I had a nightmare last night.
Ryan and I are walking out of a store. I have too many plastic bags in my hands and am trusting/hoping/praying he will listen and stay close to me as we near the parking lot.
Of course, he doesn’t. He jumps down off the curb ahead of me. I drop a bag, reach out to grab the hood of his red sweatshirt, but I’m too late. I call out to him in annoyance, as I’ve done countless times, “Ryan, get back here! You don’t run away from Mommy in a parking lot!”
The annoyance blooms into fear as he ignores me in lieu of running toward the center lane of the lot, which is suddenly full of speeding cars.
I try to scream to him, try to scream to the drivers, try to run as the first car swerves and barely misses him. But as often happens in my dreams, when my body is needed for immediate action, it fails me. My legs move in slow motion, my voice turns raspy and useless.
I read once that this happens in dreams because your brain is protecting your body, preventing you from running across your bedroom, smacking into the closet door.
It’s a cruel trick, though, one that turns me into a mere bystander as a second and then a third car come within inches of hitting Ryan, who is like a squirrel scampering across a busy road.
As soon as the danger passes, my legs and my voice return, and I’m running to him, hugging him, yelling at him about parking lots, yelling how he could have been hit, yelling out of fear and anger and overwhelming, all-consuming relief.
I woke up thinking about William’s mom.
William is one of Ryan’s preschool friends. Both boys stay at school late on Mondays to have lunch in the extended care room, a sacred event for preschoolers and one they look forward to for days in advance.
I picked Ryan up last week after lunch and was buckling him into his car seat when he said, “Oh look! William is hiding from his Mommy!”
I turned and looked through the windshield to see a little blond boy crouched down by the far side of the building, comically peering around the brick corner with the sort of grand motions that only a “hiding” four-year-old can manage.
On the other side of the building, William’s mom was looking from side to side as she rushed through the building’s main door, pushing a stroller ahead of her. He must have dashed away when she turned her attention to the baby for a moment. Now, she was gone in search of her little boy, who was still peering around the side of the building.
Ryan was already buckled in, so I told him to stay put, cracked the windows, shut and locked the doors. I thought about how William’s mom must be beyond panic by this point but how that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to leave my own son alone in a car to go track her down. Instead, I would stay with both kids and wait for her.
I walked toward the boy, calling out his name, asking if his Mommy knows where he is. As he started walking toward me, the woman and the stroller came rushing back out the door. She was out of breath, a wild look in her eyes. She looked like she was living her worst nightmare.
“William is over here,” I called to her.
She barely even glanced at me as she turned to him and yelled, “Get over here now!” As I slinked quietly back to my car, I could hear her yelling at him about not hiding, yelling about not listening, yelling out of fear and anger and overwhelming, all-consuming relief.
It’s a scary age, four years old. They’re getting big and fast and strong and smart. But they’re still 80 percent impulse and only 20 percent control.
Every moment feels like a teaching moment and although you don’t want them to live in fear and you don’t want to lecture them all day long, you are in a rush for them to understand that they can be hit by cars if they dart across parking lots. They can be taken by strangers if they hide from you. They can get hurt and they can get lost.
“That was funny,” Ryan said as I climbed back in the car at preschool. “I’m gonna hide from you tomorrow.”
“Oh no you’re NOT,” I yelled, feeling the vibrations of the other mom’s fear. “Did you see how scared William’s Mommy was? He could have gotten lost. She might have never found him; he might have never seen his Mommy again! Do not EVER do that. We only hide when we’re playing a game.”
The next morning, as we pulled into the preschool parking lot, Ryan quietly mumbled to himself, “I hope William doesn’t hide from his Mommy today. She was so scared.”
I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. One lesson down, only an infinity left to go. I can’t relax for long, though, because we still need to master the parking lot rules.
I wonder if William’s mom has had any success with that one.