Seven years after misplacing my child for the first time, I think it’s finally safe to relay the chain of events to the public. Not so much because he’s big enough now not get very lost (or at least, if he does, he is grown up enough to help himself), but because I’m one thousand percent sure this happens all the time to other parents. I’m one thousand percent sure because almost no one looked at me funny when I lost him that first time. Has it happened since? Surely – and still no funny looks. Is it something parents brag about? Not really. There is a common mom-fear, in today’s land of cyber bullets, of looking totally inept that keeps such stories tucked away, hidden from others who would likely hear it and respond with an oh, yeah, that’s happened to me multiple times, no big deal.
How did we keep track of our children prior to being connected with them at all times?
I know my parents did it. Mostly. There was that one awkward instance when my brother and I declared our independence by heading off to a new land with all of our important belongings packed into my little red Radio Flyer – determined to start a life without people trying to be the boss of us. I believe we were six and ten. It ended with our giving up on our newly established home – set up behind the 7-11 that was located across the street from our schools. This was 1970-something. We did want to run away, yes, but we did not want to miss out on a perfect attendance award. Hence, the chosen close to good schools location. We also knew we’d need nourishment. Hence the behind the 7-11 location. Sadly, we were caught almost immediately trying to shoplift a plastic magnifying glass and sent packing (the plan was to start a small fire for cooking dinner). While the owner of the store did not call the police on us – our parents had, after finally admitting that their two kids were, in fact, lost. We thought the scariest part of our day was realizing we had no way to roast hot dogs that we didn’t yet own – it turns out that rounding the corner home to the site of patrol cars capped that. A close second was the whooping that followed the relief of our return.
Disappearing children is not a new thing, no. But it is terrifying, none the less.
My first go at losing Zack happened almost immediately after I had moved in with Rich and the kids. I was still a part-timer in the parenting force and after a few weeks or a month or I can’t remember how long, Rich asked if I would be comfortable alone for a night (with the kids) as he had a business trip approaching. Oh sure, I probably responded, full of I’ve been a parent for a few weeks or a month or I can’t remember how long confidence. We rehearsed how it would work. Rich would drop the kids off at school on the way to the airport and I would remain staged at home for approximately six hours preparing myself to stand on the front porch and wave at Mr. Gary of Bus #56 as Zack came down the stairs to his homeland. Mr. Gary would see a completely capable person awaiting this second grader and pull away while Zack and I reunited with a moment that would probably (not) include him running across the front yard and into my arms.
The bus typically appeared around the 3:00pm mark so I began my pacing of the front porch at 2:45pm, just to make sure I was ready, sitting casually (or should I stand?) on the porch steps with my left ear trained to the sound of an approaching bus. And, right on schedule, I did hear the sound of an approaching bus. Sure enough, Bus #56 meandered towards the house, slowing. I stood up and began an early wave just to give Mr. Gary the everything’s a-okay, nothing to see here vibe in advance of the drop off. The bus, however, did not stop. Mr. Gary waved back as he sped back up and continued on the route.
What the shit? What the actual shit, Mr. Gary?!
I realized I was still waving as I watched the bus turn right at the next street.
That can’t be right.
I also realized that I had no idea what else I should be doing – beyond waving and staring.
A lot of thoughts went through my head, actually. For example, how did I lose this kid on my first try? And also, what the shit?
I was still trying to work through this when the bus came back down the road minutes later, slowing again, to my relief. Right. I had just forgotten that on this day, Zack would bound down the stairs on the return trip. Right? No. Mr. Gary’s window slid open and I heard him yell he wasn’t on the bus today! Oh right! I said, waving again as he drive away. What? Why did I say that?
This was not how we’d rehearsed it.
As I walked back into the house, I began to text Rich a red alert. Then I remembered he was likely sitting in a customer meeting and how that text might read. Which was ZACK IS LOST WHAT DO I DO? Yeah, probably not the best update for him to get while several states away. I went with the much more casual Hey, what’s the name of Zack’s school again? while simultaneously trying to Google “local schools” for a hint. The answer came back Rural Point, why? ZACK IS LOST still did not seem like the right response. Just wondering. What I was really wondering was how attached we really were to this 8-year-old vanishing act.
I rang up the school, praying that I wasn’t about to be asked to enter a number for 17 different routing options. The second prayer was that it was a Press 1 For Lost Children option. Instead, a real live person answered and I started down a long, dark path of who I was and that I had just moved here and that this was my first time getting Zack off the bus and that he didn’t get off the bus – at which point the voice interrupted and asked Ma’am, are you looking for Zack Barlow? Yes! He’s sitting here in the office, there’s was some confusion on pick up. THANK YOU SIX POUND BABY JESUS. I drove Nascar style three miles to the school – ready to scoop up a weeping grade schooler writing in his journal about his newly discovered feelings of abandonment to show a counselor much later in life.
He was not weeping. He was having a great time wrapping up the day with the office staff. Evidently, there was an announcement to his class that “Zack would be picked up today.” The announcement was meant for the other Zack in his class but, being second graders, neither paid attention to the last name. Or perhaps all of that rehearsing inspired him to throw a wrench into the day – really test the abilities of this new face in his life. He was not weeping at all. He looked fine. I was not fine. My nerves were frazzled. I began apologizing profusely for dropping the ball on my first catch attempt. No one seemed to mind – just a little confusion on pickup. But I felt awful, like this was a preview to how I would rate as a mother figure. As we made our way out to my car, I continued the apologies, throwing in an offer for ice cream, if it would help. I’m not sure exactly what it was going to help – but I knew I needed it. And, as luck would have it, 8-year-old boys apparently always need it. Off we went, back past the house to the nearest ice cream store, which is when panic number two arrived. While we were standing in line waiting to order our cones, it suddenly dawned on me that I was now pushing not be home at all for the second bus delivering the second child from the second school.
Make that two scoops. Stat.
Seven years later – I have added several locations to the places in which I have lost this child:
- At Target after a flu shot. He was so devastated at having to face a needle that he ran off in the middle of the shot, leaving a trail of blood down his arm. The was the last thing we saw before spending thirty minutes scouring the store trying to find him. If the pharmacist hadn’t witnessed the run, we probably could have kept it very hush-hush.
- At Kohls. During the years of 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and ending in 2019, which is when I realized it was easier not to take him. Which was after I realized it was easier to let him run wild in the store with strict instructions not to leave the building but also realized that finding him when I was ready to leave was going to be just short of impossible and very near needing an assist from store security.
- There was that one weekend where he was at a friend’s house with plans for his bio-mom to pick him up. He went cell phone dark – ignoring all texts from three parents – finally causing an awkward phone call to the hosting parent during which all three parents learned that he’d told her a longer visit was all worked out. It wasn’t. None of us knew what was happening or where he was, only that he knew better. Or he would soon.
- Name a cruise and we’ve misplaced him. Kind of. We always give him a very clear stay away from the railings before sending him off. But to a child, ‘very clear’ is often very open to interpretation. But sometimes parents need parent time (wink, wink) which may involve an approved go, explore the ship, but be back in an hour with a forgotten wait, how will he know when it’s been an hour?
- On most soccer fields. All the time. Literally. They all look the same in uniform. I do cheer for every goal as if it were my own kid who scored it. Because it may have been. I don’t know.
I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from that first attempt at bus duty. Zack’s come home on the bus probably about 1500 times since. By my count, I’ve missed less than five arrivals without notice. It doesn’t matter much anymore as he has a key and a good head on his shoulders and I’m mostly sure he won’t burn the house down, but I do like him knowing that I will be home when he arrives and all the stories of his day are fresh. Even now, I set an alarm before errand-ing – telling myself at what point I needed to be in the checkout at Target or Kroger in order to make it home with plenty of time. More than once, I’ve hit the end of the driveway just as the school bus crested the hill – I throw the car in park with a causal oh, I just thought I’d pick you up today surprise (wink, wink).
Obviously, the insertion of a cell phone into his life has helped. Sometimes. Kids today, am I right? They like to keep their phones on silent with the display at a -1% brightness – causing a very not-uncommon Oh, I didn’t hear the ding. Or the other not-uncommon I forgot to look at the time. It’s frustrating both because of the reminder that kids have young eyes and ears – zero need for maximum sound/vibrate/brightness/font on their phones – and also because I’m tired of saying well, then set a timer or make sure you check your phone or if you’re not going to be in touch with me, then maybe you don’t need a phone. We even find ourselves re-allocating punishments so that loss of phone doesn’t rise to the top as it ends up being more of a pain for us, the parents, then for him. How did our parents do it? Getting through an entire day without a need to reach out once or twice?
I’ve been racking my brain for weeks now in order to share a companion story of a time when his older sister became lost, but I cannot think of a one. Is it a younger child thing? They see you’ve yet to permanently misplace the previous children so their sense of security is higher? Or is it a boy thing? Do they just not feel any low level panic when their parents disappear from their view? Do they feel a sense of freedom and space and anticipation when they realize they are riding solo, feet off the pedals, a breeze in their not-so-lonely hair? Does it awaken their sense of exploration?
Is that really what happened to Louis & Clark?
Were they just supposed to go, explore a bit, but be back in a hour?