By Holly Rizzuto Palker
Summer camp had just begun and it was the first hot day of the year. The air outside looked wavy. I strapped my child into her car seat and kissed her chubby cheeks. She was my third so I’d learned to take the time to do this. Often. Chelsea was impish and just shy of one-year. She looked up at me with wide eyes and giggled, “Mama.”
On average, 37 children die forgotten in cars each year in the U.S. from heat related deaths. As a 39-year-old stay at home mom of three in New Jersey, I felt constantly overwhelmed with tasks yet I never imagined I could forget my child.
We drove to pick up her older brother from day camp. The car was finally cooling from the air condition that circulated on high for the ten minutes it took us to get there. My mind spilled over with an endless to do list. Camp pickup was a change to our normal routine.
Though Chelsea was almost one, I’d barely slept the night before. I shouldn’t have run to her nursery the moment I heard her screaming but I couldn’t bear to hear her cry. She was my last and I was done Ferberizing. With this child I savored the comfortable feeling of a pudgy little body cuddled up next to me while sleeping. The problem was that once I brought her into my bed, I never fell back into a deep sleep fearing that she could be smothered under the blankets.
“I can do this,” I told myself. I believed I could handle three children with little sleep. Good mothers raised offspring, bought groceries, cooked dinner and kept the house without assistance. I was proud that I could handle it all by myself.
My cell phone rang in the car and it was my mom. She knew my life had been chaotic and my husband had been away for a few days on a work trip. She was aware I needed help since my best sitter was no longer working for me. Her voice switched over to blue tooth and filled my car.
“Do you need me?” she asked.
I glanced in the rearview to see if her tone was too loud for my Chelsea whose thighs folded over the straps at the meeting points of the car seat harness. Her mouth had fallen open, eyes closed she’d been swept away into napping bliss. I spied the rise and fall of her tummy underneath her flowery sundress.
We arrived at camp a few minutes late. I cringed because I knew my son despised being the last kid left anywhere.
“I’m good. I’ve gotta go,” I interrupted my mom who was listing time frames when she could come to New Jersey during the week. She ran her own business and was my grandmother’s caretaker. I didn’t want to burden her.
Watching the other moms walk with their kids swinging racquets on the way to their cars, I got out and locked the doors by remote. I rushed down the path to the camp. I was met with a woosh of ice cold air when I opened the door to the club house. My five-year-old son caught sight of me and ran toward my outstretched arms grabbing his belongings on the way. As I went in for the hug my mind replayed like in a movie when the twist becomes clear. I realized what I’d done. I dropped the racquet and my son’s things. I abandoned him and ran.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I screamed. I waded through what felt like quicksand and I headed back to the car. How much time had passed? A minute? Maybe a few seconds more? Oh my God, how could I have left my little girl the back seat?
“Chelsea,” I yelled, my face bloated with tears. I flung open the door and unlocked the five-point harness, panting. She wasn’t moving. I shook her, assuming the worst. Had I suffocated my own child?
But then she opened her eyes and stared at me bewildered, a bit miffed for waking her so rudely.
I tore my baby from the car seat and ran back into the camp with her, shaky and lightheaded.
“I need water. I forgot her in the car,” I told a mom I knew, crying. Another mother rubbed my back to console me. The looks amongst the adults ranged from complete empathy to utter disgust. A 17 year-old counselor consoled me, “it was just a minute. Its okay.” Could she comprehend the implications of what I’d just done?
Someone brought my daughter a drink. My son looked on confused. Chelsea sipped the water as she sat on my lap, oblivious that I had just become a horrible mother.
I was embarrassed but I stayed for a few minutes, trying to regain my composure. I convinced everyone I was in good shape to drive home but I was unable to trust myself.
We entered the house and I turned on “Peppa Pig” for them to watch. I called my husband in Europe. He understood, and calmed me down.
Next I called my internist and retold the story. She was sympathetic too.
“How could I have done this?” I asked.
“This happens to parents more often than you can imagine. They don’t always remember quickly like you did.”
I kept crying.
“You’re exhausted, mentally stretched and still hormonal,” she answered.
“I’m not in my right mind,” I argued. I couldn’t accept that I made a mistake this severe. I convinced her to send me for testing to determine if I had some sort of cognitive dysfunction.
I heard a news feature about a man two months later who was being tried for murder because he “forgot” his child in a hot car and she died. I secretly sympathized with his defense because I believed how it might happen. Two of my relatives mentioned the story in disbelief. They couldn’t conceive of ever making a mistake so grave with their own children. I was afraid to tell them my story.
My tests came back negative for any mental impairments. From that day on, I drove with my purse by my toddler’s feet. I do this so I can’t leave the car without something I’m used to always holding. I check the back seat double and even triple times without a child in tow. I’ve finally forgiven myself and I thank God that I had the presence of mind to remember my child was in the car before it was too late. I’ve slowed down and stopped trying to be all things to all people. I swallow my pride and ask for a favor when I need it and If I’m late for camp pickup then so be it.
Holly is a freelance writer and novelist. She teaches drama to pre-school children and she is also raising three of her own dramatic children, a husband, and a dog. www.hollyrizzuto.com