Parents discover that very special place in the heart

Dan Rodricks

July 24, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

"When you've seen your six-year-old son fighting for his life, you realize that some things matter more than winning."

-- Sen. Albert Gore Jr., accepting the vice-presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention

And you could almost hear the echo: Some things matter more than your career. More than your home. More than all the #F material things. More than even your own life.

As Gore recounted the time, three years ago, when his son, Albert, was hit by a car crossing the street after an Oriole game at Memorial Stadium, millions of Americans must have whispered agreement and a prayer of thanks that it never happened to them -- that they never came so close to losing a child. It was a whisper only parents could utter, only parents could hear.

"And now, thank God, he has fully recovered and he runs and plays and torments his older sisters like any little boy," Gore said of his son.

There was, then, a happy ending. But, as Gore told a national television audience, the experience deeply affected him. The accident pulled him off the fast-track. It changed his mind about running for the White House for a while.

"When you've seen your reflection in the empty stare of a boy waiting for a second breath of life," he said, "you realize that we weren't put here on earth to look out for our needs alone; we're part of something much larger than ourselves."

Was that a politician exploiting personal tragedy to score emotional points with voters? There are people who think so. I might have agreed had I heard the same speech two years ago, before I myself became a father.

But I thought Gore was genuine. I thought he gave himself away as a terribly ordinary human being by acknowledging that his son's trauma further defined him as a man and his wife as a woman.

That Gore would seek to cull a lesson from such a painful experience made him even more human. We all do that. We all look for flickers of light in the darkness. I've heard dozens of parents emerge from their nightmares with a vow that something good would come of a child's death, or that the experience had given them a new outlook on life.

Senator Gore was able to do this because he enjoys a perspective that the passage of time and the survival of his little boy grant him. He is a lucky man to yet be able to look upon his son.

Imagine being Linda and Tim Hulett today. Imagine losing a 6-year-old son, suddenly on a summer day.

I used to think I could appreciate the pain of parents who lost children. The anguished faces of the parents of Peter Moskos, the Marine lance corporal from my hometown who died in Vietnam, are forever etched in my memory. I can still hear the graveside scream of a despondent man, crying out that his son should not have died before him. And I think of all the parents I have encountered over 20 years in newspapers -- those who lost children to guns and car wrecks and cancer and suicide and fires. And, of course, I believed that I understood, that I could sympathize and empathize.

It changed when I myself became a father.

It changes when women become mothers, when men become fathers. Suddenly, every story -- the most recent one is the Hulett tragedy -- strikes at some deep place in the heart you did not even know existed.

I have been wanting to tell about this for two years but held off, thinking it was too personal, too self-centered, too first-person 00 singular. I found out that it's not. I found out that the bond between parent and child is strong beyond measure, utterly sacred and universally understood. And that the great fear of losing a child -- or having one injured -- is shared by anyone who ever changed a diaper or read a Dr. Seuss tale or felt the soft arms of a little boy or girl around the neck. It is understood through the quiet language of parenthood, the whisper every mother and father can hear, the prayer that says: God, don't let it happen to me.

I used to think I understood "every parent's nightmare," but it was really a superficial understanding. Only after I became a father did I really connect -- in a place in the heart I did not know existed -- with men and women who lost their kids and who sat at kitchen tables and wept and told me their stories.

I am being a terribly ordinary person today, struggling for something profound to say about the death of Sam Hulett, age 6, son of Linda and Tim, a utility infielder for the Orioles and a player who seems to be developing a beautiful friendship with the baseball fans of Baltimore. I guess I want the Huletts to know that their pain is shared -- by all parents who have been through what they are going through, and all of us who, by becoming parents, discovered that place in the heart we did not know existed.

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