Disclaimer: Random ramble. Feel free to stop here.
Several years ago, I watched this episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where this woman--a school principal--had left her baby in a locked car all day while she was at work. Well, let me clarify. It wasn't actually a baby but more of a toddler who'd fallen asleep in her booster chair on the morning drive.
So this lady is talking and Oprah is looking at her all intensely-intently-empathic-like while she explains what-had-happened. She said something about how every single day her husband took their daughter to her pre-school but how, on this day, he had a scheduling conflict. And this woman goes on to tell Ms. Winfrey all about how it was her first day as a principal at this school where she'd worked for many years already and how happy-nervous-anxious she was about this promotion. She recounted her morning speaking of how she'd first made this pitstop on the way for donuts for the teachers. Then about how mostly she was just doing every day things like listening to the radio and checking her mascara for clumps. And this was before folks were all up on their phones and such so that wasn't even a factor.
Then, I guess, she got all up in her head so much that she took the route she always takes and did the thing she always does when driving to that school. And the route she always took and the things she always did didn't include going to a pre-school on the way. So, yeah. She did all that like she always did it that day. The only difference being that she parked in a different, more high real estate parking space. Oh, and that her kid was still asleep in the back seat.
The rest is as disastrous as you might imagine. A colleague walks past her crossover SUV parked in that new fancy fangled space and moves closer just to admire the accomplishment it represents. But that person surprisingly notices something unusual inside. Yup. An unconscious toddler still strapped in a car seat. It was well into the afternoon by this point and in the heat of August. By the time they got outside and called EMS it was just too late. That baby had died.
Years have passed since then and here and there I've seen similar stories pop up like this in the news. Even a friend of mine had a friend experience this exact same nightmare with their child. But by the time I heard it those other times, I was somebody's mother. My thoughts about it all were slightly different but that same sinking feeling I felt inside was the same.
I recall one of the more recent ones a few summers back right here in Atlanta:
"Granddad leaves kid in car for an entire day. Story at 11."
"Who does that?" I heard someone say in the hair salon that day. "Like who in the hell gets so busy that they leave their own child in a car and walks into work for the whole damn day? That sounds completely crazy to me." The amen choir chimed in from under dryers or under the snip-snip of scissors and clink-clink of curling irons. "I know folks get busy, but damn!" A few chuckles followed and then just this weird silence.
And me, I mostly kept quiet that day because I thought about my own answer to that rhetorical question. "Who does that? Anyone could do that."
Like even me.
Wait. Let me be clear. Nothing is wrong. The kids are alright and no one has been shut up in a hot car without a way to get out. Nor has this almost happened to me so far.
Oh. I take that back. I did once drive toward interstate 20 to head to work and almost forgot to take Isaiah to day care when he was a baby. Harry usually dropped off so it was a routine change--and Isaiah had fallen fast asleep. I noticed well before I got to the interstate but I had passed the daycare already. Which tells me that my quiet answer inside was right. When routines get shaken up or we get distracted or in our own heads too much? Things can happen. And most of those things are near misses but sometimes, like the instance with that lady on Oprah, they are real, true irreversible catastrophes.
So I guess I'm all rambly-rambly about this because I'm trying to process a near miss that I had fairly recently. And for a lot of reasons I can't explain the exact details of what happened but what I can say is that it not becoming catastrophic is one of those things that is equivalent to someone yelling out to that principal-lady right after she got out of her car: "Hey! Ma'am! I think you left your baby in there!"
But. That's not even the striking part of this. Something else is. So stay with me, okay? I'm going somewhere, I promise.
Okay, so imagine the stakes being high like that. Like a baby being left in a hot car on accident. The kind of thing that could be perceived as somewhat negligent even though theoretically it's the kind of eff up that could happen to anyone. Yeah. That. Those things that happen when people get super distracted and are doing to much in their heads so allow some part of whatever else they're supposed to be tending to go into autopilot.
Yeah. Kind of like that.
So picture me as the person doing all of those things and some other completely innocent person minding their business. Hmmm. I think I need a metaphor. Uhhh, okay let's do this--let's imagine that completely innocent person is standing right on the tippy-tip edge of a giant cliff. But like a giant cliff that is usually safe when people are watching where they are going.
So yeah. A giant, giant cliff. That is usually safe.
Okay, so check it. Let's just say that what had happened was that I stepped left instead of right because I wasn't looking. And I wasn't looking because I was distracted. Not by something über-negligent (yet common) like texting on a cell phone or putting on mascara but still. Regardless of what I was doing, I own the fact that I wasn't paying attention. And shit happens when you don't pay attention.
And so as the story goes, my inadvertent step very, very nearly knocks this innocent person off of the usually safe giant, giant cliff. Yet somehow, someway that person manages to cling to a jagged rock instead of falling and is mostly okay.
So me, I look down the cliff and back at the person. Then back down the cliff and back at the person. My heart is pounding with relief and panic. It feels like my heart is like a banging gong for all to hear.
"Oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-GOD!" That's what I shriek when I see that poor person holding on for their life. And people are running over to the edge to help or look or just be nosey. . . because something like a person falling off of a giant, giant cliff in front of a whole bunch of people is the kind of thing that causes people to do such a thing.
So people are freaking out. Like really, really freaking out. Including the better half of the cliff hanger person who comes tearing over in a frenzy. I mean, that better half thought that their love had fallen to the very bottom into the deep abyss of a valley so who could blame them? Not me. And see all of it was really messed up because everyone there was traumatized. Me included. So I just kept screaming, "Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!" and "I am SO SORRY."
Because I was sorry. Very.
Okay. I know this all sounds like some crazy, cryptic parable. And I'll stop torturing you with it, I promise. But I need you to hear it because I got some powerful lessons and I'm trying my best to process them. What happened next is the most shocking part of all.
Once the cliff hanger person got safely back on the ground, he let it be known that he was okay. And people sort of calmed down for two seconds but then they peered down that jagged peninsula again and realized how really, really bad this could have been. And, honestly, I do the same thing. Because near misses make you do that macabre instant replay thing, you know?
So here's the crazy part--I kept freaking out but the cliff hanger person remained unusually calm. And somewhere around my seven hundred and forty sixth apology, the cliff hanger person simply looked at me and said:
"It was an accident. I forgive you."
Now. I can't say it was bizarrely warm and fuzzy apology acceptance but just more . . I don't know. . .real. Like, when the cliff hanger person told me he forgave me, I believed him immediately. "I am okay," the cliff hanger said. "I am okay and I will be okay. It was an accident."
And yeah, there were a few more words exchanged but that was mostly it.
And that? That messed me up a hundred times more than the near miss. I mean, there's a lot of things that I do that some might think are special. But what the cliff hanger person did in this instance? Staying this calm after a potentially near-death experience? Man. Had that been me? Had a distracted and quasi-negligent person nearly catapulted me to my untimely demise from the side of a usually-safe cliff? I can't say that I would have been so gracious. As a matter of fact, I know I wouldn't have. My curt response would have sounded something like this:
"I'm fine. Now, please. Please. Just get away from me. As far away as you can."
That's probably what I would have done. Something exactly like that more than likely. But nothing like what the cliff hanger did.
And you know? Up until then, I would have been okay with that. As a matter of fact, I would have been proud of myself for not completely snapping and cursing the person out. I probably would have called some girlfriend to share my testimony of "staying cool" even though everyone knows that sharp indifference can cut deeper than the knife of full on anger.
And so. In the midst of my near miss, my attention was grabbed for an altogether different reason--grace and human kindness. This person chose to extend me grace when I didn't deserve it. Or maybe I did deserve it, right? And maybe that person knew that and all of this was for me to learn that lesson. Either way, it was remarkable. Like super remarkable.
Man, it was.
Perhaps I'm not doing a great job articulating what happened to me and how deeply moved I was by this interaction. If I'm not, please just know that something super pivotal took place and it's not something I will soon forget. A person had a chance to be angry and venomous. But chose to be gracious instead.
My kids witnessed it all. Me being distracted and nearly pushing a person off of a cliff. And they saw that person choosing kindness over spite. Even though anger or icy indifference would have totally been justified. Or at least socially acceptable.
There was once this renowned medical educator who often spoke of what he called "equanimity under duress." Up until that moment, that always sounded like just a cool-sounding concept and thing to say. But on that day--the day someone met me with grace during a potential catastrophe--I saw it up close and personal. I sure did.
Merriam Webster defines equanimity as mental calmness and composure especially during difficult situations. And duress is. . . well, exactly what you are in when someone nearly knocks your ass off of a usually-safe cliff on accident.
You feel me?
And look. I won't even try to unpack the spiritual aspects of all of this for me. I mean, not here I won't. But because many of you have read my words and know me through them, you know that those parts are swirling in my head, too.
I guess what I'm realizing as I get older is that whether a person believes in God or a higher power or any such thing at all. . . grace and mercy are things we all need. And just like that lady needed mercy from the world and grace from herself to forgive herself for that awful mistake, all of us need the same every day. We sure do. Sometimes in the form of just cutting someone a little slack. And other times in those big and sweeping ways that part the entire red sea of chaos around you. A piece of me knows that we are all just one sliding door away from some earth-shattering catastrophe nearly every moment of every day. There are the near misses that we see and the others that we never even notice at all. But all of them are there.
Yeah, they are. And I am thankful for every near miss that I get the chance to recognize and from which I subsequently learn.
I still think of that lady from the Oprah Winfrey Show from time to time. I remember her tired eyes and wonder how she's doing or if her world was just too broken to ever smile again. I think about her husband, sitting on that front row with his antalgic smile, and wonder if their marriage was able to endure that loss. But mostly, I just hope that somebody somewhere extended her grace and mercy. Especially enough to help her believe she is worthy of giving the same to herself.
Sigh. I know that was a lot. Thanks for reading it all.
So what did I learn? Pretty simple. Life happens fast. Like super fast. So slow down. And be kinder than necessary. And if you can? Exercise equanimity under duress.