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"Do you think what you did is OK?"
What do I say? If I say "no," does it mean I acted maliciously? If I say "yes," does it mean I'm incapable of knowing when I've made a bad decision? If I admit my judgment is fallible, do they take the kids away right here and now?
As I begin this writing, my good name is two days away from the last hurdle it must clear before I can breathe again: a nurse who works with child services is going to come to my house to "see" my kids. She's more or less the last person in a long series who will be paid to pass judgment on me in an official capacity — one who, I hope, will declare me "fit," allowing me to put the humiliating spectacle of being investigated for child neglect behind me.
One day last November, I went to pick up my older son from school, as I do at 2:30 p.m. nearly every weekday. My toddler was with me, as he usually is. He'd been up all night with a stomach bug, and I'd been up with him. I was thoroughly tired when it came time to put him into the car, though he was already feeling better. Holding down some solids, even.
I arrived at the school and met my four-year-old at the front gate. He looked sort of green as he limply hugged my legs with the arm that wasn't toting his Avengers lunch bag. I asked him how school was and he didn't answer.
Then, as we started toward the car, he began to vomit, all over the parking lot. Everyone — parents, grandparents, teachers, other kids — freaked out. Barf flew, arms flailed. People ran around trying to do something useful and mostly failing. It's all pretty blurry, actually, except the physical memory of his skinny little body in my arms, doubled over and heaving.
When the retching stopped, I rushed the poor kid to the nearest restroom to get him out of his barfy clothes. I left his (mostly clean) undershirt on, but he hates short sleeves, so I gave him the ratty old sweater I'd been wearing to soothe him. Meanwhile, one of the women who works at the school stood near my car, keeping my toddler, still strapped into his car seat, company as a custodian dumped sawdust on the multiple pools of vomit that had come flying out of my kid.
After a hasty cleanup, I got my whiny, sad, sick little boy into his car seat. I was worried he was going to vomit again. I was frazzled and exhausted and spattered with puke. But I needed to pick up some supplies from the supermarket, and seeing as how I didn't expect my husband home until late at night, I didn't think I'd find a better time to get them.
Chicken broth, Jell-O, saltines, Gatorade, children's ibuprofin, and acetaminophin for the fever after the nausea passed.
I'd originally planned to take the boys with me after school, but the preschooler was in sorry shape, and I wasn't sure it'd be a good idea to move him. Then, he fell asleep in the five minutes it took to drive to the store. I tried, futilely, to wake him.
So what do I do?
The temperature outside is in the 60s, and I estimate that I can be in and out of the store in about 10 minutes. I open the sunroof and crack all the windows. I turn the car off, get out, lock the kids in, and speed walk up to the doors that whoosh open for me automatically. I gather the stuff I need and get in line behind an old woman who seems to be trying to haggle down the price of something based on an outdated store mailer. Why do I always get in line behind this lady? I check my watch a million times.
It takes me about 15 minutes, all told, to get back to the car.
By this time, police officers have descended. Looking in at my kids, tapping on the windows, talking to each other. Talking to a man who turns and gives me a distinctly filthy look as I run up with my bags, shouting, "Hey! That's my car!"
They ask me what happened. They ask me to explain myself, to break down the events that led up to this moment. I answer their questions and they tell me I am "making excuses."
"My wife was a stay-at-home-mom, and she always asked for help in situations like this. Don't you have someone to call?"
"You didn't have a blanket you could use to put on him in the cart? You know you should always have a blanket in the car with kids."
"Don't you have neighbors you can call? Don't you know any of your neighbors?"
I try to explain that everyone is at work. My mom, my dad, my sisters, my husband, my cousins, my brother-in-law. Everyone works during the day. I tell them we just moved in that spring, and we don't know any neighbors well enough to trust them to watch our kids. I tell them that I am tired, that I have been up all night, that there's still vomit drying on my clothes, that look — for Chrissakes — I am here for the stuff I need to take care of my sick kids. I start opening shopping bags to show them.
"Ma'am. Stop making excuses."
Police cruisers continue to roll up to the scene. There are at least four now. They already know the story they want. They have to make sure the plot points fit.
One officer tells me it is 85 degrees inside the car. It's not. They tell me the guy who called them said he'd been standing there with my kids for half an hour. Not possible.
"Your kids are terrified," they assert as my toddler beams at me with his huge, beautiful smile and as his ailing big brother falls back asleep in my ratty old sweater.
"Mommy!" the toddler tells them, pointing at me, proudly.
The guy who called the cops on me is lingering, trying to get in on the action.
"Is there anything else I can do?" he asks the police, looking back and forth between me and my children. I resist the urge to tell him what he can do.
I know what they want me to do, but I can't do it in front of my kids. I can't look into the knowing faces and tell them I have been wrong, even though I know it will go easier on me if I just say the words that will reassure the panel of white, male authority arranged before me that I understand it is their right and their place to judge.
"Do you think what you did is okay?"
Despite knowing better, I give the answer I always give when I'm unwilling to admit defeat:
"I guess not."
Predictably, this is not good enough.
"You guess not?"
They write me up. I glare at them, at the ground. I clench my fists and my jaw. It's all I have.
I don't break down crying until I am home and the boys are resting on the couch, watching cartoons.
The next day, a social worker came to my house. She was Latina, like me. Small and brown. She talked to me as though I were an intelligent human being, and it was easy to admit to her that I made a mistake. I can see that she knew that it was probably ridiculous that she had to be there.
Nearly three months later, I'm almost through the gauntlet. The social worker told me this should all be behind me within a couple of weeks, allowing for processing time.
I am terrified that despite this creeping dread, if I'm ever in a position like this again, I won't be able to say, "Yes, I fucked up. Please forgive me. I am so sorry. You're right."
And I'm terrified that I will.