It was a perfect beach day. Temperatures in the mid-80s, not too much wind, tons of sun. I had packed up my kids that morning and loaded them (along with our 5 thousand tons of stuff) into the car for the half-hour drive to a local river beach. When we headed back home after a few glorious sandcastle-filled hours, our moods were light and we were happy – though all us were quite ready for a nice, long nap.
I noticed my almost-2 year old was nodding off in the backseat as we pulled up to our house. “Wake up, Baby!” I urged him gently. I knew if he fell asleep here, he’d never sleep for naptime. He rolled his head toward me and smiled. I smiled back, unbuckling him and then reaching over to unlatch his 3 year old brother. Together they climbed out the car, scampered up the steps to our house and settled into the porch chairs on the top step as I unlocked and opened the front door.
“Stay here! I’ll bring in the stuff,” I called to them on my way back to the car. We lived on a busy street, at the intersection of a smaller, popular cut-through from another major road. It was rare to see a break in traffic. Because the location of our home made me nervous, our kids had been well-trained to avoid standing anywhere near the road and to stick to the bricks of our front path and/or the grass in the yard – and always with an adult present. Still, they were toddlers, and prone to heed their impulses far too often for me to ever fully put my guard down when we were outside.
I had a clear sightline of them on the front porch as I made my way back and forth between the car and the front entrance to our house, again and again, hauling bags of toys, towels, wet clothes and other assorted gear. On my last trip, I slung the final bag over my shoulder and closed the trunk when I heard a voice to my left side. I turned. It was my next-door neighbor, pulling out of her driveway with the window rolled down.
“You heading to the beach?” she called.
“Just coming back, actually!” I replied.
“How fun! Hey listen, I have a birthday present to give to the little guy. Maybe we can get the boys together tomorrow afternoon?”
“Sounds great!” I said, thanking her as I turned back to the house and she drove off.
The chairs on the front porch were empty. “Hey boys?” I walked inside the house and set the bag on the floor. “Guys, time to come out!” Silence. I circled around the main level. “Boys, if you’re hiding, I need you to come out now. We need to wash hands.” There was no answer. My heart started to pound.
If you know anything about my younger son, you’d know that he can’t stay quiet for longer than about 5 seconds. His idea of playing ‘hide and seek’ is to scream and run out of his hiding place the instant the finder counts to ten. And if there is ANYONE he can’t resist running to, it’s his mommy. He is constantly my shadow, attached to my hip, reaching up to say “Carry me, Mommy!” approximately 400 times per day. So when I had scanned the rooms, opened doors, and called for my boys to come out and still was met only with deafening silence, panic started to set in.
I ran out the door and around the corner of our house to where another neighbor was washing his car. “Did two little boys run by here?” I asked him breathlessly. He shook his head no. I raced to the edges of each street on the intersection, eyes straining for any sign of tiny running creatures. There was nothing. I ran back to the house, my voice beginning to rise to a wailing pitch.
“BOYS! IF YOU ARE IN HERE, YOU MUST MAKE A NOISE NOW. DO YOU HEAR ME? RIGHT NOW! THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!” There was nothing. No baby crying for me. No giggles. No cavalcade of footsteps. The quiet was eerie and unnerving. This house was NEVER quiet. Where the hell were my kids?
I stood in the front hall amidst the mountain of beach bags. I couldn’t entirely process what was happening right now – the kids were supposed to be here. We were just in the car, happily returning from a great morning adventure. They were supposed to be right here, laughing and chasing each other, pushing and arguing until I wrangled them upstairs for nap. But there was no one here, and I was on the verge of total panic
Back outside, the neighbor had summoned his sister and they were both pacing the streets nearby. I began to scream for the boys. Surely they would come running if they heard my voice. Minutes and more minutes passed, each one feeling like an eternity. I screamed until my voice was raw, running from corner to corner of the intersection, cars stopping or slowing to gape at this frazzled woman shrieking in the street in her flip flops and beach cover-up.
Neighbors and passers-by had started to form a crowd outside my house. Others I saw peeking out of windows or coming out to stand on their front porches; my eyes, desperately seeking any sign of movement, saw everything but my kids. I ran back to the house a third time, crying and screaming, again checking rooms, making sure they couldn’t be hiding in there. Still only silence. God, how I wanted to hug them. They had only been out of my sight for a few seconds. How could this have happened? Where could they have possibly gone?
Back outside, all I could here were questions. What were they wearing? How old? I struggled to answer, consumed by fear and worry. A woman in business clothes had pulled over in front of my house. “I have police dispatch on the line,” she said.
“Okay. Thank you,” I managed to respond. I went back to the intersection and screamed for the boys again. Had someone taken them? Could they have pulled them both into a car that quickly? The woman with the phone came over to me and handed it to me. “You need to speak to them,” she said gently.
“Ma’am, I need you to calm down,” the dispatcher said as I put the phone to my ear. Was I sobbing already? I couldn’t breathe. “How long has it been since you noticed them missing?”
“A few minutes….just a few minutes! They were just here!” I managed to say.
“Okay, ma’am, we have an officer on the way right now. I need you to tell me what they were wearing.”
The question was jarring. Were my kids going to end up on “Missing Child” posters? Were they about to be the focus of an Amber Alert? Oh my God. My kids. MY KIDS! I struggled to think. What were they wearing? Beach clothes were the first thing that came to mind. But wait – I had changed them out of their beach clothes for the trip home. What color shirts did I put them into? One was green, I told the dispatcher, but other one…I….couldn’t recall. What kind of mother was I? First I lose my kids, then I can’t even remember their clothes?
“Excuse, me, but – is that them?” an older lady with her husband were standing nearby, watching the house. I followed her gaze to my front door. Sure enough, there were my two boys, in the flesh, holding hands in the doorway. The shock was still fresh enough to immobilize me briefly; I remained standing there, phone to my ear, for a long moment. “They’re here! They’re found!” I shouted to the dispatcher, handing the phone back to the businesswoman and running up the front steps to embrace my kids.
“Where were you????! Didn’t you hear me screaming for you??? What were you doing!!!!” I bombarded them with questions as I held them close.
“We were playing hide and seek with you, Mommy,” the 3-year-old replied. “We were behind the shower curtain and were as quiiiiiiiet as we could be.” The shower curtain. I had been in the bathroom, but didn’t pull it all the way back.
My relief was quickly compounded by anger. “Don’t ever do that to me again! You scared me!! Did you hear me when I called?” Sheepishly, he nodded. We were going to have a long talk about this later.
I turned to the crowd outside of our house, thankful, relieved, and now feeling pretty embarrassed by the level of my hysteria that they had just witnessed. Tears still streamed down my face as I waved, thanking them, still hugging my kids. “Hang on to them,” an older woman called to me. I nodded. Yes. That I would do. Slowly the people dispersed, back to their homes and cars, and I finally closed the front door.
The next few minutes were a blur of tears (mine), laughter (my kids) and lots of hugs. By the time the police officer knocked on the door a few minutes later, I was calm enough to explain things to him. He took my license number, listened to the turn of events, and was thankfully compassionate.
“I would have done the same thing,” he reassured me.
It took me an hour to stop crying, and several to finally stop feeling shaky. Even today, it’s been almost 24 hours, and I still shudder at the thought of it all. I still don’t know how those two boys – who fight over EVERYTHING – had managed to stay still and silent for that long. I don’t know how it happened the way that it did.
But what I DO know is that I’m thankful – that there are good people in this world, who will stop everything to help a frantic mother in the middle of the street; that we have police officers who are competent, kind, and thorough; and most of all, that my kids are here, safe, and perfectly sound.
Sure, I may be embarrassed to run into my neighbors ever again – but it very easily could have been a different story that I am typing here. And thank God, thank everything, that it wasn’t. I lost my kids yesterday in the blink of an eye. It can happen so fast – something most parents know, but perhaps (like me) don’t fully grasp until it occurs. If nothing else, let my story be a reminder – kids are fast, unpredictable, and nothing short of utterly bizarre sometimes. Watch them always. And maybe invest in a good leash.