I stood beside my friend Barbara while she gave birth to Annie, her second child. Barbara’s family lived around the corner from mine, and because she and I were such good friends, I saw Annie almost every day when she was little. I dragged a chair next to the stove so she could watch me stir the playdough. I set a place for her at every birthday table.
Annie was the caboose, six years younger than my youngest, Mary. Unlike her older brother, Joe, whose food preferences showed up on my grocery list, Annie found her second home with another family in the neighborhood. When she was twelve or so, my husband and I moved away from Palo Alto, the nesting culs-de-sac that were so child-friendly, and I lost track of Annie-time for real. It was a shock, therefore, to learn that Annie has (appallingly) grown old enough to drive, and not only that, last week she passed her driver’s test.
I have a lot invested in this kid, so here's what I hope: I hope she has an inoculation accident.
Just as pathologists introduce substances into our bodies that boost our immunity to certain diseases—and sometimes those substances are low, weakened doses of the disease itself—my teenagers were lucky enough, armed with new licenses, to run into parked cars, back into trees, get bumped forward when they appeared to be making a left turn but at the last second changed their minds. All these were excellent accidents for kids just hitting the streets. Nobody got hurt, and they had to hear the horrible crunch of metal against metal, a sound you don’t forget. They had to leave a note, tell us what happened, call the insurance company and in some cases the police to report the accident, negotiate costs, renegotiate driving privileges, all of which made enough of an impression that next time—as far as I know, none of the three of them has again been involved in an accident they caused.
It’s risky to hope for any kind of accident. I’ve been thinking all day about how risky. I worry about my own kids plenty--skittishness and introversion must go together--but in terms of making decisions on the ground, my husband has always been the more cautious parent. I’m thinking of the time I let the kids scale a wet, rocky wall next to a waterfall—until Warren made it down the trail and removed them, one at a time, to the other side of the creek. I’m remembering the time he hiked at top speed across the Golden Gate Bridge, with a dads-and-daughters group from the Y, keeping Mary on his shoulders all the way. I would have been satisfied to hold her hand. I would have stopped halfway to let her watch the sailboats.
You have to let things happen, send kids to school when a virus might be going around, let them swim in public pools, obey the three-second rule when they drop their goldfish on the kitchen floor. You have to—don’t you?
Last summer, the one kid-like being I’m still responsible for, my beautiful smooth collie, Alice, got hit by a car on the border of Broadway Park in Bellingham. She was chasing squirrels. Broadway Park is not an off-leash facility, but the whole neighborhood, except my husband, lets their dogs run free there. Warren drove Alice to the vet, while I nearly hyperventilated in the passenger seat.
Alice is fine now, and she minds better. So was that an inoculation accident? If so, it was a painful one, for everyone concerned.
So, Annie, I don’t know. Maybe you should be careful from the very start, on every turn, in every parking lot, on every on- and off-ramp. Maybe you should realize that some of us don’t know what we’re talking about.