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The week from Hell -- every parent's worst nightmare

Original post made by Gordon Lewin, Menlo Park, on May 4, 2007

The message was waiting when I walked in the door. It was not about my son. It was from my son. It was about his best friend from childhood. It was not at Virginia Tech. It was at MIT.
There was no violence, no evil. A boating accident. A well-prepared former Eagle Scout had been found strapped to what remained of his inflatable and a tied-up bailing bucket. Precautions -- but not sufficient for the unusually cold water this spring.
I once lived in Boston. Calm waters can quickly become treacherous. Massachusetts was, after all, the real life setting for "The Perfect Storm."
Who am I to judge someone else’s judgment? We all make miscalculations. Most of the time we are lucky. We slam on the brakes and then take a deep breath.
I think back to last summer, at a remote beach in Hawaii, where I got caught in an undertow. The surf had changed during a 30-minute swim. A stranger spotted me and helped me out. I sat on the beach, out of breath and a bit battered. My ego shattered. There had been a surf warning, but it was calm when I went in. Bad judgment at age 54.
Trying to make sense of a tragedy does not lead to a good night's sleep. The next day, the phone rings. The parents are flying home. A relative asks if we could prepare a dinner, and be there for them if an empty house is too much to bear.
We rush to the grocery store for ingredients. My wife cooks up a homemade chicken soup. It was the same dish prepared for us a decade early by the boy's mother after we were in a car accident.
At the boy's home, there are hugs and tears and other friends. Yes, please stay. And so we do, setting the table for dinner for a couple who had been planning to attend a college graduation but instead brought home a son’s personal belongings.
The family seeks privacy. No press calls, please. Yet they are grateful to the Boston media for its alerts and to the Coast Guard and the local police for their efforts.
The father describes what it was like having to identify a son at a funeral home. I listen. I feel pain running up my neck to my head. I hold it in. I nod, trying not to make things worse. I finally understand emotionally the Chinese saying that "tragedy is not when a child buries a parent, but when a parent buries a child."
We head home. My wife reminds me of a memento in our garage. It was a joint project the boys had completed in fifth grade. They had argued over who would keep it. I suggested they toss a coin and take turns. They ask for how long? I quip, the winner will give it to the loser at his wedding. They laugh. My son wins. Now, there will no wedding.
Three weeks ago, we visited our son in Washington, D.C. We drove to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. We walked around the historic village, listening to guides describe life at the time of the American Revolution. In some ways, it was so simple -- no computers, no cars, no phones.
There was also no medicine, as we know it. Mothers routinely died in childbirth. Most families would have lost a least one child to illness. These losses were a more expected part of what life provides.
Across the street from Colonial Williamsburg, we walked around the tranquil campus of the College of William and Mary, which has been educating students for hundreds of years. This college, along with every college in America, is reviewing procedures and plans to try and prevent another Virginia Tech from happening.
No wonder so many parents are anxious today about all sorts of things. Our expectations about what life can bring are so high, perhaps unrealistically high. At the same time, we see events -- terrible events, random events -- leaving us with so little feeling of control.
Loving parents worry about their children. Yet we all know that too much worry is not a good thing. So we figure that somehow, if we worry just the right amount, do the right thing, develop the right plans, prep for getting into the right college, that somehow our children will grow up and live happily ever after.
We know our parents always wanted the best for us, as we do for our children. But we also know our lives have been mixed with joy and loss. If we look to our former high school classmates, we know there are stories of lives sorting out differently, at times tragically. Somehow, we think it will be different for our children. And perhaps, to retain sanity, we must live with the illusion that it can never happen to us. So at a subconscious level we fret about the little things because we have no control over the things that really count.
While walking around Williamsburg, my son reminisced about his childhood. I asked him what we had done right raising him. As a teenager, he had certainly let us know what we had done wrong
After some silence, he commented, "You were always there for me."
Maybe that's all we can ever do.

<I>The above commentary was published May 2 in the Palo Alto Weekly.</I>


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