As I near my car, I run around it quickly to see if it has any white chalk slashes on the tires. Seeing none, I jump in my car, turn on the ignition, and back up, catching my breath and reminding myself to check the rear. I pull out and inch just three spots over. I put the car in park, step on the parking break, step out of the car, look over to the meter maid to make sure he's not already issuing tickets, and head back toward the playground gate.
I'm just a few steps away from the gate when I see my son through the fence, his eyes darting, tears streaking down his little face, his mouth open in a cry, his arms outstretched, and his little legs scurrying as fast as they could across the playground, across the stretch of the fence, like a caged animal, caught on the wrong side. I hear his cry, panicked, desperate, piercing through the giggles and the laughter of the playground. I rush across the sidewalk, open the gate, and run down the steps, calling his name. His eyes meet mine, and he keeps crying his panic stricken cry, a scream muddled with Mommy, you left me, you left me, Mommy, you left me, as tears stream down his face, his mouth still agape as he gasps for breath. As soon as I'm on the ground, I crouch down and he throws himself into my arms, and I wrap myself around him, assuring him, no, no, Mommy wouldn't leave you. Did you think I was leaving without you? Mommy has never left you anywhere, have I? No, little guy, we're going home together. I just had to move the car, did you hear me? I just didn't want a ticket. Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry.
My words aren't enough to soothe him, as he keeps crying, and I keep holding him as I repeat myself. His little body shudders as he sobs, and I pick him up and carry him across the playground to sit on a bench. There, he quiets, and his little friends come over to hover and soothe him in their 3 year old ways, a little tap on the back here and there, a few slurred "Are you okay," their eyes wide with concern and fear.
A few minutes later, he's already running across the field, throwing a ball, yelling for his turn.
On our way home, I pull in to a frozen yogurt shop and let him load his cup with chocolate frozen yogurt, sprinkles, mini gummy bears, mochi, and some sugary flakey cereal that I can't even name.
More than twelve hours later, I'm still replaying the moment in my head, still desperately sorry. I think that image will be forever etched in my mind, like the time he got his little fingers jammed in the hotel door in Hawaii as I stood just a foot away from him and his fingers swelled up like mini marshmallows.
I think about the burdens of parenthood, the power we have to cause this level of panic, this mini earthquake in their world. To induce a level of anxiety that we ourselves no longer understand. How easily these moments can come, when you are caught in a moment of distraction, when you have momentarily fallen out of focus. It makes me shudder to think of all that could happen -- and not fully relieved of all that hasn't.
I think of him sleeping in his Lightning McQueen bed. Through the door, I can hear him breathing, rolling around now and then. He seems so fragile, so vulnerable, still so little. And I think of all that is in my power to do, how I have to be more careful, more protective of the little person that he is.