Something awful happened at the tail end of our California vacation last June. A near-miss so traumatizing that it’s taken me six months to write about it. As the year is winding down, I’m looking back on all the fun stuff we did as a family, and this one memory is like a sharp little pain in the corner of my mind. It’s my hope that sharing it now will help me move forward and let go of some of the guilt.
Last June, my family took a road trip vacation from Colorado to California. This is a trip we’ve made many times, and we were nearing the end of it. After ten days on the road, staying with relatives in Los Angeles, checking out beaches and theme parks and shopping centers, and even spending a couple of nights in Vegas, we were excited to be just hours from home. Of course, I documented practically every minute of our trip on my phone, putting pictures up all over Facebook and Instagram, checking in at every possible venue, and even using a custom hashtag so I’d be able to easily round up my pictures later. I’ve been a blogger forever and ever, and like many moms I know, I am super plugged-in to social media. I love being able to document our lives instantly, and I love connecting with my friends and their children, and seeing exactly what they are up to. This annoying habit of being constantly on my phone nearly caused a tragedy for us.
When we travel, my inlaws almost always travel with us in their vehicle, and this trip was no different. We had two kids with us and they had two kids with them, right behind us. On the last full day of our trip, we were heading through the deserts of Utah in what was the strongest wind I’ve ever driven through. As we made our way down the highway, we watched motorcyclists hunched over, leaning into the wind miserably. At one point, my little antenna topper, a pink cupcake, flew right off of my antenna and disappeared instantly into the clouds of dust!
Our plan was to get to Grand Junction, which is near the Colorado/Utah border, and spend one last night visiting family. I was texting my nephew to coordinate a time to meet at the hotel when my husband nudged me. “We are almost at the state line. Do you want to pull over for a picture?” This is always one of the last pictures I take of our vacation. As much as we love our Cali trips, we are always so excited to get back home, so I love getting a picture of my kids under the Welcome to Colorful Colorado sign. Of course I wanted a picture! I texted my mother-in-law that we were going to pull off for a picture, and our two vehicles rolled to a dusty stop off the shoulder of I-70.
The next few moments are blurry for me. I was getting my camera ready when I heard voices screaming. First my father-in-law and mother-in-law screaming Pablo’s name. Paul and I jumped out of the van in time to see our son running right out into the highway. The stuffed animal he’d carried through our entire trip had been ripped right from his hands by the ferocious wind, and was soaring across the lanes like a tumbleweed. Pablo was chasing it. Paul’s booming voice commanded him to stop. He stopped. Thank God. In an instant, Paul was at his side, scooping him up and stepping to safety. In another split second, two semis flew past us, one blaring its horn. I have no doubt those drivers were just as scared as we were. It all happened in seconds, but like those weird traumatic events, it felt like we were all in slow motion.
As soon as Pablo was in Paul’s arms and the semis blew past, Pablo realized the danger he was in and began to cry. Paul handed him off to me and headed across the highway himself to retrieve the stuffed animal. I’m sure at this point, some of you are thinking, why would he risk his own safety for a stupid toy? The answer is…it’s complicated. Pablo, like most kids with autism, attaches to objects to where it’s a true relationship. He was heading after his toy the way we were heading after him. Losing it, for him, would’ve been like losing a pet animal. The loss and grief he would have experienced would have been devastating, and naturally, we will do whatever we can to mitigate whatever trama we can for our children. Also, Paul is a construction engineer who works on the highway every single day, so it wasn’t even a thing for him.
The funny thing is, this all happened so quickly, the girls didn’t even realize what had gone on. They were happily chatting away inside my van, and when they popped out ready to take the picture, they were all like, “Why is everyone crying? What is going on?” Blissfully unaware of the tragedy we barely avoided. I did end up snapping one picture of them. Pablo and I are not in it, and Paul is holding on tight to the girls. And as we piled back into our vehicles and made our way to Grand Junction, I cried and cried. My nephew met us at the hotel and the kids all swam while we tried to settle our frazzled nerves with a cocktail. When we made the relatively short trip back to Denver the next day, I was happier than ever to get back home! For weeks, I tried to get photos together of our family vacation, but I only felt sadness. My kids and I had a fun-filled summer, but I still battled anxiety and dread every time we left the house. It took months for me to start feeling okay about letting my kids out of my sight.
I still snap pictures of my kids and the things we do, and I still find myself fairly connected to social media. Online connections will always have a place in my life – when I go through horrible parenting moments like this, I can reach out to the people I know and care about, and get showered with love and support. I have backed off a little bit, though, and tried to just be present and enjoy the moment in real life and not through a viewfinder. As much as we love going through our vacation pictures, it’s just as much fun to talk and reminisce about how many times we went on the rollercoaster at the Santa Monica Pier or how funny it was when Pablo pushed Papa into the pool. I don’t always need photographic evidence that we’re living happy and fulfilled lives. I am so thankful that we didn’t have to go through an actual tragedy for me to figure out that balance.