Every year during the hottest days of the summer, there is usually at least one tragic story on the news or making the rounds on social media about a child being locked in a hot car. Most people either react with an abundance of sympathy and understanding or an abundance of smugness and judgment. Whenever I read or heard about these tragedies, I had always aligned with the first type of reaction…and I always will now since it happened to me.
Three summers ago, my then-two-year-old daughter and I were on our way home from a weekly playgroup. Normally she fell asleep on the drive, but for whatever reason that day she didn’t, so I decided to stop on a quick errand. I only needed one thing, so we dashed into the store, quickly found the item and proceeded to the register. This particular store had a smorgasbord of impulse buy items right at my daughter’s eye level. In order to distract her, I carelessly handed her my car keys while I paid.
I remember hearing the doors lock and unlock as my daughter played with the key fob on our way through the parking lot, but it didn’t register as I mechanically strapped her in her car seat. Our car has a push button ignition, meaning I didn’t need the keys to start the car. However, I still didn’t want my daughter to have them while I drove, so I grabbed the keys out of her hand, tossed them in the passenger seat, and closed the door.
I walked around to the driver side to open the door…but it was locked. All of the doors were locked, all of the windows were closed, and my precious baby was securely fastened in her car seat. Without air conditioning. In Memphis. In July.
In vain, I pounded on the car windows as my heart raced. Even in that moment of panic, however, I somehow mustered enough calmness and clarity to realize that it was important that my daughter not see my distress. I peeked in her window where she was patiently waiting for me to start the car and drive home like normal. I’m not sure how well she heard or understood, but I told her I had to run back into the store (which I literally did, as fast as I could).
You see, my phone was also in the car.
Breathless, I told the clerk that my child was locked in the car and asked if she could please call someone. She alerted the shopping center security guard, who met me in the parking lot. Fortunately my daughter didn’t seem bothered by the fact she was still in the car, so I smiled and waved at her, telling her she was just fine.
I am eternally grateful to that security guard because, even though neither one of us knew what to do, she stayed with me and my daughter the whole time. Our first thought was to figure out how to unlock the car. My husband had the only other set of keys, and he was working downtown. He rides his bike to work, so having him come was out of the question. The security guard handed me her phone and asked if I wanted to call a locksmith. I stared dumbly at the phone for a minute until I realized that I didn’t know a locksmith, let alone have one’s number memorized. As the minutes ticked by and the temperature rose, we finally came to our senses and called the fire department.
In another example of how this whole situation was being watched by guardian angels, a fire station was located just around the corner. When that fire truck pulled into the parking lot, a wave of relief washed over me. Throughout this ordeal, not only did I have a sense of fear, but also of guilt and embarrassment. However, the wonderful firefighters who came to my daughter’s rescue immediately dissipated all of those feelings with their kind, calm, professional demeanor. Not once was I blamed or judged–thank you, thank you, thank you, dear firefighters. Those cookies I took to the station the following week do not come close to expressing my gratitude.
The firefighters first tried to pick the lock with a more sturdy version of a coat hanger. When that didn’t work, it became apparent that a window would have to be broken. I appreciate that they tried to avoid that outcome…as much as I appreciate their willingness to quickly do it. It was decided to break the driver side window because it was a) the farthest away from my daughter and b) it would be the simplest to fix. This car is my family’s only vehicle, so I would still have to drive it home–much easier to do without a window versus without a windshield.
During this entire time, my daughter remained relatively calm, which still amazes me. The only time she got upset is when her window shade retracted, and she couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t fix it for her. I can only imagine the stress level of everyone involved if she had been frantic or distraught.
Before the window was broken, I tried to explain what was going to happen, but when that glass shattered, my daughter’s eyes grew wide. I unlocked the door and unfastened the car seat as quickly as humanly possible, and gathered my sweaty girl in my arms.
We returned to the air conditioned store where one of the firefighters checked out my daughter. Other than being a little sweaty and red-faced, she was totally fine. At this moment, all of the adrenaline that had kept me calm in this crisis started to ooze away, and I shakily called my husband to tell him what had happened.
My husband and I have this unspoken agreement that we both can’t freak out about the same thing at the same time. If one of us is upset about something, the other immediately becomes the calm voice of reason. I was very thankful for his understanding, which bolstered me enough to keep a brave face for my daughter on the drive home.
While we were inside, the amazing security guard was sweeping up glass and cleaning up my car as best she could. If you’ve every had a broken car window you know that the glass goes everywhere (in fact, I still find the occasional piece years later). I slowly drove home with the flashers on, thinking about the events of the afternoon.
When we safely made it home, I was finally able to process what had happened–what could have happened–and I collapsed into my husband’s arms, sobbing.
I know we were lucky. I don’t even want to think about what could have been, and my heart breaks for all the families who have to face that reality.
As I reflect on this story several years later, I’m still not sure about my reasons for sharing it. Yes, I want to encourage everyone to check and double-check for children left in cars on hot days, but it’s more than that. I also hope that grace can be extended to those parents who have made that–or any–mistake…especially when that parent is us. Underneath my fear, I really did feel embarrassed to have made such a careless mistake, and it was hard to forgive myself.
I know that I will continue to make mistakes on this parenting journey, but I hope I continue to learn from them. For instance, I never, ever let my children play with car keys, and my oldest daughter knows how to get out of her seat and unlock all of the car doors from the inside. Maybe we can all learn from each other’s mess-ups, or maybe just feel a little better to know we’re not the only one making them.