Lost and Found

I’m considering never going back to the Langley Park shopping center. We had an experience there yesterday that made June’s tantrum there last week seem like a walk in the park.

The day started off nicely enough. June and I dropped Noah off at art camp and headed for the playground. The Tracks class summer playgroup had been slow to get off the ground this year so I consulted with the mom of the Mallard Duck (aka Yellow Gingko, aka Squash Bug) and we decided to take matters into our own hands and organize the first two. I was taking the first turn.

We got to the playground at 9:35, ten minutes before our guests were scheduled to arrive. June helped me spread a tablecloth on the splintery picnic table and fill the bowls with grapes, plums, Whole-wheat Bunnies, Cheddar Bunnies and Pirate Booty. Then I pushed her on the swing until people started arriving. We got a good turnout—eight kids, almost half the class, plus assorted older and younger siblings.

As I watched the kids tearing around the playground in pairs and groups, splashing in the creek, climbing on the rocks, I marveled at how different they are than they were two years or even one year ago. They play together now–no more shy, silent stares from across the picnic table, no more companionable parallel play; they were in this together. They played zoo, they were airplanes taking off (the former Blue Dogwood’s dad catching them as they leaped from a creekside boulder). June took the Duck to the play structure she likes to pretend is an ice cream parlor and sold her ice cream. And since the Duck was there to play this game with her, I got to sit in the shade and chat with other parents, watch the former Red Maple’s little brother practice his cruising skills and admire the Duck’s six-month old brother, who is just about the smiliest baby I’ve seen since Noah was that age. We had a lovely time.

On the way home, June fell and ripped the scab off an already-injured knee. There was blood; there was screaming; and suddenly my afternoon plans involved getting more of the large size band-aids because I knew we were running low and it has been an exceptionally hard summer on the kids’ knees.

Andrea, who teaches the Bugs class and shares the Tracks class with Lesley and who also had a daughter at art camp, drove Noah home three days this week. After she brought him home with his haul of art projects, and after June had finished her nap, we all headed out to buy band-aids and enjoy our weekly pilgrimage to Starbucks.

I was trying to decide between the Expo Mart, which was more conveniently located but often erratically stocked, and the Rite Aid, which is dependable but on the other side of a six-lane thoroughfare. As we walked, I told Noah we’d try to Expo Mart first, then go to Starbucks, then Rite Aid, if need be. I though that my feeling rushed had contributed to June’s meltdown the week before so we’d left the house at three, a full hour earlier than the week before. I thought no matter what happened we’d be home by five. (Noah likes to watch The Electric Company and it’s only on once a week, Fridays at five.)

We arrived at the shopping center at 3:25, or rather June and I did. Noah had scooted so far ahead of us I had lost sight of him, but I figured he’d be there waiting for us when we got to the parking lot. But he wasn’t. Had he crossed the lot by himself and gone straight to the Expo Mart? He’s not supposed to do that, but June and I crossed the lot in search of him. He wasn’t in front of the Expo Mart. I peered in the doors. He wasn’t near the entrance. Had he forgotten about that part of the outing and gone to Starbucks? It wouldn’t be surprising. It’s where we usually go first and he often operates on autopilot so he could be there. June and I walked the length of the shopping center. I was nervous, but not in a full panic yet. I reminded myself how rare child abductions are, especially when the child in question is not part of a custody dispute. I reasoned if he’d been hit by a car in the lot, there would a noticeable crowd and an ambulance.

When we got to Starbucks I peeked in the big windows. No Noah. I decided to go back to the Expo Mart and walk all the aisles of the store. No Noah. The bathroom at Starbucks, I thought. He mentioned having to go to the bathroom on the way over. Still it wouldn’t be like him to take the initiative to get the key and let himself in. I went back to Starbucks and tried the restroom door. It was locked. The barista gestured to the key on the bar, but I shook my head and said, “Would you recognize my son if you saw him?” He looked taken aback and said yes. I thought he would. We’re regulars there. “Has he been in here in the past ten minutes?” I asked. No, he said. I hurried out without saying anything else.

Now panic was starting to get the better of me and I was crying. June was alternately wailing, “I want my brother back!” and suggesting we halt the search for a diaper change or a drink of water. I told her we needed to keep looking for Noah. I decided I’d go to the Customer Service booth at the Expo Mart and have him paged (though the store has wide aisles and was uncrowded so I was almost sure he wasn’t in there). Then I’d call 911. As we approached the grocery store for the third time, however, I had one more idea I wanted to try before getting the police involved. I crossed the parking lot and went back to the last block where I’d seen him. As we rounded the corner of the high brick wall the separates the parking lot from the sidewalk I saw his empty scooter on the grass. My heart leapt a little, but I didn’t know whether it was in terror or joy until we stepped all the way past the wall and we could see him, standing a few feet from the scooter with a man and a woman. The man was talking to 911 on his cell phone.

The woman started shaking her finger at me and yelling, “Don’t do that again!” over and over, which wasn’t exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I had too much to do to answer her, though. I had to hug Noah over and over and ask him where on earth he’d been. I had to talk to the police dispatcher on the phone and tell her that I was the boy’s mother and how he’d gotten out of my sight and to authorize the cancellation of the police call. I had to thank both the man and the woman for staying with him. He wasn’t crying when I got there, but the woman said he had been when she’d found him. Actually she kept saying that “she” had been crying. I guess it was the t-shirt with the big pink heart on it. Still it was disorienting for me in an already emotionally overloaded moment. I didn’t correct her. After a few more finger shakes, she and the man left.

So as best as we could figure, this is what happened: June and I are in the habit of crossing into the lot as soon as the wall ends, but Noah likes to ride his scooter a little further to the end of the block and he was waiting for us there. Since he was looking for us and I was looking for him, I can only conclude that a car in the lot must have been blocking our sightlines of each other. How June and I crossed the lot unobserved by him, I’m not sure.

I asked him if he’d like to go to Starbucks first so he could use the bathroom and we could all rest a little, but he wanted to stick to the original plan and go to Expo Mart for band-aids first, so we did. When we got to Starbucks, the staff and even some of the customers were all very happy to see us reunited. One of the baristas heard June asking me for water and got an ice water for her before I even ordered anything. Once we were out of the bathroom and seated with our drinks and snacks, I glanced at my watch. I couldn’t believe it was only 3:50. Given that we’d done a little shopping since finding each other, it must have only been fifteen minutes or so that we’d been separated. It felt much, much longer.

“I’m bored,” Noah said after a few minutes.

“What? Getting lost wasn’t a big enough adventure for you?” I said. He thought about it and said solemnly that it might have been the biggest adventure of his life.

On the way home, I kept him on a much shorter leash than usual. I told him it was temporary, but I was still too shaken up to let him get very far ahead of me. The thing is, it wasn’t really an accident that I let him go so far. Beth and I both think that a lot of kids today aren’t given the freedom they need to develop into competent, independent adults. At Noah’s age, I had the run of my whole small town, including permission to cross the busy street where we lived. It’s hard letting go, though, and we still haven’t let him do things a few of his peers already do (walk to a friend’s house alone, fly as an unaccompanied minor). Some of it has to do with his absent-mindedness. I find it hard to imagine him remembering where he’s going or what he’s supposed to be doing in the world on his own. He does go for short scooter rides away from the house and we are thinking of having him walk home from the bus stop this fall. (The bus from his new school will leave him at his old school, about a twenty-minute walk from our house.)

Later we talked the whole incident over with Beth. We talked about communicating clearly about where we expect to meet each other whenever we separate. She praised him for staying put and letting me find him. I suggested if he ever needs to ask someone for help, a mom or dad with kids is usually a good bet. And Beth and I talked about me trying to get in the habit of carrying the cell phone I own and rarely use.

This morning we went to the Lotus and Asian Culture festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens (http://www.nps.gov/keaq/index.htm). Somehow, in our nineteen years in the Washington, D.C. metro area, we’ve never been there, though of course we’d heard of it. As you might expect from the fact that the lotus festival was going on, the lotuses are in bloom now, and the water lilies and the water hyacinth. And now I can tell these plants apart. We walked on earthen paths through the ponds and on a boardwalk and on a forest trail along the marsh. We touched cattails and saw tadpoles in the water and orioles winging through the air. We heard Buddhist monks chanting and watched women dance in kimonos with scarves and fans. June danced along with them, waving her own imaginary scarf. Of course, it was not a completely serene experience, since we did bring the children along, but it was a fun morning in a truly lovely place.

While we were walking along the boardwalk trail, Noah started to complain of ankle pain. He often has pain in his legs, most often his knees, at night, which we assume are growing pains but this sudden pain in the daytime was new. After a while, we left him to rest on a bench while we did a quick loop off the main trail before heading back to the car.

“I am letting him of out of my sight,” I told Beth as we walked away from him.

“Good for you,” she said.

When we came back, he was there, just where I left him.