Children, we are told, come to us from Heaven. What we aren't told is that they spend half their time trying to get back.
Consider my daughter, now 7. She came bounding up the driveway one day a few years ago wearing a plastic fire chief's hat. Firefighters had visited her school that day to lecture the kids on fire safety, and she was bubbling over with the things she had learned.Two days later, she got the notion to use the fireplace. She gathered paper and lit it on the bricks of the hearth; my wife walked into the room just as she was pouring a glass of water on a column of flame almost as tall as she was.
Or consider my oldest boy, who was 5 on the day that the lights in the house began flickering and the air filled with a great, wet sizzle. He was found sitting atop a wet bathroom counter holding the smoldering remains of a metal hairpin that he'd just removed from an electric socket. Only the part that he was holding remained intact; and only the fact that it was plastic spared him from injury.
Pardon the cliche, but it seems that God takes care of children and fools.
"Do you know what could've happened to you if that fire got out of control?" I asked my daughter after the flames were extinguished.
"I could die," she said, with proper solemnity and regret. But I wasn't fooled. I knew she said it only because it was what Dad wanted to hear. "I could die" holds no meaning for children. It's a distant concept, something bad that happens to people once they've lived about a million years.
And so I fear. I fear because I have learned that it's possible to do everything right and still brush up against disaster. Possible to lock up the poisons, preach the sermons, hide the lighters, and still come face-to-face with tragedy. It is a sobering thought, a sleep-interrupting concern.
"I could die," she said. I just shook my head, looking down into those precious, innocent eyes that didn't realize how true that is.
I'm thinking of the time that that same little one - just days after she had the training wheels taken off her bike, mere hours after promising she'd ride only in the cul-de-sac, where it's safe - wheeled out into the street in front of an oncoming minivan.
I'm thinking of how my heart paused in its drumming as I watched the vehicle round the corner, how it started up again only after the driver stopped with a practiced ease that told me she'd been watching my little girl, expecting her to do what she did. The driver, I knew in an instinctive flash, was a mother.
I'm thinking of how my daughter cried when she was scolded - for the loss of bicycle privileges, not her close call.
So is it any wonder that I hold Him to that children-and-fools stuff - especially since children are too often fools?
Okay, not fools. Just young. Just giddy with illusions of invulnerability, immortality, eternity.
When you first meet them, they're lying there, yowling like kittens, and your heart leaves your chest and goes to reside with them and you promise that as long as you live, nothing will ever be allowed to hurt them.
But protecting them isn't always as easy as buying a quality car seat. Indeed, protecting a child becomes progressively less simple from the day she first rolls over on her own.
So you do what you can. In my case, that's meant becoming a safety fiend. A purchaser of smoke alarms and childproof latches. A giver of lectures and hander-down of restrictions. For all the good it does.
This is all I know to do: Make the lectures, issue the restrictions, employ the safeguards and push ahead with fingers crossed. As a parent, you make deals with whatever higher power you subscribe to, or just cloak yourself in all-purpose, all-too-human denial: Tragedy won't visit this door. It always visits elsewhere. Bad things happen to other people. My kids know better.
Somewhere inside I know the truth, of course. Know that those "other people" once sought solace in all the same assumptions, before life brought them up brutally short. But I refuse to accept this. How can I?
One time my oldest son, then 3, saw a cup of liquid sitting on the apartment-building stairs. He picked it up and drank the contents. It was bleach that a neighbor had momentarily left on the stairs while she went back to get a load of laundry. My son had to be rushed to the emergency room, where they pumped his stomach, saving his life.
How easily it could have been otherwise.
In the end, you can only hold them close for as long as they will allow it, which isn't long at all. Soon they struggle free, eager to test their legs, prove their endurance, assert their freedom. A dad's job is to watch them go; watch them venture beyond the reach of sheltering arms; watch them at play, unfettered by care and unimpeded by worry.
Watch them, and loft a silent prayer that God is watching, too.