It was hot, and he was wearing a striped shirt and blue shorts. One second he was asking to be pushed on the swing. I turned my back to him, saw that the swings were full. I took a couple of steps toward them, thinking I would ask one of the bigger kids if he would mind taking turns. Turned around, my son was gone.
Maybe 10 seconds had passed. I panicked in a tenth of that time.
I have never been one of these parents who think, “That will never happen to me.” I read stories about drownings and car crashes and toppling furniture. Of course it could happen to me. I took precautions to at least lower the risk.
But this time, he vanished. Just vanished. He was three years old and gone.
I raced down the playground’s slope. I didn’t scream because it was odd how I did not want parents to know what had happened. I did not want to attract stares that said, “How could you lose your kid? How irresponsible are you.”
Twenty hours later, I found him. OK, it was twenty seconds. But count that out, slowly, in seconds, and see just how long it is. Then see how long it is when you are looking for your only son in a busy park.
He was behind a pine tree, picking at the cones. “Hey bud” I said very calmly. “So, looking at cones, huh? Cool.”
Did not yell at him for wandering off, since I should have been more attentive. He was three, after all. I was the responsible one.
I thought it would ease as he got older, but it never goes way. It evolves. The worst times is when he got his license, then a car. I had him text me when he arrived, when he left, when he arrived again, then I called him, had him text me photos of where he was at. Over a couple of years it eased, and now that he is 18, I only text him when I am wondering where he is.
But the old feelings come back quickly.
The other night he grabbed his jacket at around 8 o’clock and said he was picking up Marissa or Melanie or some such, and that he was heading to a place south of town, some sort of overlook that I may have called Make-Out Point in my day.
I woke at 1 a.m., not unusual since it seems to be vestiges of my parental warning system, largely dormant but not that night. His door was open, meaning he was not home.
I thought about his last words, him describing this out-of-the-way place, and that is where I pictured him, perhaps assaulted by those who hang out at those places waiting to assault young couples. No, of course not, that was ridiculous, he was probably fine, he may have gone …
Where? After midnight? In a very empty, dangerous part of town? Where serial killers roam?
Because I knew it could happen to me.
Got out of bed because there was no way I could go back to sleep. But this was bad.
I will text him. I knew that as soon as I sent off the text, I would be counting the time. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Second. Minutes. Waiting for the screen to light, the familiar tone to chime. Incoming text.
I picked up the phone, punched in the unlock code.
There was a text. “Gone to see Wolf of Wall Street.” Time-stamped at 10:43. I knew the movie was almost three hours long. Heart slowed enough in the next 10 minutes to get back to sleep.
That feeling will never go away. I am sure it will dim. My dad is 86 years old, and if I don’t make my daily call at the usual time, he worries. Probably the same things he worried when I was younger, but concerns have evolved to include heart attack. Stroke. Hit by a bus.
I understand. And it’s OK.
Comforting, even, to know there is always at least one person looking out for me.