You remain calm at first. You think, it’s just another one of those momentary losses of visual contact with one of my kids. As a Mom, it happens here and there throughout my days and life. Not so unusual. He turned right into the men’s department when the other two went straight. He’s probably under a clothing rack or has tucked himself neatly on an empty shelf. Hiding! He’s right here… somewhere. So you call… and call… and call…
But there’s NO ANSWER! And your voice gets louder with each unanswered call. Please answer me! Silence. No child’s voice calling back, “I’m here!” Even that’s not a real sign, I think. He could still be hiding and waiting for his brother or sister or mother to find him. He won’t answer in that case. Note to self: teach The Boys a secret (read: panic) password so they know it’s no longer a game of hide-and-seek and you have to answer Mommy when she calls out the secret password.
The seconds tick into minutes. I am looking at his other half, his “twin,” and I recognize the panic on his face and I hear the panic in his voice as he calls over and over again for his brother–probably a mirror to mine. I never call them “the twins.” The only time I use the term is to say that I have now nearly-6-year-old identical twins who happened to have been born with an extra 21st chromosome (aka Down syndrome). But suddenly the fear of losing one gives that word a heartbreaking sting. My Old Soul’s face says it all. She appears to be on the brink of tears as she asks if she can go look for him. “NO! I need you to stay with your brother!” I get that sinking feeling, the one I haven’t had since his first 6 weeks in the NICU during his life-threatening battle with NEC. The feeling that I could lose him every time the hospital personnel asked, upon my evening departure, “if it goes bad tonight, do you want us to call you or wait until morning?” Please call! That feeling that spiked every time the phone rang! Yes, here come those scary thoughts that I could be here wasting precious time looking for my hiding child when some unnamed villain might already have walked him out of the store to do unthinkable things to my beautiful and innocent little angel!
I shake those negative thoughts out of my head and grab my two remaining children, running to the front of the store. He’s just hiding. He’s here! I alert a manager at the cash registers. It’s demeaning, as a mother, to have to say those 4 HUGE words, “I lost my child.” It’s the acknowledgement, the failure, the fear of judgement from others when I’m already judging myself harshly for having lost him. The I’m-a-terrible-mother feeling that creeps in when a child gets hurt, or wanders away in that 3-second break from eye-contact. “What does he look like?” the manager asks. I have better than a photo, I have a matching guy… everything the same except the missing guy’s coat is red instead of blue. And, he’s more of an engineer than his brother; he likes to take things apart and find out how they work; and he’s a deep thinker; and he’s quieter and… and… and… OH MY GOD HE CAN’T BE GONE! By the way, he has Down syndrome… I’m generally and comfortably forthcoming about my children having Down syndrome, but this time, it bugs me to say it because I think others will pass judgement about his propensity to wander away. He doesn’t wander! He has just as much ability to stay with me and no more inclination to wander than any other child with or without DS… but they don’t know that and I know they don’t think that. AND I don’t want to be judged right now for not keeping my eyes on my child with special needs every second of every day of his life and mine. That’s impossible! I realize they know nothing about us! He didn’t get lost because he has Down syndrome and I’m not any worse a mother for losing my child with Down syndrome than if I lost my child without Down syndrome. AND look, I didn’t lose my other child who has Down syndrome, so there! They will judge me just the same, if that is their propensity, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I think I’ve already seen it in the eyes of the other shoppers. They feel pity for the overwhelmed mother with the disabled kids who shouldn’t be taking them into a store if she can’t “control” them… “Tsk Tsk Tsk” with a condescending shake of their head. Are these their thoughts or mine? Screw it! I shake all the negativity out of my head…. THEY ARE SOOOOO WRONG!
Yes, he has Down syndrome. Since he wears his diagnosis on his face, I say it! In fact, it is just a matter of helping a stranger identify him and distinguish him from other children, including those that may appear to be escorted by adults but who might actually be in the throes of an abduction like my little one. Oh the horrible thoughts creep in as the alert goes out over the PA and security begins crawling through the store, walkie talkies in hand, scouring the aisles. I go back to the place where I last saw him. It’s been maybe 5 minutes but it feels like an eternity. And I know that 5 minutes is enough time for him to be gone forever.
A woman who’d been shopping across the aisle from me when my Little Man vanished (another horrible word thanks to Hollywood) now offers to watch my two remaining children while I help security scour the store. I hesitate for a moment… those suspicious thoughts niggling my brain. But there’s a store-wide search on now and my Old Soul surely would NOT go anywhere with anyone at this point… hopefully. Despite hours of teaching her otherwise, I know she might if they said just the right manipulative thing! But I succumb, needing desperately to join the search. I thank her and quickly ask the Old Soul to keep track of our Big Man until I return and I run down the aisle shouting my Little Boy’s name. It sounds so empty and scary and permanent without his usual follow-on response “I’m here!” I first search the area where I last saw him. I’m checking under racks and in cabinets under displays. Nothing. Then the patio furniture and lounge chairs where we were originally headed and where, I think, he’d likely stop to play or hide. Nothing. I move on to the nicely made up half-beds. No answer. Then around to housewares and shoes. Still nothing. As I round the corner back to the front of the store and the men’s department where I lost him, a woman yells out to me that they’ve found a little boy in the men’s fitting room. That’s just 20 feet from where he went missing but I didn’t know there was a fitting room there (why would I?) or I’d have checked that before alerting the masses. They’re bringing him around now. And there he is, my Little Man walking down the aisle calmly with a confused look on his face that says, “What’s going on here?” As though we’ve all just inconveniently interrupted his play time.
He is dry-eyed but there’s an ever-so-slight edge to his usually calm demeanor. I hug him tightly and reiterate the rule that he “MUST ALWAYS STAY WITHIN EYESIGHT OF MOMMY.” He snaps, “NO!” Ahhh, that’s a good thing. That means he’s experiencing the fight part of the fight-or-flight fear reaction. So he was afraid… even if only just a little bit. That’s a relief for me. It wasn’t a totally wasted opportunity to teach him to stay with me… though it might have been a better lesson if he’d been left for a longer time (me waiting outside the door) until he was really afraid. Perhaps then he might have learned a bigger, more permanent lesson and I might have a better chance at keeping this from happening again. Right now, I’m not so sure he won’t inadvertently wander away from me again in 15 minutes. I wonder how many more times I’ll have to feel the kind of mild, hidden-underneath-my-pseudo-calm-demeanor kind of panic I’ve just been through.
End Note: I retrieve my other two children from the kind stranger, and thank her profusely. NO, I didn’t leave the store flustered and empty-handed. I explained to all 3 children what my now-angry Little Man had done wrong… and then we shopped for the patio table we’d come for… and all 3 children stayed with me! And, I’m sure, for the rest of my days, every time I sit at that table surrounded by my beautiful children, I will be reminded of how very grateful I am for the three beautiful people God gifted me to take care of and for the lesson learned…
It doesn’t matter what other people think… They don’t know everything so just attend to the issue at hand! Ask for help when you need it! And, I am not in control!
Short of tethering my children to me, or leaving them home (which teaches them nothing), there was little I could have done to prevent the situation from happening. We’ve been in stores a million times before and I never lost anyone. I give them the “stay-within-eyesight-of-mommy” lecture before we enter the store and hold their hands when appropriate. They’re instructed to hold on to the cart. I call them back and tell them to “wait for mommy” if they travel more than 10 feet away from me. And I recruit my Old Soul to help as possible (she’s just a child herself). He still got away… NOT purposefully escaping but inadvertently wandering off just by making a right turn when the other 2 went straight.
The story had a happy ending and it served as a teaching and learning moment for us all. I cannot and will not let this deter me from taking them into a store or any other reasonably public place again. None of us can live a life of limits like that! NO, I wouldn’t take them to Yankee Stadium by myself but I do BELIEVE in the dignity of risk. Sometimes to learn, we have to risk.
Two days later I took them to the Queens Zoo with 2 of their slightly older friends who My Boys love and are inclined to stick around and play with… and I brought Grandma along too! An extra pair of adult eyes never hurts. Besides getting up-close-and-personal with extraordinary creatures, it was an uneventful day. Yes, I’m back in the saddle! So today we’re going to Target… maybe I’ll bring Daddy along this time… just in case.
Read more about our trip to the zoo on 5 Minutes For Special Needs