Romper

The Day Of The Cincinnati Gorilla Accident, I Almost Lost My Own Kid

Not all stories have happy endings. Not all tragedies have villains. In all honesty, most of them don’t, even when we want them to. We look at a story like the 4-year-old boy who climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and we want to say that would never happen to me. So we look at all the ways it could have been prevented. We look for someone to soak up all the blame. But using hatred as a salve for a death won’t undo the past and won’t prevent the unforeseeable tragedies that will happen in the future.

As that boy climbed over the low fence and then fell 10 to 12 feet into harm’s way, my own son, nearly the same age, swam past me at a family pool party. I was there. I was watching him. Everyone was watching him. There were aunts and uncles and grandparents all around. My husband and I were in the pool with him. There were cousins swimming nearby. He was in the shallow end, where he could touch. Until suddenly he wasn’t.

I know how it feels to be the person who thinks it can't happen to them. My kid would never climb over the fence like that. My kid would never drown in the pool right next to me. I am a better parent than that. Only now, I also know how it feels to be the person who knows it can.
Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

I turned to give my infant a kiss as he floated around with his dad in his inflatable pool boat, and I turned back to see my older son face down in the water. He wasn’t flailing. He wasn’t moving. He was drowning. I scooped him out of the water, and he took a minute to start coughing out all the water. How long had it been? A few seconds? It couldn’t have been more than that, but suddenly I wasn’t sure. How many more seconds would it have taken for tragedy to set in, cold and irreversible? It happens just that fast.

It’s terrifying to think of all the things that could happen the moment you let your guard down, even for a second. None of us are beyond the reach of a bad parenting moment, no matter how good we are. No matter how loudly we protest that we are different, better than that mother at the zoo.

You turn around in the grocery store and your heart skips a beat. You were grabbing a bag of apples and suddenly your toddler is no longer at your side. They’ve stepped behind you, just out of your sight, but for a moment the fear of tragedy seizes you. They’re gone. You’ve lost them.
John Sommers II/Getty Images News/Getty Images
CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 2: Flowers lay around a bronze statue of a gorilla and her baby outside the Cincinnati Zoo's Gorilla World exhibit days after a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat and officials were forced to kill Harambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland silverback gorilla June 2, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The exhibit is still closed as Zoo official work to up grade safety features of the exhibit. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)

“I’d never let my kid out of my sight like that,” says the childless observer — or occasionally, the pious mother. We all want to pretend we’re demigods, beyond the reach of mistakes this tragic. I did, too. I never thought I'd be the mom coated in fear, staring wide-eyed at my son as he coughed up water. He was inches away from me. I know how it feels to be the person who thinks it can't happen to them. My kid would never climb over the fence like that. My kid would never drown in the pool right next to me. I am a better parent than that. Only now, I also know how it feels to be the person who knows it can.

We’re all better than the tragedy that comes to claim someone else’s child, right? Except we’re not. These things happen to every mother. You turn around in the grocery store and your heart skips a beat. You were grabbing a bag of apples and suddenly your toddler is no longer at your side. They’ve stepped behind you, just out of your sight, but for a moment the fear of tragedy seizes you. They’re gone. You’ve lost them. Your face turns pale, panic flows through your veins, and you call their name a little too loudly — then jump at the sound of their voice near your heels. The uncomfortable truth makes itself known: It could happen to anyone.

Ask any mother their scariest parenting moment, and the answer is always the same: "One day, I almost lost them."
Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

It happens in the blink of an eye. One moment your child is next to you and the next they are not. Tragedy comes for you or it doesn’t, but you don’t get to decide. We rail against it as best we can, but every mother knows in their heart there’s not a damn thing they can do to stop it. Ask any mother their scariest parenting moment, and the answer is always the same: "One day, I almost lost them." Playing the blame game over what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo isn't worth it. None of us will win. Not the zoo, not the little boy, not his parents. Not Harambe.

In hindsight it’s clear all the things that could have prevented the Cincinnati Zoo story from unfolding the way it did, but that doesn’t mean the mother is to blame. It could have been me. It could have been you. Tragedies are not prevented by exceptional parenthood. You either get luck or a cruel twist of fate. Your kid scales the fence into the neighbor’s yard instead of the gorilla enclosure. They’re playing hide-and-seek instead of being abducted. The car stops just in time as they run into the street. Or it doesn’t. The reality that it could be you is terrifying. But it's true.