It has been more than 18 years, and the memory of the day still makes me shudder.
Even writing those words makes my heart skip a beat.
Sometimes I look at my nearly-21-year-old son and see him as that 2½ year-old baby, standing in the middle of our busy street in the embrace of a stranger in front of her still-running car, and I can’t catch my breath.
That’s why you won’t find me saying a single word about the mother whose child fell into a gorilla enclosure over the weekend in the Cincinnati Zoo and who has found herself on the receiving end of the worst kind of social media second-guessing and vitriol.
The child slipped away from her and fell into the enclosure. A 400-pound gorilla, not surprisingly, went to the child and started acting like a gorilla, dragging him through water in a moat. Eventually, zoo officials felt they had no choice but to kill the animal to save the baby.
It was a tragedy all the way around. But the child is alive and apparently OK.
It’s understandable that people wonder how the child could have gotten away from the mother. There have been conflicting reports about that. But you don’t have to look hard to find people willing to excoriate her and proudly say they never, ever let their children out of their sight and they can't even fathom this happening.
I’m not one of them.
When I lived in Batavia, the city had a transfer station where residents could bring their yard waste and where it could be collected and used for compost. My very young children used to love to go on that particular errand, none more than that baby boy.
Nathan loved being outside. We couldn’t ever get him to come in the house voluntarily, no matter the weather. He used to stand in our back hall pushing on the inside door and crying “SIDE! SIDE!” because he so desperately wanted to play in the fresh air. Our fenced-in yard with the gated driveway was paradise to him.
On yard waste day one warm summer Saturday, all the kids were inside as I loaded the bags of leaves and grass clippings from the back of the house into the minivan, walking through the gate as I did. The kids came out the front door and piled into their car seats and off we went.
When we came home, I parked in the driveway and led the kids into the house through the front door ahead of me. The three girls were in the living room and I passed them as I walked into the kitchen to see my wife.
“Where’s Nathan?” I said, simultaneously noticing that the inside back door was open. Our eyes widened as we both yelled his name. She went for the back and I went to the front of the house, where out the window, I saw a car parked in the middle of the street and nothing else.
I raced down the front steps and as I got closer I saw a woman crouching in the road with her arms wrapped around my son. All the blood in my body felt like it was in my feet as I dropped to my knees by them.
“He came running down your driveway,” she said. “Thank God I saw him.”
Nathan was unhurt. He was smiling, of course. He was outside. I couldn’t breathe. I hope I said thank you to the woman who was holding him, but I have no idea.
I brought him inside. My wife was standing there with her hands over her mouth. I was shaken to the core. I had left the gate open. It was my fault. More than 18 years later, as I type, my hands still shake at the memory of that day.
There’s a mother in Cincinnati who understands how I feel. A lot of people have suggestions for what to do with her. Some people say they want to punch her.
I’ve got a better suggestion: If you ever see her, hug her.