As the mother of an 11-year old boy, the news of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child abuse and the questionable diligence Joe Paterno exercised in reporting the incident hit close to home.
Needing an outlet for my feelings, I posted the following on my Facebook page immediately after I heard the news:
I don't care about winning streaks, national titles, or hollow sound bites. That members of the Penn State administration barely raised their hands when faced with eye-witness actions of a pedophile who was one of their own shows that those individuals have no heart. That Joe Paterno didn't act to better protect and defend an innocent child who was raped in his “house” proves that he has no soul.”
I was mad.
But now that time has passed and I’ve reflected on the matter, I feel something much more complex.
In that moment, my sentiment was genuine, fueled by real indignation coming straight from the heart. Any parent knows that the passion nourished by this organ is three-dimensional, and beats more ferociously than anything else.
But in pointing my finger at Joe Paterno, I could have just as easily been looking in the mirror at myself.
About two years ago, I was at the grocery store rushing to pick something up that my daughter, Grace, needed the next day at school. It was late, and I was both preoccupied and annoyed. Like most moms, I was running behind a never-ending to-do list that seemed to square itself and multiply whenever I wasn’t looking. Snow swirled outside, it was an unusually frigid Colorado night, and a humid chill was biting, snapping, and pushing people indoors. All I wanted to do was get what I needed, check out, and go home.
Turning down the frozen food aisle, I came upon a young boy, about my son’s age, and an old man. The man was huge, well over six feet tall, unshaven, wearing dirty old jeans, suspenders, and an untucked, long-sleeved shirt.
The boy? Small. Cowering. A little disheveled as he gazed up at the old man while simultaneously trying to avert his eyes.
He reached for a frozen pizza, and the old man smacked it out of his hand, mocked his sagging posture, and demanded, “What do you think I am, an ATM?”
The boy looked down at his feet and didn’t say a word.
In that moment, I knew something was wrong.
I slowed down and watched them, easing up close and trying to make myself known. The old man realized I was there, looked at me, made eye contact, and didn’t smile. I didn’t smile back.
And then he grabbed the boy by the shoulder, threw me a backwards glare, and dragged him toward the door.
I felt a mixture of emotions then…anger, confusion, pain, sadness…but the one that overwhelmed me at the time and now makes me feel ashamed?
That old man scared me, and in a split second I used fear to assess and rationalize what I was about to not do…my husband, Scot, was out of town, the kids were home alone, and the storm outside was getting worse. The old man was probably the little boy’s grandfather, unemployed, and having a bad day.
Except my gut told me that wasn’t the case.
While I tried to convince myself I was overreacting so I could get on with my life, my conscience argued the other side. Strenuously.
But I didn’t listen.
In an instant, I made a decision that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I turned my head. I closed my eyes. I walked away.
That little boy needed help, and I didn’t extend my hand.
For the last two years, my dreams have been filled with that child’s face. He’s calling out to me, screaming my name, and I’m searching frantically, straining to see through the dark and place the location of his voice so that I can pull him toward me and wrap him in my arms.
But I’m never able to find him, and when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I see him hovering two inches above me, eyes wide and afraid. And then he’s gone.
After the Sandusky allegations came to light, the dreams got worse, and the little boy’s face became fused with my son’s: at a football camp, trapped in a bathroom, confused and alone, running down a grocery aisle from someone who’s supposed to be a hero but is instead inflicting cruel and unimaginable pain.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I wrote the Facebook post about Joe Paterno, I was also writing about myself.
I’d give anything to have that moment in the grocery store back, to actually listen to my sixth sense instead of brushing it aside. To have made a different choice.
But it’s gone.
Mothers make mistakes. Famous coaches make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, we often have no idea in the moment how big those mistakes can become.
Everything matters. The little voice inside your head that won’t shut up? Listen to it. The guy sitting on your shoulder who you’d just as soon leave? Hear him out.
Joe Paterno’s problem wasn’t rooted in the actual commitment of a crime. His mistake was ignoring the voice that must have plagued him in his dreams, or two inches above his face when he couldn’t sleep at night.
Left alone, the voice of indecision becomes that of regret, and it doesn’t go away.
I will forever be haunted by that innocent child in the grocery store, wondering where he is, and at the same time, who I failed to be. I think, in the twilight of his life, that Joe Paterno must have been haunted too. What at first seemed like a glancing blow likely turned into a fatal wound.
Doctors can try to treat cancer, but they can’t diagnose a broken heart.
If you would like to give a voice to an innocent child, please go to www.casaforchildren.org.