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When things suddenly go slow-motion…

Posted by on December 22, 2013

Our 2001 trip to Venezuela was memorable for a lot of reasons besides the opportunity to see Karen’s girlhood stomping grounds. We also had the chance to tour all over the country. We played on the beaches off Chichiriviche, visited family friends in Caracas, and headed up into the mountains around Merida. The stay in Merida holds some particularly vivid memories.

We stayed in a hostel located on one of the busiest streets in town. We didn’t really know what to expect from a hostel in terms of accommodations, but were surprised to get two very nice hotel-like rooms. We were traveling with Karen’s brother and sister-in-law, and when we went to check out the rooms we discovered that our room had a bathroom, but theirs did not. That seemed odd, since the layout of the rooms was so similar, but it was a hostel after all and one never really knows what one will get. There was some back and forth about swapping rooms, or checking the front desk to see what could be done, but we had already been informed that these were the only two rooms available.

We finally decided that the situation was what it was, determined to work out some short of sharing arrangement, and retired to our rooms to rest up from our journey. Moments after Phil and Laura closed the door to their room they came bursting back out with the news that they had a bathroom after all. The door to it was just hidden behind the open door to their room! Now we could all relax!

Because we had arrived in Merida by bus, we were on our own for transportation around town. That meant we walked a lot. The traffic in Merida seemed to be heavy all the time, but our boys were 13, 10, and 6, so we didn’t really have to watch them too closely.

At least we didn’t think so.

After doing some souvenir shopping we had to cross a particularly busy bridge in order to get back to the hostel. There were two lanes going each direction, and the traffic was going very fast. It was a bit unnerving because the sidewalk was narrow and we felt like the cars were whizzing by right next to us. There didn’t seem to be any end to them. We cautioned the boys a number of times, mainly because we were nervous ourselves, but while they acknowledged us they clearly weren’t as concerned as we were. They just continued to chatter away, looking at the sights, pointing out things of interest, and generally having a good time. Even Philip, our youngest, seemed blissfully unconcerned as he strolled along, twirling the bag with his new t-shirt around and around.

Perhaps they were right. We weren’t exactly what you’d call “over-protective” parents, but it did seem that we were allowing our fears to take away from our enjoyment of a once-in-a-lifetime trip. So we tried to relax a bit, and it worked…until the bag slipped out of Philip’s hand and flew into the street.

And everything suddenly went into slow motion.

Before it even registered what was happening, the bag landed in the nearest lane and Philip jumped from the sidewalk to retrieve it. It was like every parental nightmare we’d ever had, all wrapped into one, except it was really happening. Our motions and words seemed trapped in molasses, while our minds were running at double speed, imagining the inevitable, wondering what one does for emergency medical care in Venezuela, preparing words for the calls to family back home. It was horrible.

But somehow, miraculously, there were no cars.

I leapt out into the lane and grabbed Philip, and pulled him back up onto the sidewalk. Within seconds the gap in the traffic closed and the cars resumed their steady flow beside us. No more gaps appeared while we were on the bridge.

We all huddled around Philip, alternating between hugging him and hollering at him. Moments like that generate a LOT of emotion and it takes a moment for the relief to settle in and overcome the panic. We had to remind ourselves to breathe again. For his part, Philip couldn’t really understand what all the excitement was about. He was just happy to have his t-shirt back.

It turns out that Philip isn’t the first Burke to sidestep death while focusing on something that seemed way more important.

When my dad was about ten years old, his family lived in Oxford, Mississippi. He writes…

I don’t recall what season of the year it was, but I think it was spring. As in most families, I had a list of chores that were to be carried out at specific times and done thoroughly! One of my weekly chores was taking the garbage can from the back yard up to the street before 8 o’clock in the morning. Then, when I came home from school/fishing/or hunting in the late afternoon, it was my chore to return the empty garbage can to its designated place around behind the house.

One garbage day, when I had completed that chore and several others, I asked mother if it would be OK to go fishing in Webster’s Pond with a few of my neighborhood buddies. She said yes, with the proviso that I return home before 5:00 PM, thirty minutes before Dad usually returned home. The fishing was good that day and I came home at about 4:30 with some medium catfish and a couple of crappie. After cleaning the fish, I took them in to mother and she asked me to go out to our garden in the back of the house and pick some veggies. On my way back to the kitchen I noticed that I had neglected to retrieve the garbage can and the lid from the front yard. I decided that there was enough time before dad got home to build the left wing of the Comet Airplane Model that I had been working on. While I was gluing the small pieces of balsa wood together, I suddenly remembered the garbage can. It was about 5:15, so I rushed downstairs, out the front door, and up to the street to the garbage can.

When I righted the garbage can and picked up the lid, much to my surprise I found a whole bunch of good-sized worms that would be great for fishing! I quickly returned the garbage can to its proper place, leaving the lid over the worms. As I headed back toward the street to get the worms, dad drove into the driveway. He went into the house, said Hi to mom then came back out the kitchen door. By this time, I had gathered a double handful of the worms, and when I saw dad I ran over to show him. I was very excited to have found such great fishing worms without having to do any digging at all! About three feet from dad, I opened my hands as wide as possible to show him just how resourceful I was.

The next thing I knew, dad took one step toward me and slapped the sides of my hands! Then he grabbed me by the forearms, and slapped the backs of my hands, really hard! At that moment I was convinced that I would never write with a pencil, hold a bat in my hands, or go fishing…it felt like every tiny little bone in both hands had been reduced to mush! Dad took what seemed like forever to inspect my hands, and when he finished he invited me to sit down on the bench under the arbor that arched over our back porch while he went inside. He returned a moment later with two cold RC Colas.

It was then that I received my first lecture on the difference between a handful of nice, long, juicy fishing worms and a clutch of newly-hatched copperhead snakes.

Life is filled with potential danger. We’d like to believe that we can shield our kids from most of it and prepare them for the rest, but the truth is that much of it is beyond our control.

So, we do our best and try not to hold on too tight.

And hope that whatever heart stopping moments they encounter will just become fun family stories.

originally published 3/5/12| next post Little League

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