It started out a good day. I got my hair done for my upcoming trip back East to my hometown. I pushed through a pile of work, went to the dry cleaner, researched car rentals, picked up dog food, and, walking into the grocery store, thanked the heavens for the fourth time that both my kids were in school so I could hustle through these tasks. Can I fit in an oil change, I wondered, squeezing the season's first nectarines for ripeness. Did they have any peaches yet?
Then people were shot.
Six of them, including a mother of two, in two busy Seattle neighborhoods not far from where I was. This just a week after a Madrona dad was killed in his car by gunfire while on an errand with his young children, and days after another man was shot at the Northwest Folklife Festival and more than 60 rounds were fired into homes in a handful of South Seattle drive-bys.
The brain begins to tally degrees of separation automatically: One gun-wielding suspect shot himself just blocks from friends’ West Seattle home; another colleague was barricaded in her own house and a friend’s daughter locked in her school; an appointment that would have taken me right near the scene of one shooting was unexpectedly canceled; we used to drive through that intersection all the time.
Holding my phone, alerted to the news of these newest shootings, I stood frozen in the produce aisle. My earlier preoccupations seemed suddenly, mundanely, insignificant.
Anxiety, a familiar old foe, rose up again in my chest. Was anyone I knew involved? The gunman was still on the loose, where was he? Would my kids' schools be locked down? Were they safe? WERE THEY SAFE?
Panic rose like a fast-flooding river, threatening to drown the calm I’ve worked to keep since becoming a parent.
“Don’t let the world make you scared. The world is a safe place,” my husband wisely texted me, a reminder I repeated over and over.
But then how to explain this anxiety, the vice grip of it? I probably don’t have to; I am sure many parents have felt it, too. Have they felt it like I have? I sometimes wonder. Has it tried to topple them?
Our first visit together, anxiety and me, came the night after my first daughter was born. So small and delicate, she wouldn't calm on her own so I put her on my chest as I lay back in a recliner chair. Tired, so tired, I fell asleep. Sometime later I awoke, my tiny baby thankfully still snuggled softly on my chest, the horrible realization setting in: In my sleep, I had left her alone. I could never be there for her at all times. No matter what I did, I would always fail in that.
Once you realize how much you love, you grasp how great your loss could be.
Anxiety ebbed and flowed, waiting for an in. For months I’d think nothing of it, caught up only in the joy and tasks of parenthood and life.
Then out of nowhere I’d imagine one of my children, even my spouse, being hit by a falling tree branch or tumbling out a window. I’d lay awake for hours worried about house fires, bullies and slippery roads. Laughing about it helped — renaming it: Overprotectiveness. Helicoptering. Love.
I thought seriously, once, about talking to someone about my mother's anxiety. Maybe I could therapy my way out of it? But something told me that, like stretch marks, this torment is part of the parent’s journey.
I’ve grown past it, a little, as my children grow older. As baby-soft dimples morph into bony, bike-riding knees, my countenance has toughened, too.
Until something truly terrifying happens, something beyond all of our control. Something that no amount of careful parenting or depth of motherly love can prevent.
I can douse them with hand sanitizer; chaperone all field trips at my daughter's preschool so I don't have to send her off in a stranger's car; hold their hands crossing streets and teach them to swim.
But I can do absolutely nothing about a bullet. Or a drunken driver, or an act of nature or violence. Or ... or ... or ...
The unfairness of it alone could kill me, that I can’t protect my loved ones from everything. I dream sometimes that we’ll go hide in a cave, a safe place where nothing bad ever happens.
But you can’t live life in a cave. Besides, children like sunlight — especially mine.
We can only go on, and hope for the best.
Because the world is a safe place. And a scary one.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle mother of two girls and a former Seattle Times journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines around the West. In between school drop-offs and coffee binges she writes essays and blogs at pugetsoundmom.com. She drives a sad minivan she has nicknamed “The Dumpster” that makes her feel like she is bitterly betraying her ten-years-ago self, and she cannot properly load the dishwasher. She loves her gardening/bicycle-commuting husband but thinks they need to go on more dates (she swears she’s going to find a babysitter this year). Her life is made complete by seven chickens, two hysterically barking dogs, a frail cat, and an obsession with cold sheets and scalding baths.