The Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

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42 comments

  1. This was hard to read as I’m sure you can imagine. Thank goodness he (as he told us last night) knows how to look both ways. That little bugger. XOXO

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  2. Oh Michael, I know this feeling all too well, I lost my 4year old at the St Patrick day parade last year in Philly, although minutes, I know it took a big toll on me as a parent. I also have a 7 year old and know the challenges we face, thank you for letting me know I am not alone

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Terrie. Parents feel other parents’ pain. You and I know a lot of characters from growing up who turned out pretty great–fingers crossed ours will, too. Hope you are well.

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  3. Loved your story… my boys are 1 and 3 not looking forward to the moment this happens to me, having two boys and being the youngest of 3 boys I KNOW it will happen, it’s just a matter of when…

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    1. Mark, Thank you for reading and commenting. I’ve seen pictures of those boys of yours–they are adorable. And I know you are a great dad. Two things–it DOES go as fast as everyone says, and there will always be challenges. They seem to take turns being bad. I wish you all the best. Thanks again for reading!

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  4. My heart goes out to you. What I’ve noticed is how closely associated danger and hatred are. When someone, like my kid, terrifies me, a part of me just hates them for making me feel so frightened. But you’re right, we can’t break up with our kids. We have to get tougher – its the only answer. We have to know we can survive the worst.

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  5. You are correct, sir–you will work your arse off and your heart out the remainder of your days to make certain you never travel down this particular Road to Hell, only to realize time and again that Certainty is nowhere along the way. But try, we must.

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    1. Thank you for your insights and for caring. I will continue to try and to love. By the way, your post about your cat reminded me of a wonderful book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. You have a talent for writing about the natural world. Be well.

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  6. Hey Michael,

    Great though harrowing blog. I can’t even imagine. Appreciate the epilogue to lighten the mood. As they say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Glad everyone is safe.

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    1. Thank you. I am glad I found your blog because you have the wisdom of someone who has experienced many of life’s ups and downs. That perspective will serve me well–and you have a great sense of humor, to boot:)

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  7. You just stepped into the pitfalls of emotional parenting at it’s worst. Those same feelings will crowd your very soul many times as the boys grow. The fear and the madness and the love get all mixed and hard to handle at times. Someday when they are grown you will tell the story and you will marvel at how brave and smart your boy was when he was seven. The road in between is the kicker but you my friend are just the guy to navigate it and your boys will be so glad you did some day. They will remember you loved them so much that you were mad they did something stupid.
    Also about that car. Hungarian Work Horse always drove junkers and after we were married eighteen years he brought a brand new pick up on a Thursday. He let me drive it to work on Friday and I hit a deer and my coffee went flying all over the interior. The deer hit the hood of the pick up and then the hood smashed the front window out. It had thirty seven miles on it.

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    1. Liz, even your comments are beautifully written. Wow! Your insights give me hope (and scare me, too) but I believe you are right on the money. I look forward to having those conversations with the boys down the road. Hayden and Little Dude remind me of each other, by the way.
      I am still laughing at the truck story. Poor HGW, poor you, damn deer! Thanks again for your words. They mean a lot. Hope you are doing well.

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      1. Damn deer is right! Also just so you know I thought about you and your little dude half the day, I kept thinking – Why didn’t Michael know he was just Hayden home. Sorry I just had to.

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      2. I cracked up when I was thinking it. AND don’t take this too seriously, it’s small potatoes compared to the things you are going to encounter with the boys. When they are little you have little problems when they are big you have big problems but it all works out in the wash and remember they are learning their independence and it is so hard for them and you. Blessings

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  8. I waited for part two sensing it would end well. The tension after part one worked perfectly. Great piece! If I ever have guilt that I didn’t have children myself, this story affirms why I was not cut out for the job. Parenthood boggles my mind. You, Michael are doing a great job, and I admire your bravery at tackling getting those emotions down on paper so soon after it all happened. So well done.

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    1. Thank you, Matt. I find that now that I am blogging, my mind seems to be processing things more in words. I WANTED to get the emotions down when they were raw, and not when I had a chance to censor them.
      As for parenting, none of us is cut out for this job, or realizes the layers. I bet you would have been a great dad because you have a lot of heart and passion. Feel free to keep living vicariously through me as I give these two boys a reason for therapy as adults:)

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  9. Hi Michael – I’m so glad Hayden was ok! But don’t beat yourself up. Some kids wander more than others; I have yet to loose my youngest daughter (5), but my oldest (now 16, and wandering into all sorts of dangerous situations!) was quite convinced she didn’t need a mother, and got lost many a time. Hayden sounds like he has a strong will. That’s good! His determination will see him go far. In the meantime, however, it might just makes your job a little harder…but then you strike me as a man who rises to a challenge. 🙂 Take care.

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    1. Michele, Your perspective always brings about a sense of calm in me. Thank you. I love how you put a positive spin on this event. I agree about Hayden’s will and how it will serve him well–I just wish I wasn’t responsible for his safety and well being through these it all. (I can almost hear your response) Ultimately your are not responsible–you need to let go…I’m trying. I am:)
      Congrats again on your Pushcart nomination. I am proud of you.

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  10. Thank you for sharing this experience. So often I want to sugar coat the near tragedies in my life, but I have learned that by sharing those awful moments in time that there are others out there that have felt the same way. It is lovely to know that I am part of the human family, that I have frailties, and weaknesses. It scares the living daylights out of me what my kids will someday do in their defiance. I was a really good kid, so I honestly can’t imagine the terror that is in wait for me!

    Okay, maybe I do. I remember the day I was sitting next to the front door. It was locked. My 3 year old son (this was 3 years ago) with Autism was safely playing in his bedroom. I heard a Mack truck honk on its horn, followed by other squeals of tires. Something clinched in my gut. Surely he didn’t get out the back door. He hasn’t figured out how to unlock it yet has he? Something told me to go check it out. There he was in his underwear, in the middle of the street in front of a semi truck. Each time something like that happens I swear I will be a better parent. That I will keep a better eye on my kiddo. Just like you I daily thank God that I have turned off the road to hell!

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story. You are so right about it helping us realize we’re not alone. As parents, we need all the support we can get. Now, are you sure you never scared the bejeesus out of your parents, even once??:)

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  11. I have a 7 year old wanderer…I am certain she does it on purpose in stores just to test my reaction time. I expect to find her with a stop watch in the middle of a clothes rack one day stating, “Good job mom, you beat your last time.” She actually hides in places where she can see me looking for her?! This last incident resulted in her being grounded for 4 days…. a 7 year old grounded, in her room, no friends, no screens for 4 days. She is also a terror in parking lots, which has resulted in my death grip on her wrist since she manages to wriggle her little hand out of mine. I must admit, it is sad but nice to know I am not alone?!

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  12. As I read this I thought, “That is exactly the kind of thing my 4 1/2 year old would do.” She thinks she knows everything and can do anything on her own, and she is always getting into trouble. She loves to hide and then won’t answer when I call. At home there are limited hiding places, but at the mall? I had to give her a stiff warning the other day when I took her shopping. She wasn’t to hide on me and she had to answer when I asked where she was. She did pretty good and didn’t get lost, and yesterday even helped me keep an eye on and find my 3 year old who kept wandering off.

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