When I say “lost,” it’s actually more like “mislaid.” And it was only for 20 minutes or so. But, as any parent who’s lost visual contact with their child in a crowded place knows, even a minute feels like a lifetime.
I surprised myself by being completely calm and rational. But, before we get into the psychoanalysis, let me describe what happened.
We were on vacation in Australia. In a small town on the bay of Melbourne called Anglesea. It was a Sunday morning and we were strolling through the market alongside the water’s edge, two adults and five kids aged 9 through to 4. There were all kinds of colorful booths selling books, crafts, food, souvenirs and other random local stuff. It was hot and sunny, and milling with families vacationing in the seaside town. We had given the kids each a few dollars to spend and, kids being kids, they had each spent it all on the very first items that took their fancy. And then kept asking and asking and asking for more money to spend on this item and that item. We shut them down, of course, intending to impart a lesson.
Onwards we browsed, lingering a while here and there at different booths and trying hard to keep the kids all herded together, despite distractions in every direction. At this point, my son was perusing a book stall (even though he had already spent his money at an earlier book stall.) Now, I’m not going to squash his interest in combing over books but, after a while, we needed to keep moving on: in fact, we’d spied some delightful, fluorescent frozen slushies at a booth that the kids just “had to have” to quench their thirst. I told my son we were leaving. He pleaded for a minute more. I acquiesced. But a minute passed and he was obstinately ignoring me. Another reminder, followed by a warning, was issued. And then I “fake left,” i.e. I told him I was leaving, hoping this would be enough of a kick up the derriere to get him to put down the books and rejoin the group. We were quite literally two metres away. Thirty seconds passed and I asked one of the other kids to go find him, tell him we had bought him a neon-red raspberry slushie. She returned, saying he wasn’t there. I went back over. No sign of him. I did a 360, searching the immediate crowd for his bright yellow t-shirt.
He was gone. I asked the vendor if she’d seen which way he had gone and she pointed in one direction.
I wasn’t worried, at this point. More annoyed, truth be told. I found the rest of our party, told them what was happening and we set off, retracing our path through the crowds in the direction we’d been told he’d gone. Scanning through the thick of bodies for a 9 year-old boy dressed in a yellow t-shirt and blue shorts (I was relieved he’d chosen such a bright top to wear that day.) After about 25 metres and no sign, I thought it best to leave the group and go solo. It’d be faster, I could be more nimble in the crowds.
At this point, maybe 15 minutes had passed. I figured I’d go all the way down one end of the market, then make my way back through to the other end. I was wondering at what stage I should start panicking and who I would call. Being that I was a tourist. All this time I was also worrying about my son’s state of mind. Would he be nonchalant? Or terrified? Would he have the presence of mind to ask for help?
It never crossed my mind that he might have been abducted. Had this happened in America, like in a busy mall, I’d have been immediately anxious and suspicious. But, everyone here in Australia seemed genuinely nice and, well, normal.
Another five minutes of searching and, suddenly, I spied him seated at a bench surrounded by some concerned adults. I called his name, probably sounding higher-pitched and less chill than I thought I was, and he ran to me and clung to me, sobbing. The kind adults saw that he was OK and moved away as I expressed my thanks and relief to them.
I sat down with my son, held his trembling, teary body as he gulped and sobbed. My heart and womb clenched with complete relief. I wanted to shake him and yell at him, but I could see just how traumatized he was. I knelt down and looked him in the eye, telling him: “I will always find you, no matter what.” A promise to him. A promise to me.
Holding hands, we turned back and re-found the rest of our group and everyone was happily reunited. We texted folks to let them know we’d found him. We talked with the kids, reminding them of the different things they should do if they were ever lost or separated from us, which included:
- If you have a pre-agreed meeting place, head there.
- Or stay put, don’t wander. Let us come to you.
- Find a helper, like a Mom.
- Know your parent’s phone numbers.
My son did #3 & #4 and I was very proud of him for that. Sure, the number he gave them was my U.S. cell phone and he had no clue about international dialing codes but I’d like to think that, had the local police got involved, they would have figured that all out.
That evening at bedtime, he wouldn’t go to sleep without me. He fairly clung to me. And there were bad dreams too that night. See, there was no need to yell and be mad at him. Those 20 minutes amounted to some of the best education he’s ever had. Frightening, yes. But he’ll never wander off again, that’s for sure.
As for me, yes I was rather calm and collected during those 20 minutes. I did not fear for his safety. But, my heart is forever scarred by the look on his face when I found him.