this is probably why they say 'all's well that ends well'
For 30 terrifying minutes last Friday night, my youngest son was missing. My 8 year old, who less than two weeks earlier had, in his mind, victoriously severed the last flimsy fragment of the chord I felt connected us when he burst away from me and into his first solo run for the corner bus stop - was not within our fold.
For 30 minutes.
It's amazing how long 30 minutes can seem.
If you were to visit us on any Friday night, you'd see this one started like every Friday night here. My oldest son spent the quick ride home from school on his cell phone, pecking out plans for the night. After a quick dash home, I chauffeured him to a neighboring suburb, where friends waited to play virtual and real adventure games. Knowing he was safely embedded in another family's home, I rushed back to my own to be there for my youngest son's return from school.
As is his routine, my son hung up his backpack, jumped on my lap for a quick round of hugs, then ran out the door to play with his neighborhood friend who lives just across the street on the block adjacent to ours. Yes, the bus stop was a big step for me. So was letting him cross the street. We're making these strides, but in all honesty, the boy's entire world only stretches as far as that. When he's there, I can peek out the front door and see them playing in the yard. I've visited with and exchanged phone numbers with the friend's mother. Every night, the boys play together. After school. After dinner. After begging for a few more minutes for fun.
With the boys busy, my husband and I embarked on separate tasks. From my vantage point in the front of the house, I had a clear view of my son and his friend racing up our driveway on their scooters around 5:45 p.m., and then inside and up the stairs to my son's room, where I could hear them waging Bakugan battles and singing along to the radio. In addition to his after school routine, my son now has a habit of always turning his radio on when he's in his room, which always makes me smile.
Thirty minutes later, the radio was off and the boys raced down the stairs on their way back outside. "We're going back to Lucas'!" my son cried, and I waved to them while chatting with a friend on the phone. I finished the call several minutes later, then sat down to close my eyes for a few minutes.
Around 7 p.m., I opened my eyes when I heard Lady Gaga's Telephone playing from my son's room, and I smiled again because I know he likes that song. I hadn't heard the front door open while I'd been resting, but thought little of it. Of the two boys, our youngest is the one who always remembers not to slam the door, so I assumed he'd slipped in and went straight to his room when he saw me and thought I was napping. I yelled down the split level to my husband to ask if our son had come home, but again thought little of it when he replied he hadn't seen him. Neither of us thought much of it. I got up to explore the kitchen cupboards for dinner ideas as a new song started on the upstairs radio. My husband joined me to debate dinner, and I yelled upstairs for our son to come down and give his opinion, but he didn't answer. His music's not that loud, I thought, and I yelled his name again, louder. Still nothing, including no worry passing between my husband or I. We figured he was still down at his friend's.
I stayed home while my husband went to retrieve our son. Two minutes later, he returned and said Lucas' mother told him he'd left their house 20 minutes earlier. Honestly, when he said that, I know we were quietly thinking "It's OK," and "I'm sure it's fine," but the tiniest seed in the worst weed and pest-infested garden of doubt had just been planted in our minds. I dashed upstairs, calling our son's name again over the music, while my husband went next door to see if he'd stopped on his way home to play with the neighbor boy. A second later, he met me back in the house to say that the neighbors weren't home, that our son wasn't there.
Those were the first seconds in the 20 minute window my son had created. We still had 30 minutes ahead of us.
Thirty minutes that instantly felt like 30 hours that morphed into 30 days, then fell into 30 weeks, and finally forever. I ran downstairs and back up yelling his name now, wondering - hoping - why, in his entire life, he had chosen this day to hide from us. I imagined him giggling quietly under his bed while I searched the house, preparing to laugh at me when he emerged because I kept throwing closet doors open to look for him. Knowing, though, that he wasn't in the house. Knowing, also, that I needed to stay calm, but not being able to stop the tears I could feel burning my eyes.
I burst out to the driveway and met my husband, and begged him to check with our new neighbors - whose names we we didn't even know for sure until later that evening - to see if he'd gone there. "They have a dog!" I yelled, hoping he'd seen it outside and wandered over to pet it. The dog barks constantly and has been a source of annoyance in our house, but if my son had decided to show it some love, I decided in that moment that I'd never speak ill of the animal again. We both knew it wasn't possible, but my husband went over, knocked on their door, and asked if they'd seen our son, and I began knocking on the doors of our other neighbors to ask the same. None of them had seen him. All of them came outside. One of them knelt down beside me when I went to my knees on the sidewalk and began repeating "Oh, my God," while trying to catch my breath.
Because that's all I could do. Repeat "Oh, my God," and hope that it was enough of a choked prayer that things would be fine. That's what you want to think as you watch your spouse jump in his truck, race down the street, and then hesitate at the stop sign, unsure of which direction to turn because, again, your child's world is so relatively small that you can't imagine where he might be. Repeating "Oh, my God" is what helps push back all the dark thoughts that try to claw their way to the surface while a relative stranger and another woman you wave to as you pass each other on your street each morning kneel down next to you, touch your shoulder, and tell you everything is going to be fine, but ask if you know what your child is wearing.
Sky blue basketball shorts, a white t-shirt with a drawing of Michael Jordan going up for a lay up on the front looking bloody and battered because at lunch, a classmate pushed into him in the dump line and he'd gotten ketchup all over the front, but he thought it looked cool, he said, while smiling a smile that's missing his left top incisor that fell out last week during recess. I knew what he was wearing, and it killed me to think that I might have to call the police and tell them.
I called my husband instead. He'd told me to stay near home in case our son showed up while he was searching for him, and I wanted to hear him tell me he'd found him. Instead, I could hear in his voice his growing concern as he ticked off the different parks and streets he'd driven through. "Oh, my God." It's all I could say. "It's going to be OK," my neighbors repeated.
Fifteen minutes later, after I'd tore through my house a third time and circled the yard, and pushed back more dark thoughts, my cell phone rang. "I found him," my husband said. "He found him," I told my neighbors. "Oh, my God, he found him." And I cried a few minutes more as the stress of the half hour forced its way out of my system. It was purely by chance that my husband caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a small group of boys running through the backyards of several houses four blocks from our home and saw the sky blue hue of our son's shorts bringing up the end of the pack. He mapped out the location, found the house, and then found our son playing baseball with a group of boys we didn't know.
When we got him home, we sat our son down and talked to him about what had happened and how scared his wandering away had made us. He was very stoic and quiet, but the look on his face made it clear to us he understood why we reacted the way we did, and while he wasn't happy about it, he said he understood why he'd be playing in our yard only for the next several days. Then I made him hug me at least 20 times, endure even more kisses, and then complete an elaborate pinkie swear routine wherein we promised nothing like this would ever happen again. Because there's no way I could do that again. Ever.
I don't have an ending to this story other than the happy one we were given. I know these kinds of tales sometimes don't get that benefit. But oh, my God, I'm just glad ours did.