**I wrote this post two years ago after the discovery of the body of Jessica Ridgeway, a local 10-year-old girl who was abducted by a teenage neighbor on her way to school and murdered. I am not sharing details of the case—this is simply my reflection of that terrible day in October, 2012. 

I will never forget the day I learned that Jessica Ridgeway had been killed. As the mother of two young girls in a nearby suburb and an early childhood music teacher in Westminster, Colorado, where Jessica had gone missing on October 5th, I had been holding my breath along with the rest of our community. A body had been discovered in an open space park five days after her disappearance, but it had not yet been identified as of Friday, October 12th.

I taught my usual music classes for infants and toddlers that morning. After my second class, filled with energetic one-year-olds, I went out to the hallway for a break before my two-year-old class filed in. As I filled my water bottle I saw a parent from my last class running down the hall holding her 14-month-old daughter, who was bleeding profusely from her head. I rushed to meet her and learned that she had hit her head on a door after class. It’s strange how easy it is for me to stay calm in a crisis—as long as it doesn’t involve my own children. “Heads bleed a lot,” I said evenly as I guided mother and daughter into the bathroom. Wetting some towels, I applied pressure to the rather alarming wound on the little girl’s forehead; her mother held her as she sobbed. I stood there for several minutes, hand pressed to her head and singing softly into her ear as she screamed and blood trickled down her face.

We managed to eventually stop the bleeding, though it was obvious the child would need stitches. After gauze was applied, they disembarked for the ER and I returned to my classroom, five minutes late for my final group of the morning and flushed with adrenaline. I was shaking as I sat down and began to sing hello to my eager group of two and three-year-olds, and it was several minutes later that I noticed the blood on my hands. The adrenaline crash was brutal, and left me longing for a nap.

It appeared that a nap was not in the cards for me today, as my 12-month-old fell asleep on the ten minute ride home. Of course she would not transfer to her crib, and screamed on and off for an hour as I attempted to rock her, nurse her, pat her, and eventually leave her in her room in the hopes that she would fall back asleep. In the end I wound up holding her in my bed for an hour-and-a-half, with her latched on in sleepy relief, fingers splayed against my chest. I was too worked up to sleep myself, and I fought the irritation and sense of defeat that accompanies a “naptime failure” with the mantra, “At least I wasn’t in the hospital today with a baby who needed stitches.” I felt fortunate.

Later in the day we picked up my first grader after school; as we waited I chatted with another mother and grandmother about the still missing child, a subject that was, along with stranger and even non-stranger safety, on the minds of many Colorado parents during the past week. Once our after-school routine was complete, I settled my oldest in front of the TV and my youngest in her high chair and logged on to Facebook, which had sadly become my go-to news source most days.

The first post in my news feed made me gasp. “Jessica Ridgeway was killed. The body found in the park has been positively identified as Jessica Ridgeway.” I numbly tuned into the live press conference, tears spilling down my face. When I heard my husband’s car pull in, I met him outside. He was dragging the trash cans in, as a storm had materialized seemingly out of nowhere. “Did you hear?” I asked by way of greeting. He nodded and we hugged, holding tightly to each other while I quietly sobbed a combination of sorrow, outrage, and gratitude.

We stood outside with our children minutes later, watching the storm that felt very much out of place in an otherwise calm, clear day. It felt as though the Earth herself was issuing a protest, an expression of grief and anger at the death of this child. Hard drops of rain poured from a wrathful dark sky, the elements’ voice to an unspeakable injustice. In stark contrast, across the street our neighbors’ ash tree gently shed its golden leaves. They fell like rain, eerily illumined by errant rays of sunlight, a beautiful, tranquil shower amidst the storm. Perhaps in that moment I was a citizen, a mother, looking to find meaning in the face of a senseless tragedy, but it felt like a sign of peace and comfort bestowed on a grieving community from a soul who had moved on. The juxtaposition of the Earth’s anger and despair with the quiet message of love and peace—the sudden storm and the softly falling leaves—rendered me speechless.

My husband and I had procured a sitter that evening for the first time since our second daughter’s birth. The mood was somber in our car as we drove to a nearby restaurant. Coldplay sang of Paradise and I found myself crying freely, finally away from the scrutiny of our children. As we stepped out of the car, I gazed in astonishment at the evening sky. The horizon was spotted with trees, their golden leaves shimmering against the backdrop of a piercing slate sky. It was a surreal manifestation of dark and bright.

Even more striking was the rainbow in the distance, my husband noting it was directly over the park where Jessica’s body had been found. I am a spiritual person, but not really the type to search for the Virgin Mary’s profile in my tomato soup; my husband is even less so. Sometimes, however, there are reminders of our interconnectedness, the infinite nature of our energy,that we cannot ignore.

Photo credit: Cheryl Preheim

We gratefully returned home to our children. Hours earlier, I had felt so thankful to have been safe at home with my one-year-old child, instead of holding her in the emergency room, waiting to receive stitches. Suddenly the morning’s crisis, though unnerving, was even more firmly in perspective for me.

As I lay awake in the dark, nursing my daughter at 4 a.m., a practice that had felt so daunting at times now seemed like the easy part. In the scope of our children’s lives, does it really get any easier than protecting and nurturing a baby or toddler during night wakings? So much in our lives, and in our children’s lives, seems up to chance. We can do our best to keep them safe and healthy, but sometimes it isn’t enough. A sense of helplessness flooded back intermittently all night as I tossed and turned; what more can we do than teach our children how to be safe? It seemed we could never be safe enough … or grateful enough.

Here are some great links to articles and posts on teaching our children safety: there are some really fresh ideas here. Please feel free to post your own tips or links  below, or on Mommy, for real’s Facebook page.

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