As parents, the dread never fades. We push it away. We tuck it way back in a mental closet under boxes of memories, stacks of photos, albums of hand-made cards and savored school projects, but it still simmers on the edge of our consciousness day-in, day-out.
What would we do if the knock was at our door?
In recent weeks, families in our community have found out. It happened against last weekend when Parker Bragg senselessly, needlessly died in a high-speed, single-car wreck in Huntersville. Like too many others before them, his parents learned what it’s like to have your heart, your soul and your world yanked away in an instant.
The death of a child, no matter the circumstances, is unimaginably horrific. But it is the thought of life after the tragedy that wakes us up sweating, that forces us to peek in on sleeping angels and give thanks — despite the acid guilt — that we are not the ones besieged with the intolerable.
In the newspaper business, if you’re in it long enough, the nightmare will find you. Circumstances and commitment to your job eventually put you in position to meet face-to-face with a devastated parent who, while you search for information, simply tries to remember to breathe. While you probe for a few personal facts, they stare down the hall at their child’s empty-forever room just wanting, waiting and wishing for one more hug.
You go home and, without a word, demand the hug they’ll never get.
In a small town, it’s even tougher. You know, or you know someone who knows, the family involved. I sat with a man — a wiry, rugged man with builder’s hands and sun-leathered skin who, more than likely, had held me when I was a baby — and watched him shrivel like a dry leaf with just one glance at his son’s Marine Corps photograph. That death had occurred in Beirut, but location and logistics don’t matter. A child is gone and the emptiness is eternal.
It happens too often, from wrecks, disease, silly accidents and insane violence. Callous observers will tell you disasters and societal shortfalls claim lives daily and that one child’s death carries no more weight than another. They are turned around. The death of thousands in no way diminishes the death of one.
The blame – the salve we seek to help us comprehend the inconceivable – often falls back on us. In our efforts to build a fortress against fate keeping the messenger from our door and the phone from ringing, we convince ourselves and our children of their invincibility. I have yet to meet a parent, 18 or 80, who anticipated or accepted the death of a child. I have yet to meet, despite their faithful, truly passionate belief, a pastor or priest fully able to convince a bereaved parent God’s will should not to be questioned.
A parent who has lost a child is hollow. When the vast supply of tears is spent, the reservoir doesn’t replenish. The glow in their eyes fades and their bodies seem to twist down into a shell around the grief. It is a pain that never completely goes away and, sadly, one we all recognize and pray each day we’ll never know.
Parents should never bury their children. As parents, our best hope is that our children appreciate that simple sentiment and realize the power they hold and use it wisely. They keep our mental closet full of only happiness. They control our destiny. They determine our future.
As we held them as babies, they now hold our hearts in their hands.