A Lifetime of Regret
As Mary Parks tells her story, you wonder if she'll be able to finish. She sits on the same sofa where she used to cuddle with Juan, and talks about the day he died. She rubs her forehead. When she comes to the worst parts, she shuts her gentle green eyes and pauses a long, long time.
But she keeps going. More than anything, Parks wants you to understand how a parent -- even a smart, loving, safety-obsessed parent -- can accidentally leave a child in a hot car until it's too late. And she hopes you'll take some critical steps, so heartbreakingly simple in hindsight, to avoid making this terrible mistake yourself. "To ensure that no other child dies this way, and no one faces this -- that is how I'm loving Juan now," Parks says.
In the two years since Juan's death, Parks has endured a horrific legal ordeal along with a crushing sense of guilt. First, a complaint was filed against her for serious abuse and neglect (standard procedure in such cases, depending on your state). Parks wouldn't be allowed to spend a minute alone with Byron for 15 months. Then, like 60 percent of adults involved in hot-car tragedies, Parks also faced criminal charges. On top of her grief, on top of helping Jeff and Byron through the loss of their son and brother, she spent more than 19 months worrying she might go to prison. "What terrified me was that Byron would lose a mother and Jeff would lose a wife," she says.
Although marriages often fail after the death of a child, Parks says hers grew stronger. Sure, Jeff sometimes withdrew as he mourned ("He's the introvert," Parks says. "I'm the talker and the crier"). Yes, there were days when they didn't feel "totally connected." But with help from their church, their families, and "the bond of being best friends since high school," they pulled through. "Jeff never doubted that our son died in an accident," Parks says. "He never blamed me from day one."
Last December, Parks got a vote of confidence from the legal system, as well: All charges against her were dropped because of a lack of evidence of any criminal intent. Since then, she has devoted plenty of time to doing volunteer work for Kidsandcars.org.
Parks holds up a framed photo taken on the Mother's Day before Juan died. It shows him on her lap, a round-faced, bright-eyed boy with a mischievous grin. Parks smiles in the photo, too; above the picture frame, though, she is near tears. "I just want to tell parents that even if you don't believe this could happen to you, just do the prevention anyway," she says. "It only takes two seconds to look in the backseat before you leave your car. It could be a lifetime of regret if you don't."