September 2007 – August 2008
Since my daughter’s death in 2008, not a day (or maybe even an hour) has gone by that I haven’t thought of her or her death. The pain of missing Jenna is always there, and it’s taken me a long time to feel like I could write a public account of what happened. My hope in sharing our story is that you will realize the only way to prevent this type of tragic loss is to believe it could also happen to you.
My husband and I had been married for 10 years before we decided to have children. We waited until I was nearly finished with my doctorate so we could focus on parenthood. Before my son was born, I read as many pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting books as I could get my hands on. I saw being a mother as the most important responsibility I had, and even though I worked outside of the home I strived to make my family my top priority. I am a conscientious, organized person in every area of my life. And, because I am a worrier by nature, I took child safety seriously. Mini-blind cords wrapped up high out of reach – check. Baby gates at every doorway – check. Medicines and cleaners locked away – check. Heavy furniture secured to the wall – check. Used a co-sleeper next to my bed so I could check on my babies all night long – check. Breastfed my babies to boost their immune systems – check. If I heard about a safety precaution, I embraced it. I was not a perfect mother by any means, but definitely a devoted, loving mother. When my son was a baby, I made sure I learned every verse to The Wheels on the Bus so I could sing it to him when he got fussy in the car. I researched the safest car seats for days before settling on one with good ratings. I interviewed pediatricians before our son was born because I wanted to feel good about who would be caring for our children. And, I was careful to NEVER leave my kids in the car alone, not even for a minute. I can remember forgetting my cell phone on the kitchen counter once…even though it was pouring down rain I got my kids out of their car seats to take them in from the driveway while I grabbed it.
I knew it was my job as a mom to protect my child from dangerous things in the world. Never in a million years would I have thought I needed to protect my child from me. In fact, when I was still pregnant with Jenna, I walked through my living room as the news covered a story about a mom who unknowingly left her child in her car while she worked and her child died from heatstroke. This mother was portrayed as a horrible person and many expressed very judgmental attitudes towards her. I felt sadness about her situation, but not once did I think this was an issue I should pay attention to. I didn’t even stop to really listen to the story or to think how this might happen. After all, my children were my top priority. I loved them more than anything. I would give my life for them in a heartbeat. Love made me immune from such a horrible tragedy…or so I believed.
In 2007, when my son was two years old, we welcomed Jenna into our family. She was born just a couple of months after starting my new job as a professor of counseling at a small Christian university. We were so happy and satisfied. Jenna was a beautiful, happy baby. She had a tiny bit of dark hair with a fair complexion, which made her big, blue eyes really stand out. Almost every time I was out with her someone would stop to comment about her eyes. I loved, loved being a mom. One of the reasons I wanted a job in academics was because it allowed me the flexibility to be with my kids more and not keep 8-5 hours. In fact, I was able to bring Jenna with me to work often and then walk her down the block to the babysitter’s when it was time for me to teach a class. And, I would often walk over to the babysitter’s between meetings to nurse her or check on her.
The summer before Jenna died, I was fortunate to only have to work two days a week so I could spend a lot of time with both of the kids. We loved playing outside, in the wading pool, and going to the park for picnics. She began to crawl that summer and it was fun to watch her expression while she explored the strange texture of the grass outside. She loved touching flowers and pointing at butterflies. I couldn’t have asked for a better life. I felt full of joy and happiness. Little did I know that those normal, fun times with her would come to an end because I would unknowingly leave her in my car on a hot summer day.
About two weeks before Jenna died, I heard something on the news about the death of a child. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I could never survive the death of one of my children. Life without them seemed unfathomable so I quickly pushed the thought from my mind. I was sure that if I ever had to face something so awful I would not be able to go on living. So, how could a loving mother like myself make such a huge mistake and be responsible for the death of one of her children?
The week that Jenna died was the first week of a new routine for us. All summer long, I had been taking my son and Jenna to the same babysitter. The day she died I needed to drop my son off at his new preschool/daycare (where Jenna was scheduled to start in just a few weeks) and then take Jenna to the babysitter’s house, which was directly across the parking lot from my work.
It was Wednesday, August 20th, 2008, and Jenna was almost 11 months old. Jenna and I took her brother into school and played with him for about 20 minutes. He cried on Monday and Tuesday when we left, but that morning he did great. I can still vividly see Jenna playing with us that morning. We had a very happy, relaxed time together. I got Jenna back in the van and headed toward work and the babysitter’s. I made a very brief call to my husband to share the good news that our son didn’t cry at drop-off and then didn’t use my cell phone the rest of the drive. I didn’t even listen to the radio that day.
I kept my eye on Jenna in the baby safety mirror and sang and talked to her until she fell asleep about five minutes later. My goal had been to get Jenna to the babysitter’s before she fell asleep so she could get her morning nap. She had been getting sleepy early in the evenings. I wanted her to get that morning nap so she would be awake longer with us at home. When I saw in my rearview mirror that she had fallen asleep, I started to think about that morning nap. I came up with a plan for how to get her into the babysitter’s house without waking her up so she could continue her nap. I am a very visual person, and one of the reasons I believe I’m successful in the things I do is because I think things through very thoroughly, paying attention to details. Over the course of a few minutes, I visualized myself carefully and quietly getting Jenna out of the van when we arrived at the sitter’s. I pictured myself undoing the straps of the car seat, gently lifting her out to cradle her in my arms. I saw myself cover her ear so the sound of the babysitter’s door would not wake her and I whispered to the babysitter, who I visualized wearing a black and white floral shirt, “Jenna is asleep. Can I put her in the crib so she can finish her nap?”
Somehow, and I know it is hard to understand, my brain flipped a switch as I continued my drive toward work. As the remaining 15 minutes passed, I went from knowing she was in the backseat to firmly believing she was safely at the babysitter’s. After I thought through dropping her off, I began thinking about what I needed to accomplish at work once I got there. My university’s email had crashed and I lost an important document I needed for a 10am meeting. I started thinking about how I could get another copy of the document and retrieve some of my lost emails.
I’m not an expert in how the brain works, but since Jenna died I’ve learned a little bit about how the brain processes routine behaviors and memories. I’ve learned that the part of your brain that controls routine behaviors (in my case the usual routine was to just make one daycare stop, taking both of my children to the same place) can override the part of the brain that controls newer behaviors (which, in my case, was taking the kids to different places). The change in routine plus the detailed visualization was enough to convince my brain I had done something I really had not done. This processing error allowed me to leave her in the van without realizing I had done so.
It was not unusual for me to approach the parking lot at my work without my children in the car as I often dropped them off at the babysitter’s before heading to off campus meetings and then returning to campus alone later in the day. Instead of going just a half of a block further, I pulled into the parking lot at my work confident that my valued mother responsibilities had been taken care of that morning. I took my bags out of the front seat of my car and walked into my office. It breaks my heart to think that I had a normal, productive day at work not knowing Jenna was in danger. I still wish I could turn back the clock and give my life to save hers.
One of the more painful things I heard strangers say about me once the news carried stories of Jenna’s death was, “How could you not think of your child all day? How could you forget your child?” In my mind I hadn’t forgotten her. I had misremembered. I thought she was dropped off safely. Just 20 minutes after I got to work, I emailed a friend and included a paragraph about Jenna and how big she was getting. I cleaned my office that day and hung up a new picture of Jenna and her big brother on my bulletin board. Because the babysitter would occasionally call me when Jenna wasn’t feeling well from chronic ear infections, I carried my phone with me all day. I even took it to the bathroom with me just in case I would get that rare call that one of my children needed me. I was eager to leave work at the end of the day to go get her and then my son. I thought of both the kids throughout the day. I even talked on the phone a few times during the day with my husband, never thinking that anything was amiss.
Around 4:00, feeling happy and carefree, I walked to my van, got in and started to back out of my parking space. Only then did I see by looking in the rearview mirror and the child safety mirror that Jenna was in the van. I felt horror and panic as I raced around to her door as I called 911. I knew immediately when I saw her that she had already died. I was so confused. I didn’t know who put her there so I looked further into the van to see if someone also put my son in the van. As I tried to understand what happened, I frantically searched my brain for that memory of dropping her off. When I couldn’t recall what the babysitter said to me during drop-off, it only took a moment for me to realize that I had made a horrible mistake. It is impossible to convey the depth of pain I felt. I wanted to die and felt as if I might. I barely had the ability to talk and had to lie on the ground because all of the strength had left my body. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. I felt like my life was over. I couldn’t scream or cry out, but was tormented beyond words on the inside.
My happy, peaceful life had suddenly become a nightmare worse than I could have ever imagined. Even though the media spotlight and public hatred were fierce, nothing I experienced that night or since is more painful than the actual loss of my child. I miss my baby with an intensity that only a grieving parent can understand. I have been able to go on even when I felt I couldn’t bear the pain any longer because of God’s grace, because of the amazing support of my family and friends, and because I know that Jenna is safely in Heaven.
Kidsandcars.org has great safety tips for people who transport young children. Please don’t make the mistake I made. Realize that this can happen to you. The only way to prevent unknowingly leaving a child in a car is to check the back seat EVERY time you exit your vehicle. Look before you lock. Better yet, put something you need regardless of routine changes (like a purse, cell phone, wallet, or briefcase) in the backseat so you are forced to check the backseat for sleeping children. And, have an ironclad agreement with your babysitter that she will call until she reaches you if your child is not dropped off by the agreed upon time. I go a step further and put a brightly colored bracelet on my child’s car seat. When I put my baby in the car seat, I put the bracelet on. I do not take the bracelet off until my baby is safely dropped off at the babysitter’s. I have talked to dozens of families who have lost children to vehicular heatstroke. This happens to good, loving families. The only thing we all have in common is that none of us realized our love wasn’t enough to protect our children from our imperfect brains