When Children Bear Witness

This week I hit a deer.

One moment I was participating in the morning commute, driving with the flow of traffic, headed towards the onramp on a long flat stretch of road. Both of my kids were in the back seat. NPR was on. The next moment I was moving into something, I was braking, colliding; I was hollering Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! It took a moment for the rest of my brain to catch up, for it to name the thing that was happening. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-one years. I have seen deer run down my street like neighborhood dogs on the loose. I’ve seen deer eating grass on the hillside next to the freeway. I’ve seen deer run across the highway make it to the other side. And just as often I’ve seen evidence of the deer who hadn’t made it, the stains on the asphalt, the road-kill. I’ve told myself that this was a thing I never wanted to be: a person who hit a deer. And now that’s what I was doing. I was hitting a deer.

Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! I kept saying, until Smoke’s cry interrupted my panic. I came to, and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult and in control. The deer had landed in the middle of the road. All of the traffic had stopped. From what I could see in the rearview mirror Stump looked stunned and Smoke had tears streaming down his face. “I wish this could just be a dream,” he said. I turned on my blinker and pulled into the breakdown lane. I turned off NPR. I didn’t know what to do about a deer in the road, but I knew that it was my job to see this thing through. “I’m so sorry,” I told my kids. “I’m so, so sorry,” I was saying it to the deer too, and also to the world.

In the seconds it took me to pull off the road, the deer had vanished, had somehow made it to the other side of the road and disappeared into the forest. Traffic began to move again. I stepped out of the car to assess my vehicle: a tear in the bumper, a small dent in the hood. A man with blonde dreadlocks in a pickup truck looked at me and then shrugged. I made a series of pointless phone calls. The Humane Society didn’t answer their phone. Animal Services told me they would help an injured deer in the road, but they would not go looking for one that had fled. My insurance company, after taking my statement, reminded me that I’m only insured for liability.

I haven’t known how to talk to Smoke about what he saw that day. I don’t want to push him to relive those moments if he’s already moved on. But on Wednesday, the day after the collision, I overheard him speculating to a friend about animal heaven and when I asked him why he was talking about that he answered very plainly, “the deer.”

As for me, I’ve walked around haunted, thinking about the empty space in the road where I’d seen the deer fall. How could she have made it to the other side? It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally realized that Smoke had probably witnessed what I had missed. “Honey,” I began, “did you actually see the deer get up that day?”

“Yes,” he said, and he went on to calmly describe what he had seen. What I wanted to know was had the animal managed to fully stand, and Smoke’s answer was yes, but she had fallen several times before she figured it out.

For the rest of the day I thought about what Smoke saw, that he had witnessed alone something tragic and grim, an animal so hurt she couldn’t find balance. I hadn’t seen it; he had. My own eyes couldn’t mitigate the pain for him.

This morning when I woke up, I saw that my niece had posted about a shooting in Florida. I didn’t want that to be true, and so I pretended it wasn’t happening. Two hours later at a friend’s house, this friend checked her phone and made a comment about 50 people dead. I didn’t want to think about what 50 meant.

By lunchtime I decided I would need to take a moment and find out what had happened. I told myself to wait until I had settled Stump down for a nap so that I could be quiet, but instead I just sat down at my computer and googled the search term “news”. I was mostly numb as I read about the mass shootings that had happened in Orlando at two in the morning, and then suddenly, involuntarily, my body absorbed some fraction of the truth of fifty people killed, and my face contorted and froze. That was the moment that Smoke wandered in. “What?” he asked me. For the second time in a week, I struggled to gather myself enough to make words. I told him that in another state fifty people had been killed with a gun. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel, and so I asked him, “Would you mind holding my hand for a sec?”

He gave me his hand. It was smaller than mine—but not much smaller than mine—and a little damp, and every time I loosened my grip he tightened his own until the seconds turned into minutes and he asked me “What state does Uncle Will live in?”

“Massachusetts,” I answered and quickly added: “That’s not where the shooting happened.”

When I started writing this post about the deer it was Friday and I had no idea that I would wind up here. One minute I’m driving, the next minute I’m colliding. One minute it’s Sunday morning, the next minute I’m sobbing at my desk. And just behind me, sitting in the backseat or glancing over my shoulder, I have this seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to. And I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what to say.

stairs

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10 comments

  1. Oh, I’m so sorry. I just am. Sometimes I feel like we’re all that deer, wondering why these damn cars just keep coming, stumbling off into the woods.
    (Yours is a beautiful description of a very sad weekend. Thank you.)

  2. A beautiful, mournful piece. You’ve capture the sadness, shock, outrage that we’ve felt after the news yesterday. Where did that beautiful photo of your son come from? His wonderful innocence shines through.

  3. This is lovely. I hit a deer a while back–actually, a deer jumped onto the roof of my car with two children in the back, then scampered off, unscathed, while we panted and froze. Bizarre and unsettling. And last night I saw a limping deer on my street. Seems like kismet to read this today when the news of Orlando has us all limping a bit and unsure how to talk about it as parents. I’ve felt totally powerless and unsure what to do other than remind my son, who fetishizes guns because he’s six, about their scary awful power.

  4. Oh Jenn, I’m so sorry deer collision happened, but I’m glad you and the boys are okay. Smoke worried about uncle Will; a heartbreaking testament to both of them. I don’t even know what to say about Orlando. I’m sad and furious because it was completely preventable. Other countries have figured out that more military grade guns in more civilian hands mean more dead. Duh. I’m sick of the death grip the NRA has on all of us because our congressional politicians are morally weak.

  5. The line about “a seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to”… so true. My son is 6 and I know just what you mean. He tries to play at being fierce and he really likes bad guys, but on voting day he placed his “kid vote” for Bernie Sanders and was so innocent and earnest when he asked me, “Is he a good guy?” Thanks for the deep thoughts and the great writing.

  6. To a parent this might seem like a heartbreaking experience, but I’ve seen a lot I shouldn’t have as a child and it formed my life to the better and still does.

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