. Every person in this world trying to do it right, better, best, perfect for our families and careers and dreams and hopes and futures and everything we’re told we can have if we just work hard enough.

But that is a lie.

No matter how hard we work, we can never erase the mistakes we make, the experiences we miss, the time we waste in pursuing a financial dream that is not even ours.

The death of this child is tragic. But it’s just a symptom. It’s a symptom of the way we live. Or the way we’re so busy trying to do and have everything, we completely overlook the most important things in our lives in favour of more, more, more.

This is not an isolated incident. These types of infant deaths are becoming more common. Last year, 25 infants died when their parents forgot they were still in the car — and that’s just in the US. (I’d look for worldwide figures, but I just can’t bear to read yet another story of a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.)

I have lived this man’s horror today. I’ve been there with him in spirit. I’ve felt the stomach-dropping, gut-churning, finger-tingling terror of realisation.

I’ve cried for him.

I’ve cried for all of us.

And I’ve hugged my children tight, then played silly games with them — even though I had other, “more important”, things to do.

I encourage you to do the same.


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion, Random Stuff

13 responses to “When the Death of a Baby is Just a Symptom

  1. It’s a little strange but there was an episode of CSI a few years ago where pretty much the same thing happened. It was pretty harrowing to watch as fiction, never mind it actually happening.

    As you say it’s not such a far fetched scenario and it really could be any of us. There’s not really anyone to blame, and nothing that can be done.

    Be grateful for every second…

    • From memory (and seriously, I am not going back to Google to fact-check this at the moment), that CSI episode was made a few months after a case in the UK got major media attention around the world, because the authorities had decided to charge the mother with willful neglect of something something legal term something something. (I think they eventually dropped the charges.)

  2. You made me cry. I felt every emotion of this beautifully written but terrifying piece. I love how your heart finds the grace the situation needs.

  3. Oh Jo. I’m completely speechless. When these things happen I feel the same way you do; that I’m there with the parent, who not only lost a precious child, but was at fault for it. So sad. This and the babies in the summer who fall in the pool, make me feel so relieved that my baby is no longer a baby.

  4. Nicole L. Bates

    It made me feel a little ill reading this, and then I cried. I can’t even imagine what that father (and mother) must be going through. My heart goes out to them and I wish I could remember this feeling every time that my son wants me to stop whatever it is that I’m doing and come see something cool he’s done/made/found. In the moment I so often say, “In a minute, I’m busy.” but with what? Absolutely nothing that I would regret putting aside if I knew that were the last time I would get to share one of those moments with my baby.

    • Nicole, your comment brought tears to my eyes, because I do the same thing. I’m going to consciously try to be less “busy” when my children want me to see, do, explore, tell, listen.

  5. It’s symptomatic of the way we live. We don’t work to live, we live to work and when the senseless meetings and conference calls begin to take over your life and put you in this brain fog that’s when you have to step away and revaluate your life.

    My heart breaks for that poor man because he’ll never be able to forgive himself. Every day he walks into that office for some stupid meaningless meeting, he’ll always have hanging over his head the death of his child.

  6. Oh Jo, thank you for being the compassionate person you are. This has happened here in the US and my heart was broken for a young, over-worked, stressed mother. You are brave to write. God bless you.

  7. Jo never lose your empathy. I think that’s your greatest talent as a writer. Your words put us all straight into the heart of the character. Trouble is, while I never want to be this character, and didn’t want to read on, your words also pulled me through the piece with an energy that I couldn’t turn away from, uncomfortable reading but brilliant nonetheless. Feel dreadful for the parents and can only hope that his employer and so many like him feel some responsibility for putting him in a position where this dreadful thing could happen.

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