This summer my six-year-old daughter stepped on a baby. She must have thought the pink patterned blanket was a stray towel in the grass because she ran right through the circle of chatting mothers, stepped on the baby and didn't even know it. An anxious silence followed and then the baby wailed. In a wave of disappointment I muttered her name and watched the gravity of that baby's wail seep into her heart and spread across her face, the same round fair face that cried through Cinderella, and whenever her little sister is sick, and when she learned the truth about hot dogs, who fosters the fragilest of hearts branded by an empathy unyieldingly pure and pliable.
When she saw the circle of shocked faces and realized what she had done she sobbed and fled full speed through the shaded pavilion, beneath the trees and into the neighbor's yard and as she neared the street I yelled her name with a fierceness that stopped her in her tracks.
The running haunts me; for it is not the first time she has fled from feelings seemingly to heavy to bear. Sometimes at night all I can see are her pigtails swaying as she grows smaller in the distance, her sobs echoing behind her. It wakens the aching vulnerability embedded with her first breath in a small hospital room at summer's end; it has followed me through every fever and every nightmare, hovered above me for seven hours on her first day of kindergarten and taunts me while I sleep. And though there are a million times I've felt helpless and frightened and paralyzed, this was the first time I felt torn between my daughter's fragility and the well being of another child. I felt my daughter's guilt like it was my own. And if that child were seriously hurt or worse... how could I console her? How could we face the family who lost a child because of mine? And how could I possibly ease the throbbing guilt that pushes my daughter to run?
After I yelled her name she shuffled back tear-stained and trembling. Explanations escaped in muddled sentences and I held her close for coming back. I told her I knew her heart, that I'd known it for six years and even before and let's go check on the baby. She found the baby in her mother's arms, having just nursed, and the tears returned as she wept an apology. The baby's mother looked her straight in the eyes and said, “I know it was an accident, I'm not mad at you, it's ok, I know, I know.” What I knew of grace and heroism was sitting in the shade of an oak tree, holding her baby and caring for mine, giving her permission to breathe; a goodness radiant and medicinal for all in its wake. Afterward my daughter carefully placed one hand at the baby's feet and one on her head and she kissed the baby's cheek. She stepped away red-faced and puffy, a heaviness giving way, lightness accumulating, a baby cradled by her mother, a sprinkler sparkling in the grass, a bowl full of watermelon waiting at the picnic table.