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The terror of having to let our kids out of our sight

No man could have missed her. Dressed, if you want to call it that, in a hot little “nurse” costume — snug white dress covering not a bit of her long legs, pert little cap pinned atop blonde head, high-heeled white boots — she caught my eye from a block away.

“Somebody’s got her Halloween costume on,” I started saying to my wife with the least-interested tone I could muster. But something was wrong. The girl was teetering in a way that went beyond the impracticality of her boots. She barely made it across Main Street to the northwest corner of Main and Blossom, where a temporary tunnel guides pedestrians past high-rise construction.

As she disappeared into the tunnel, my wife said, “Pull over.” My first chance to do so was beyond the construction, almost to Assembly. My wife hopped out and headed back, in full Mom-to-the-rescue mode.

She found the girl with her dress hiked up to her waist, panties fully exposed, looking for a place to relieve herself.

“No!” my wife ordered, reaching out her hand. “Honey, you just can’t do this. You cannot walk down the street staggering in a little nurse uniform in Columbia, South Carolina. I’m going to take you home.”

The girl obediently dropped her skirt, took my wife’s hand and cried, “Oh, thank you, thank you for helping me!”

Seconds later, I glanced in the rearview mirror to see my wife marching that statuesque woman-child by the hand toward the car as though she were a preschooler who had wandered away from the group. I reached back to clear space for her on the back seat. She got in, my wife got in, and I pulled back into the traffic on Blossom, moving toward the river.

I asked the “nurse” whether she had been headed to one of the nearby sorority houses. No, she slurred, her dorm was beyond the Greek Village. I pondered that in confusion. My wife got her to tell us the name of her dorm — which was three or four blocks back, at the heart of the campus, 180 degrees from the direction in which she had been staggering. I did a U-turn at my first opportunity.

“I’m so sorry,” she kept saying, alternating between that and “Thank you, thank you so much!” She was extremely grateful. She had been one lost little girl, and she knew it. She was a freshman, just weeks away from home.

“All my friends are older, though,” she offered as an explanation of her condition. She said something vague about guys making assumptions, which seemed to be her way of accounting for being alone.

My wife, determined to have the girl learn something from this experience, pointed out that young girls have disappeared from the streets of Columbia. “Oh, I know! I’m so sorry,” she repeated, adding plaintively:

“I’m trying to be a responsible freshman!” She was so earnest that we didn’t laugh, not until later, after we had deposited her back at her dorm and could feel like maybe, for tonight at least, the child was safe.

But it was only a feeling. She wasn’t safe, in the way a parent would define it. Just before we let her out, she was on her cell phone trying to tell a friend how to come to her dorm — the place she couldn’t find herself. Despite having just been so lost and frightened, despite being so grateful for her deliverance, somewhere in her besotted mind floated the idea that the night was young.

Once they leave home, we never can tell ourselves that they are safe, can we?

That same night, six of the “nurse’s” fellow USC students, and another from Clemson, would die in a beach house fire in North Carolina.

That may seem a wrenching transition, from seriocomic little episode that ended well (we hope) to a tragedy that has consumed our community for a week and touched hearts across the nation, but to a father, the two things have an awful lot in common. They both evoke the constant, gnawing fear that comes when your children are no longer in your sight, no longer under your protection.

That “nurse” was exactly the age of the youngest of my five children, who is off on her own and far away. Just over a month ago, our daughter’s boyfriend — her only close friend in the entire state of Pennsylvania — was killed in a car wreck. He was a passenger in a car with three other boys. It was broad daylight, and they were moving safely and legally down a quiet, Shandon-like residential street when another car ran a stop sign and hit them broadside. David was thrown from the vehicle.

When the third of my five kids was 3 or 4 years old, he had a maddening habit of slipping away on little adventures. But after mere moments of sheer terror, we’d find him and scoop him into our arms, and the universe would resume its proper shape.

It’s so easy when they’re little. It’s when they get tall, when they take on a deceptive semblance of being men and women — like the “woman” I thought I saw in the nurse costume — that it gets really tough. It’s when they have every excuse to be out of your sight, and everybody tells you that you have to let them go, that the real terror begins.

My mother used to have a quotation cut out and taped to her kitchen cabinet, to the effect that having a child was “forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

That is exactly true, and of course it is impossible to go on living like that. But we do. I don’t know how. God somehow suspends the physical laws governing the universe to make it possible for us to get up, put one foot in front of the other, walk on ice thinner than an eggshell, and keep doing it as though we actually believe what we’re doing is within the realm of possibility.

And most of the time, it works. It worked that night, for two parents somewhere in the Upstate. That little “nurse” was going to be picked up by somebody, because she was never getting home on her own. Why did she take my wife’s hand? Is it because she recognized her as a Mom? I hope so. On behalf of her real parents, out there walking on their own thin ice, I sincerely hope so.

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