Even now, 30 years later, if you ask my parents to tell you one of the most terrifying times of their lives as parents, it was when I was a toddler, 2-3 years old. We were shopping in a K-Mart and they ended up at the ends of 2 aisles. As they met up, they each realized that the other thought I was with them. I'd been looking at the toys and then, suddenly, no more Michele. Frantic, they searched up and down the aisles, calling my name, to no avail. Finally, a voice over the PA system asked the parents who were missing a child to come to customer service. They flew to the front of the store.
A well meaning patron had picked me up as I toddled behind one of them and, thinking I was unattended, had whisked me off to the manager. In a few moments, I was reunited with my parents and the world began to turn on its axis again.
I'd often thought, in my adult life that, while losing a child in that scenario was awful, the worst thing was losing a child. Having gone through that, I never thought I could possibly find a worse experience.
I was wrong.
Last Friday was a beautiful day. Just beautiful. After I put the kids to nap, I texted my mother-in-law and invited her for coffee on the deck. We sat and enjoyed the sunshine, listening to the noisemaker pour through the monitor. At some point, Bobby woke up and began to sing. When he quieted, I went inside to check on him. Walking down the hall, I pulled back the curtain that I use to cover the light from the rest of the house and blinked. His blankets were pulled back. His bear was against the pillow. Bobby was gone.
The house was silent, but I tore back towards the living room, screaming his name, oblivious to waking Maya up. There was no sound. And then I saw it: the front door, open... the screen door not quite closed. I knew that I'd closed and locked the door. And now, it was open. The nightmare of every parent came roaring to life.
By this point, my MIL had rushed in after hearing me on the monitor and said she'd search the house and stay with Maya. I was out the door, checking the yard and running to the street. First to the busy road that borders our house- no Bobby, our neighbor raking the leaves. Secure that she would have grabbed Bobby had she seen him, I took off in the other direction, towards the schoolyard and church park we visit. As I'm screaming his name, all sorts of scenarios began to play out. what if a dog... what if a pervert... what if he's hit by a car... At some point, the realization that the death of a child might not be the worst possible thing hit me. It was a sharp pain that was so breathtaking, I had to throw it from my mind. I would find him. There was no choice. I would not go back home until I had him in my arms. As I approached the first block, my eyes immediately saw his green Percy underwear sticking out from his brown pants as a stranger woman carried him towards the sound of my voice. He was jabbering and playing with her hair. This kind stranger had found him and another kind stranger, riding his bike, had called the police to report this young child, without shoes, wandering the neighborhood alone.
I've heard parents say that, once they've found a misplaced or lost child, they are overcome with anger or feelings of wanting to shake some sense or some other phrase. But the only feeling I had was relief. I just wanted to grab him and know that he was real, that he wasnt some mirage. As I crumbled at the woman's feet and took him into my arms, the tears began to flow. I was so grateful that the Universe had smiled on him, that his Uncle was watching over him extra special that day (since Bobby was wearing his Giants jersey), that his siblings were making sure he wasn't afraid. I was so grateful that Peter always reiterates on their walks together that they cant cross the street without holding hands and that, instead of just walking aimlessly, he had turned and stayed on the sidewalk; hopefully, had no one found him, he would have made his way back home by walking that square. I was just so awe struck by the grace of God that my son was safe. As a friend of mine said later, now I could truly understand how the Virgin Mary must have felt.
Awful. She must have felt awful when she couldnt find her 12 year old on the caravan. Awful and then some.
After profusely thanking our neighborhood good samaritans, I walked home with Bobby, unable to hold him close enough. Arriving, my mother-in-law had called the police and, just after the canceled the call, a young officer rang the doorbell and took a statement of what happened. These things happen, he said, reassuringly. Hell no... I cant imagine a plural event. Once was more than enough.
In the grand scheme of things, this entire scenario took maybe 5 minutes, from the time I found him missing to the cop at our door, but it was the longest of my life. The most gutwrenching. The ones where I realized I would rather die a billion zillion agonizing deaths than ever have a moment like that again.