Although misplacing my nine-year-old son has become a commonplace experience, it is nonetheless still unsettling.
The first time, he was eighteen months old, in the yard playing one moment, and nowhere the next. I found him in the dark garage — the second time I looked — shuffling amidst the dangerous-to-a-toddler bikes, laundry detergent, old paint.
Now he’s nine, and when he is “lost” it’s usually because he is trying to be. At the park during his brother’s lengthy baseball games, he has free reign to roam. He has discovered that if he scales a fence he can explore the adjacent canyon. It’s a great place for imaginative play, running, and being in nature, but also far from watching eyes and help should he get hurt. He is supposed to ask permission, yet my most common exclamation at the park is, “Emmett!! Where are you?!”
But my most unnerving “Where’s Emmett?” episode happened May, 12, 2013. Mother’s Day.
It started with a Mother’s Day plan to go for a family bike ride, the four of us, leaving all digital devices at home at my request. Together we would ride from our home in Venice a few blocks to the bike path, up the Boardwalk to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market for a breakfast of chocolate crepes.
Chocolate bribe notwithstanding, Emmett wouldn’t budge. His happy place is home, in pajamas, playing.
He daaaaawdled. His older brother, on the other hand, is about action, always first to be ready. He was already on his bike, itching to go. Here’s where I made my mistake.
To stall, I called out to Christopher, “Aaron and I will ride once around the block while Emmett gets ready.” Christopher, who was getting the last bike out of the shed, did not hear. But Emmett did. And as Aaron and I glided away, unbeknownst to anyone Emmett took chase. Nothing motivates him like the desire not to fall behind his brother. Thus, when Christopher came out of the shed, no one was there. He assumed we had started for the bike path, so he headed there. When Aaron and I finished our circle, no one was home. We also headed to the bike path.
Fifteen minutes later, we three found each other in Santa Monica. We looked around, asked with incredulity, “Where’s Emmett?” The only answer was a pit in my stomach.
“I’ll head toward home,” Christopher said. “We’ll search the Farmer’s Market,” I answered. We sped off, scouring our sections of the bike path, the wide beach on one side, the chaotic Boardwalk on the other.
At the Farmer’s Market, I rushed past parents watching their children dance, shouting my child’s name with a panic-infused voice I couldn’t disguise. A market official asked what was wrong, and, following protocol, she called the police.
Although my memory fails me increasingly, certain experiences do not fade, such as the first time you describe to a police officer the clothing your child wore when he left the house, his height, his hair cut, the color of his eyes. You may not think you are paying attention to how your child dressed himself any given day, but you will surprise yourself with the way memory tightens. “Black shorts, to the knees, with two white stripes on each side. Red Clippers shirt. Chris Paul, not Blake Griffin. Orange socks. White sneakers. Double knotted.”
He was not at the Farmer’s Market. “Let’s go back to the beach,” I said to Aaron, who was by my side all along. It was all I could think to do. But it was Aaron who saved the day, suggesting, “Maybe we could ask someone to borrow their phone, and call Dad. Maybe he found him.” That’s what we did.
“I’ve got him,” Christopher answered.
Emmett had never left our block. He had chased Aaron and me, missing us on the first rotation by a moment. Around and around he went, but by that time we were gone. A family walking down the street saw him in front of our house, obviously distressed, and let him use their phone. He knew our numbers, and called our cell phones. Which rang at home.
Meanwhile, dizzy with relief, my last task before heading home was to to tell the Farmer’s Market lady that all was well, that she could call off the cops. No can do, she said. They would send a squad car to our house to see for themselves.
“Are you Emmett?” the officer asked. “Are you okay?”
Emmett spared us by letting his thoughts — “Are you kidding? With these idiots to watch over me?” — go unspoken. “I’m fine,” he answered.
“Sir, we were two minutes away from putting a helicopter in the air to look for your son,” the officer told Christopher.
I wonder, was it a slow crime day? Was our story so suspect? Are we now on the Child Protective Services watch list? And I wonder, what is the point to such scares that sear our memories? What good can come from scars left by an hour of panic one Sunday morning? Just this: That in every mundane goodbye kiss, every hug shrugged off too soon, every “see you after school,” lives a prayer in miniature: Let my children be safe, and let them be strong; let them be kind and be treated with kindness. And, for the love of God, let there be no need for police helicopters today. Amen.