Back in November, we drove down to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with Rob’s family. We left on Tuesday morning, heading out early so we could get through Atlanta before rush hour hit. Harper has always been a trooper in the car, so she was entertaining herself in the backseat while Rob and I sat in front and talked about the full body scans the TSA had just implemented, and how glad we were that we didn’t have to fly anywhere that week. We weren’t even an hour outside of Greensboro, when Harper said, “Dad! Look at me!”
Rob, who was driving, glanced at her in the rear view mirror, and said “Harper! Get that off your head!” Something in his tone of voice made me snap around to look. She had reached up behind her, grabbed the unused seat belt, and wrapped it around her neck like a scarf.
I have tried several times since then to describe exactly how she did this, and I can’t do it. I can’t figure out how she got her arm at just the right angle, how she got the strap twisted in just the right way, how she slipped it over her head in just the right movement to make it completely impossible to get off.
In the front seat directly in front of her, I twisted around to reach her. I tried to lift the seat belt over her head, but just as I grabbed it (because I grabbed it?) it locked and got tighter and I couldn’t pull it any further. “You’re going to have to pull over,” I told Rob. “I can’t reach.”
So we stood, on the side of the highway with cars whizzing past, trying to pry the seat belt off her head. It had completely locked up, so we couldn’t pull it out any further, and we couldn’t snap it back to unlock it because her neck was in the way. There’s absolutely no give in a seat belt, which is what you want in the device designed to keep you attached to your seat if your car loses control. It is not what you want in the strap that is wrapped around your daughter’s neck.
There’s also not much give in human ears, and Harper’s were standing in the way of slipping the seat belt up and over her head. That didn’t stop us from trying, though; we pushed on her head, twisted her ears, cranked her little body this way and that, but that belt would not budge.
In the three-plus years we’ve been doing this parenting gig, it was the scariest moment we’ve had.
I should note that she was never choking. She was always breathing. Aside from the ear-prying, she wasn’t ever in pain. As long as I held onto the seat belt and kept it from snapping back any further, she was fine. But we were not: adrenaline was pumping, we were out of ideas of how to get it off her head and we’d searched the car for something to cut it with and had come up empty.
“Let’s call 911,” I said to Rob. “We can’t get this off.” I don’t remember what he said to the dispatcher, but I remember being so thankful for the big green exit sign right in front of us, so we could describe where we were: Exit 91.
Some time later – thirty seconds? twenty minutes? I have no idea – a truck pulled up and a young woman in a safety vest got out. “I was on my way home and got this call,” she said. “What’s going on?”
I showed her, and she tried all the same prying maneuvers before finally whipping out a pair of purple-handled scissors and snipping through the belt, which fell easily into Harper’s lap. “There you go,” the woman said.
Rob nodded at the heavy-duty scissors she was starting to slip back into her pocket. “Those are handy,” he said.
She grinned and handed them to him. “You can have them. I’ve got twenty pairs.”
I looked up, then, and realized three other emergency vehicles had pulled up. At least two policemen and some other EMS workers stood near their cars. The woman with the magic scissors reached for her radio and said, “The child is untangled,” and waved off the police officers. We waved at them, too, and said thanks for coming. We said thank you to the woman (we asked her name, and I swore I’d remember it, but I don’t) and then just as fast as they’d arrived, they were all gone, and it was just the three of us again, standing on the side of the highway by Exit 91.
We buckled Harper back in, put our new scissors in the glove compartment, and pulled back on the road. “You okay?” I asked Rob.
He took a deep breath. “Yeah. You?”
“Yeah.” Twenty miles later, I burst into tears.
I finally got the seat belt replaced yesterday. It cost $292.73. Rob says we’re taking it out of her college fund.