It could be any night at a crowded, dusty park. The scene plays out in almost every city and town, and chances are you know it well. Maybe you sit on a lawn chair, watching your son or daughter go through practice. Maybe you stand and watch, or wait in the car with the radio on. It could be soccer. Could be baseball. As twilight turned to darkness Tuesday at Temple Crest Park, it was football. If you're a parent or guardian, you have probably been there. You know what it's like when the sun has just set and the dim lights barely illuminate the field. Activity is everywhere. You might be swatting mosquitoes. There are shouts and whistles as the teams practice. It's wholesome, pure Americana. It is supposed to be a safe place.
Most nights, that's how it is. On this night, however, it wasn't. Who can say why an ordinary night turned tragic, because it doesn't take much. A turn of the head by the caregiver, maybe a momentary distraction that diverts attention for a few seconds. All anyone knows for sure is that while his mother was getting ready to take his older brother and sister home from football and cheerleading practice, 2-year-old Armani Pierce slipped off on his own. Searchers found Armani's body about 11 hours later in a section of the Hillsborough River choked with algae. The river runs by the park. Especially in the dark, it would be hard to make out where dry land ends and water begins. Police Chief Jane Castor called it “every parent's worst nightmare.” Every parent knows just what she means. A tragedy like this hits everyone in the gut, exposing your worst fears. If your child is a toddler, the nightmare is that he slips away when your head is turned. Maybe you're at a park, like Armani was, or at the mall. That feeling of fear never really goes away. You worry when your teenager goes on a first date or gets behind the wheel of a car. Teenagers need independence, but you don't quite get to sleep until you hear the car pull in the driveway and the front door opens and closes. So I can't imagine what Armani's parents and family members are feeling this morning. Maybe I just don't want to because, like the police chief said, it's a nightmare. There are no shortcuts around the pain. There were said to be about 300 people at the practice and the immediate area, and most of them joined in the search; that's what good people do. When it ends like this, an entire community mourns because we know this could happen just about anywhere, to anyone. Friends and family told of an exuberant little boy, full of energy and fun. He laughed, sang and he could light up a room. What does anyone do now? You do what you can, starting with a prayer for a family in pain. The you hug your children tightly, and just to be sure, you hug them again.