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Time and chance haunt us all

Something unusual happened at the News-Times a couple weeks ago. We decided not to run a letter to the editor. It was a short, reasonable letter from a Tigard man who’d been following our coverage of the two young Forest Grove sisters who were killed in a leaf pile.

He wanted to know why the parents didn’t restrict their daughters to a fenced yard. “An inquiring public remains confused without more details. It was a preventable tragedy,” wrote Robert Cavalier.

This is a version of a question that has been quietly circulating — on Facebook and in hushed conversations around town — ever since the accident Oct. 20, 2013, when Abigail Robinson, 11, and Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, 6, died after being struck by Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros when she drove her car through the leaf pile where they were apparently hiding.

A number of people have suggested the parents should shoulder some of the blame. Cavalier’s reference to a fenced yard was a new twist. Most people have questioned why Tom Robinson left his daughters in the street by themselves for roughly five minutes.

As a newspaper, the News-Times tries to reflect all our readers’ views, as long as they aren’t libelous. But it seemed too painful to raise this issue without some additional context.

My personal opinion is that Tom Robinson was not negligent when he stepped inside to put his camera away after photographing his two daughters playing in a giant pile of leaves across from their home on Main Street.

In Oregon, parents can legally leave their children home alone at the age of 10. Babysitting classes are open to children as young as 11 or 12. And Abigail Robinson was not just 11 — she was a mature 11. It was perfectly reasonable for her father to leave her with 6-year-old Anna for a few minutes after he had instructed them to put away their rakes and follow him inside.

When should you let your children go into a public bathroom alone, wander off in a store by themselves, see an R-rated movie?

There are so many difficult calls to make and parents’ answers will differ based on their own upbringings, the personality and maturity level of their child, the character of their neighborhood and many other factors. Most of us approach these milestone questions with fear and trembling, not to mention prayer and fingers crossed for luck.

It’s easy to blame parental irresponsibility in cases where parents are too drunk or high or busy with sex partners to notice their toddler wandering out the door into the street. Most cases are much grayer when you learn all the details.

I think our obsession with blame is somehow tied to our fear of chaos. We want to trust that if we do all the right things, our lives will go more or less according to plan.

I had a friend who always clung to the details in news reports about tragic accidents. If a child was killed in a car crash, she wanted to know whether the child was wearing a seatbelt or the parent was speeding. She wanted to comfort herself with the knowledge that she’d never make those mistakes. Her child would be safe.

My sister should have been safe. She always wore her seatbelt and set her cruise control at 55. But when she was 26, she was killed in a freak accident on the Pennsylvania turnpike. A piece of heavy metal — a broken leaf spring from a truck — somehow got kicked up by a car and flew through the windshield into her head. She died instantly.

I was 24 at the time and haunted by “if-onlys.” Tacey’s credit card bill, for example, showed she had stopped for gas shortly before the accident. If only she had dropped her keys as she was getting back into her car or struggled with an unwieldy seatbelt. If only she’d hugged her friends five seconds longer when she bid them farewell that morning after spending the night at their Indiana home. With just another five seconds, that leaf spring might have hit a different spot on the car — or missed it altogether.

On the anniversaries of Tacey’s death, I’d wake up with the whole day stretching before me and imagine, minute by passing minute, the thousands of opportunities she’d had to make a tiny difference in her movements — and change everything.

My father, who died last year at age 90, harbored his own if-only, even though he was hundreds of miles away from the accident.

His neighbor recently told me he’d talked about Tacey’s death with tears streaming down his face, saying “I should have driven her out there.”

It would have been irrational for my father to take three or four days off work to drive his grown daughter to her new nurse-midwife position in Philadelphia — not to mention she’d have forbidden it.

Still, 30 years later, the if-only haunted him.

The leaf-pile tragedy is full of if-onlys. If only Cinthya Garcia’s fast-food order had taken longer to put together, or she’d had to stop at an extra red light on the way home, or gotten stuck behind a slow-moving car.

I’ve been unable to get ahold of Tom Robinson to ask him about this issue. But I imagine he’s been struggling with his own if-onlys, regardless of whether his actions that night were perfectly reasonable and responsible.

If only he hadn’t left early to put away his camera. If only he had come back out a minute later to make sure the girls were following his instructions. If only he had insisted on walking them back inside.

If we understood the huge role chance plays in our lives — for better and worse — I think we would be slower to blame and faster to feel grateful.

After all, through no efforts of our own, I and my children were born with good genes and grew up in safe, middle-class American towns instead of in a Darfurian refugee camp where we’d have been raped or killed if we strayed too far looking for firewood.

Chance has worked in my favor other times, such as on the curvy mountain road I took a little too fast at one point, crossing over the center line. By chance, the oncoming traffic lane was empty.

Shall we take responsibility and learn from our mistakes? Absolutely.

But let’s not deny that so many heartbreaking if-onlys are simply acts of chance — as random as the gentle zig and zag of withered leaves drifting to the ground.

Jill Rehkopf Smith is associate editor of the News-Times.




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