I lose things all the time…my shoes, my hairbrush, my phone, my keys…but not my kids. I’ve never lost my kids…well…not until last week. I’m always on hyper-alert when I go out with my eldest, he’s super independent. Always has been. At his second birthday he had the entire group of extended family and friends in shock as he took off on his new three-wheeler to go investigate the local oval without so much as looking over his shoulder to see where we were. He’s never been attached to the other end of an apron string. He’s never fretted. He just gets about his business and if he wants to go check something out, he does so - with or without his parents tagging along.
Ironically, it happened when I was shopping with only my youngest child. Was I more relaxed? Was this my first mistake?
I was in Best & Less, chatting away to him as I tried to quickly riffle through a rack of singlets and shorts to grab some cheap ones for the boys now that summer has hit us in full swing. I was glancing between him and the clothes telling him to, “Stay there, I’ll just be a second,” and bribing him with a choc chip cookie. Next thing I know he’s running towards the other side of the shop, giggling like crazy and I’m saying, “Hey, get back here!” whilst madly trying to grab the last size 3 monster top off the hook as I run after him.
I can see him running – when the hell did he get so fast?! He’s headed straight for the floor-to-ceiling rack of clothes against the window. By the time I reach him (a whole of 10 seconds later) he’s snuck in between the gap between the window and the clothes. He’s grinning at me and edging slowly away from me like a cheeky little crab, as I’m saying, “Oi, come here. Get out of there” with a reciprocal smile on my face. Was this my second mistake?
He’s gotten too far away from me, so I come out from peering down the window and head to where I’m assuming he’ll exit. He’s not there. Ok, that’s fine, he’s just playing, he probably just went further along the window… He’s not there either. We’ve been playing hide-and-seek at home lately…was this my third mistake?
I call his name. My brisk walk is now semi-jog. I call his name again. No answer. Now I’m on the floor, peering under clothes racks, a man asks, “Have you lost something?”
“Yes, my child,” I answer.
“That happened to me once,” he says and then he disappears.
The shop is FULL of people. It’s suddenly HUGE. There are clothes and people EVERYWHERE. But no child. I can’t see him, I can’t hear him, he’s not answering my calls. Now the panic is started to kick in. It’s not cute anymore. Now I’m starting to freak out. Now I’m running, and I’m calling his name over and over again. Louder and louder. I can actually hear the change in my voice. It’s gone from sing-song to deep, and now it’s starting to raise octaves. People are looking at me, but the moment I make eye contact they look down, or to the clothes on the racks, or to their handbags. No one says anything.
Suddenly my mind kicks into gear – what if he isn’t in the shop anymore?! What if he ran out? I look towards the entrance and I see the man I spoke to minutes before. There he is, with his wife, guarding the entrance. He calls to me, “He hasn’t come out, Love” as he looks back and forth over his shoulder. I can’t tell you the gratitude I felt for that dear man in that instant.
My mind is racing. So many thoughts – I’m thinking of those boys that took that poor child from the shopping centre to the railway track, I’m thinking about Madeleine McCann, I’m even thinking about bloody dingos! What if someone took him? What if he got out before the man went to the entrance? What if, what if, what if...
Finally one of the store girls asks if I’m ok, to which I reply, “No I’ve lost my child”. She asks what he’s wearing. My mind, for a split second goes completely blank as I try to recall. Then she’s off looking too.
It was probably only about 5 minutes later that she found him. But it felt like a lifetime. He was hiding in some clothes…doing a poo. Clearly he just wanted a bit of alone time to do his business. I’ve made a mental note that if this ever happens again, I will drop my nose to the ground like a bloodhound and sniff for the poo trail. But jokes aside, it was up there with one of the most distressing moments of my life.
In that short moment I think I experienced the full spectrum of human emotion: Gratitude; Empathy; Disappointment; Fear; Relief; Anxiety; Hysteria; Guilt; Panic; Love… I shook for a good two hours following, and I still feel my stomach flip-flop when I think of it now. I cannot fathom the magnitude of pain those people whose children never return, must feel. I experienced the minutest tip of it, and it near on brought me to my knees. It only takes a single second and your life can change completely.
My other realisation in that moment was this: 95% of people will turn the other way when confronted with a difficult situation. They’ll fuss with the contents of their handbag; rush to a change room; or turn their cheek to play up the intensity of their otherwise trivial conversation. They’ll avoid eye contact; fixate on a price tag; or simply turn to walk in the other direction. The shop I was in was packed. Perhaps the busiest I’d ever seen it. If everyone had stopped still and looked around I believe he’d have been found in less than 30 seconds. Instead they watched me run panicking around the shop for a good 10 minutes and did nothing. In the same moment that I thought I’d lost my little boy, I also lost a little faith in the world. With the exclusion of the paid shop assistant…just one man stopped to help. He saw a problem and he stepped up. He thought for me when I couldn’t. He dropped everything he was doing to stand guard at that door, and I have no doubt that he would have stayed there as long as I had needed him without me having to even ask. These are the people we need in our world... Sadly, it seems, they are the minority.
Thank you dear man. Your simple act of kindness truly touched my heart. It will forever remind me not to lose sight of the impact a little consideration, a little compassion, and a little time can have on the lives of others.