At its best, getting kids out the door for school each morning is an exercise in herding cats. At its worst, well, here’s a wall, some Jello, and a nail. Have at it.
We had a routine. We’d pile into the car (13-year-old Sam in the front and 10-year-old Cole in the backseat) and back out.
Then I’d stop while a boy ran frantically back into the house to retrieve homework/inhaler/lunch/socks. Then I’d back out three more feet and stop again while a boy (sometimes the same boy, sometimes both) tore into the house to retrieve retainer/gym clothes/pants.
Then we’d stop again at the communal mailbox. I’d toss Cole the mailbox key, he’d leap out and pry the mail out of the bin. I’d roll down my window, accept the key and the mail, he would climb back in, and off we’d go to school.
We’d head down the freeway, Sam and I listening to the radio and chatting about the news. Frequently Cole would steal another 40 winks in the backseat until they were dropped safely at school.
It was a system: every school day morning it worked like lather, rinse, repeat.
One fine spring morning we were on the freeway when I called over my shoulder to see what Cole thought of some particularly amusing bit on the news.
Well, he’s probably asleep. He really should quit reading so late at night.
I asked Sam to look in the back; was he on the floor?
No. As a matter of fact, he’s not in the backseat.
Sam tells me that I screamed for the entire time it took me to turn around and tear home. Apparently I yelled “TELL ME I DIDN’T RUN HIM OVER!” repeatedly as I careened into our neighborhood.
I hadn’t. What I had absent-mindedly done was stop at the mailbox, wait for Cole to jump out, roll down my window, roll it up, and then drive off just as he was about to touch the door handle, mail in hand.
He tells me that, as I tooled unawares out of our neighborhood, he ran after me, shouting out “Mom!” like something out of “Old Yeller.”
And then he walked over to the neighbors’ house and waited.
I was reminded of this story earlier this month when the prime minister of England accidentally left his 8-year-old daughter in a pub for 15 minutes after a lunch with the entire family, in one of those classic “I-thought-she-was-with-you” arrangements.
Stories like that are horrifying when they happen. Later, when everything turns out OK, and your son winds up eating muffins while he waits for you to come find him, you hear other parents’ stories and everyone laughs. But inside we shiver, because we’ve all heard the other stories that didn’t end with everyone laughing and eating dessert.
So be careful out there: don’t let a happy routine hypnotize you into missing details. Leaving Cole at the mailbox didn’t make me the worst parent in the world; it just set me up for a lifetime of him giving me the friendly business about it.
But if I hadn’t found him safe and happy and eating a muffin that fine spring morning, you would never have convinced me otherwise.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Elizabeth Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears monthly.