It was one of those gray, soggy January days. Ice and fog wrapped the world in a cold mist and I had been trapped at home nursing sick children for over two weeks. So I piled the kids into the van - as though crowding together into an even smaller space might somehow help – and pulled away from the curb with no clear destination.
A plan started to emerge as I drove and we headed out of town and onto back roads toward a large greenhouse that also boasts a store and kid-friendly restaurant. There would be a large, warm room full of plants, a fish pond, bunnies and a train and the promise of hot dogs for lunch. I figured what we all needed was a glimpse of green and flowers and a taste of spring, a glimmer of hope to get us through yet another winter day.
We drove on wet roads over rolling hills beside the wide and resting fields of winter. I told the kids we were going on a surprise, a secret trip and things started to feel a little more hopeful.
I came down a hill to a large, familiar intersection with a traffic light that turned red just as we approached. I braked, stopping and looking in both directions, before putting on my blinker and swiftly turning to the right. We were almost there, close enough that I could already feel the hope of spring and warmth and relief that I hoped the green-house held.
I noticed the “no turn on red” sign just as I was turning and heard the honk of the car behind me. No one was coming, though, and the kids were shouting and pointing to farm equipment in the fields, so I thought, “ooops,” and kept driving.
Looking in my rear-view mirror I noticed that the car that honked had turned right too and was following close behind me, aggressively close and as I slowed to round another corner I worried I would be rear-ended. The car stopped just short of my bumper, then turned, following me, and I started to grow concerned.
Fifty feet or so more and I turned again into the greenhouse’s parking lot and my suspicions were confirmed as the car followed and parked too, somewhere behind me. I sat waiting for a minute, fearing a confrontation. I had all four kids in the van and the last thing I wanted was to expose them to a shouting match, or worse.
Just when I thought I was safe, a woman appeared in my window and I automatically opened it. She stood there, leaning forward, aggressively – an older woman with short, messy gray hair. Her face was in mine as I looked up from the automatic window button and she threw her words at me like one might throw a drink at a party, “Don’t you follow traffic signs?”
The question was all accusation and meant to catch me up short, but I was already caught up short, which is why we’d left the house in such a hurry and I simply didn’t have anything to hurl back at her.
My face was filled with sadness and exhaustion as I replied, “It was a mistake.”
“That’s why I honked my horn,” she spat back at me.
I looked at her and said again in a pleading tone, “It was a mistake.”
“We lost two children in that intersection,” she said. Then, quickly, she spun around and sped back to her car, her long black sweater sweeping behind her.
Winter filled my heart and fog rolled in.
I recognized immediately that her raging anger was a stiff mask that hid great pain, something I doubt I would’ve noticed if I hadn’t also been in pain. I also guessed that she was probably lonely and afraid, as I was, and frightened too, perhaps, by the depth of her rage.
The kids asked what was going on and I brushed the interaction aside, but something had been stolen in the moment. I thought, as I unloaded the double stroller and snapped it into place, that I would’ve liked to invite her to have lunch with us, but she was long gone and not, I suspected, in the mood for company.
Later, I wondered what she saw as that window rolled down, I wondered how she felt as she walked away, and I wondered whether my words, repeated twice in my own exhaustion and humility, were what she needed to hear, “It was a mistake.”