It was the phone call I was desperately hoping I would never receive. But when my cell phone rang and I saw that it was my son calling me at a time that he never calls, I knew right away something was wrong. His shaky voice confirmed my fear, “Dad, I’ve just been in a very bad accident.”
Instantly, my parental instinct kicked in. “Are you OK? Are you hurt? Is anyone else hurt?” Aware of the adrenalin kick and the acute anxiety I was feeling, I tried to keep my voice calm and soothing for my son who was calling me from the side of the highway of a very busy Route 295. I told him to call the insurance company and promised to be with him as soon as I could get there.
When I arrived at the scene of the accident, even though he was safe and in the company of a New Jersey State Trooper, my heart stopped when I realized how much more serious the accident could have been, how many vehicles he could have hit or been hit by, what the possibility of a different outcome this could have been had it been a fatal incident. For several moments, my heart was shattered with what could have been the death of my oldest child. Instead, I thanked God and my son’s Guardian Angel for working overtime on this day.
For many years, I was a pediatric oncology social worker. It was powerful work and I was blessed to know so many wonderful children and their families. But when a child lay dying, losing a gallant fight against cancer, I found myself questioning God. Are children a blessing and a gift from God? Of course they are! But then don’t our children also belong to us? Aren’t they “ours”?
I have learned that our children belong to us through the grace of God’s gift, but we raise them only to one day let them go. They are ours, but only for a short time.
In my parish when somebody has a birthday, parishioners say, “God bless your mother!” I find the exclusion of the father to be sexist, so I always add, “And your father, too!” My own father was nurturing, loving to me. One of my role models is St. Joseph, who fathered and taught Jesus how to pray, how to lead, how to love. Indeed what better role model do we have for a healthy family than that of the Holy Family?
As parents our role never ends. In this month of April, National Child Abuse Awareness month, we should have a heightened awareness of how we protect our children. We keep our children safe by paying attention to them, by making time to listen to them. No matter how busy our lives are, it is essential to eat meals, especially dinner, together. Laughter and joy bring families together and it is imperative to play together.
Research proves that as many as one in four girls and one in seven boys may experience inappropriate sexual contact by the time they reach the age of 18. At least 85 percent of child sexual abuse comes from relatives and adults known to the children and not from strangers. Parents have to talk with their children about who is allowed and more importantly who is not allowed to touch them. Using precise words is essential. Parents may be uncomfortable using words such as penis and vagina, but using code names or baby names for body parts does a child a disservice. Parents need to make sure children know that when an adult asks them to keep a secret, that this is wrong. At the heart of child sexual abuse is the notion of keeping secrets.
We keep our children safe by paying attention to them, by making time to listen to them. Laughter and joy bring families together and it is imperative to play together. And last, but not least, regular church attendance at Mass as a family and prayer time as a family invite the Lord to be a part of our lives and keeps us in the state of grace.
By the way, my son’s car accident occurred at 4:30 on a very busy Route 295. Dozens and dozens of cars and trucks were traveling with him, most of them perhaps on their way home. His car crossed a few lanes and went off the side of the road and over a fence. And nobody stopped to help him. But that’s another article for another day.
Rod J. Herrera, LCSW, is director, Office of Child and Youth Protection, Diocese of Camden.
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