A Bronx Tragedy

On July 26, a hot and humid day, Juan Rodriguez, a Veteran Affairs social worker, delivered the first of his three small children to their daycare program and then proceeded directly to work at the Kingsbridge hospital complex.

Later he would say he “blanked” on delivering the twins , each ensconced in car seats, to their daycare program. He thought he had done it, but he hadn’t.

He exited his Honda Accord. I assume he pressed the button on his electronic key and, having heard the short beep that confirmed that car doors were locked, reported to work.

Once in his office, he fulfilled ordinary professional responsibilities. When the time came, he returned to his car. It was just another day, or so it still seemed.

He fired up the engine and began navigating towards home. The sight of the twins lying still in their car seats popped like a nightmare image in an otherwise placid dream scene. He got out of the car bellowing in agony, as if he’d taken a bullet in the belly. The babies’ body temperatures had soared to 108 degrees. They were dead.

A certified and licensed social worker, Mr. Rodriguez was educated and dedicated by profession to easing the suffering of the others. Now he stood accused of wicked deeds. Initial charges included two counts of manslaughter, two counts of criminally negligent homicide.

Salma Hayek (mom to Valentina): “When Valentina was not even 1 month old, my aunt [gave me the best advice]: ‘Put her to sleep yourself every night. Sing to her and cradle her in your arms and sit by her side - every night. Because one day you won’t be able to, and it’s going to happen really fast.”

Friends and others attested to his having been a "father of all fathers,” a truly wonderful dad. His wife stood by him and affirmed not only her loyalty but her love and belief in his innocence.

Such is the stuff from which the tragedies, worst-case scenarios, the waking terrors of parenthood form. And such experience traces the limitations of the human brain. Research attests to the relative commonality of such severe breakdowns in memory and to the incoherence between what one would expect to be perceived as completely obvious and what actually registers with clarity within consciousness.

According to KidsAndCars.org, more than 900 children have died in sweltering cars in the United States since 1990. In 2018, 53 such deaths of children occurred. Apparent memory glitches, parents not remembering a child in the back seat like they might not remember to put the cap back on a bottle of ketchup occurs. Surgeons operate on left arms when the patient has come in to have the right one treated. Details of ordinary living escape us with alarming frequency. I have a friend who, shuttling her kids around from task to task packed the kids, clothing, and strollers into her car and drove away leaving bags of groceries on the sidewalk. A very intelligent woman who, in ordinary circumstances can keep track of things better than most. Such things happen.

Protect that smile. Encouraging your kid to brush twice a day with a dab of fluoride toothpaste will guard against cavities.

How many of us, on first hearing stories of this type move in the direction of compassion for parents such as Mr. Rodriguez? How many react with primal outrage, contempt, and indignation, wishing to mete out harsh vengeance upon such a caregiver ?

My Aunt Letty Many years ago, my aunt Letty* navigated her way across south Los Angeles with four children in the back seat of her late-model Chevy. She was preoccupied with the outsized accumulation of chores that, taken together, comprise the how-to of throwing a birthday party for a 7-year-old. Her son Benjamin was commemorating his special day. Along with three of his school chums, he occupied the back seat of the car. The little crew had accompanied Letty as she gathered a cake, cookies, beverages and such.
She pulled into a parking spot at journey’s end and Benjamin, excited to start the party as soon as possible, flung open the rear door and stepped out. Strangely, as he had not anticipated it, the ground was moving beneath him. Letty was rolling back in reverse so as to park closer to the sidewalk. Benjamin lurched. Then he tipped to the side before striking his forehead on the corner of the concrete curb. And that was how Aunt Letty lost her one and only son. The police arrived and, unlike what happened with Juan Rodriguez, not a word about culpability was spoken. Aunt Letty was white and Juan is not—could that have factored into the difference in treatment?

Put your baby to bed drowsy but still awake. This helps your child learn to soothe himself to sleep and prevents bedtime problems down the line.

Approximately a half year after Benjamin’s death, Letty, fixing dinner, poured boiling water into a colander and, for some reason, failed to avert her pretty face from the cloud of steam that rose above the pasta.

She was badly scalded and the art of the plastic surgeon was not what it is today. From that time forward she scrupulously avoided being seen in public. Had she punished herself for what she believed to have been her unforgivable failing? I was a child and was comforted to hear that my mother didn’t think that was true. But there were other relatives, I was told, who thought not only that it was, but that she deserved what had happened.

In the case of Mr. Rodriguez, I am convinced that any attempt to claim that he had intentionally harmed his children would be cruelly wrong-headed. My hope is that he does not, in any respect, follow in my aunt Letty’s footsteps, seeking self-retribution rather than redemption.

Hopefully, his legacy will be one of compassion, resilience , and understanding as he moves forward towards a future that honors his lost children’s potential by sustaining love and healing within the family that remains.

According to the NYTimes Federal legislation that would require automakers to provide a warning light of buzzer to remind people to check the back seat is under review.

Don't accept disrespect from your child. Never allow her to be rude or say hurtful things to you or anyone else. If she does, tell her firmly that you will not tolerate any form of disrespect.

*Names and identifying details of my family's story have been changed.

Feel free to register comments, questions, and observations.