It was any normal Sunday afternoon at the zoo: the sun shone brilliantly, the birds chirped relentlessly, and the animals basked in the glory of people’s admiration. Usually my husband and sons and I go on our own, but this time we had the boys’ Godparents and their two children with us—an unusual occurrence given the challenge of scheduling around four children. After visiting the giraffes we were moving on to the sun bears when I discovered my five-year-old son was gone.
“Where’s Tommy?” I shouted to my husband. I watched him do the same spin-around survey of the area and I read something in his face I’ve never seen before: fear. Not that my husband is some kind of tough guy, but this moment was different; our child was missing.
Without words my sons’ Godmother took her kids and my older son to the side of the path, I went to the camels, my husband went to the tigers, and the boys’ Godfather went to the exit. It was likely only a few minutes we were separated but in that time I had the most profoundly sacred experience of my life.
“Please God, please watch over my baby. Please keep him safe, please keep him safe.” I repeated this mantra quietly, but audibly, and people around me started searching too. I was running and my face was stained with tears but inside I was in this deeply quiet place, where all I could hear were my own words. “Please God, please watch over my baby. Please keep him safe, please keep him safe.”
I went as far up as I thought he could make it in the brief time I had my eyes off him, and then started the run back, still praying and still calm, to the scene of his disappearance. As I turned the corner and came down the hill I saw Julie shouting and waving frantically but it took me a moment to pull myself out of my soul enough to make out the words, “They found him! Nicole, they found him!”
I thought I’d collapse in that very spot, desperate in my gratitude.
Instead, I sped up, as did the tears. As soon as she saw I had heard her, she turned the other direction and shouted the same thing to my husband. Interestingly, he sped up too only the intensity of his fear had not yet released; he had to see our son for himself before he could let go.
He and I arrived back at our makeshift home base at the same moment Vince arrived with our most distraught little boy. He fell forward toward me, arms outstretched as if he was still a baby crying to be held by his mommy. I took him and brought him to the ground, holding him in a way only the arms of relief can hold.
Quickly we composed ourselves, as not to scare Tommy further. He ran to my husband and held his hand, something he would do almost until he was buckled into his seatbelt an hour later. He said he was walking to the rides and he thought we were with him. Vince found him crying but safe, with a very kind woman who was holding his hand and waiting for someone to find him.
The boys walked ahead and I turned to Julie.
“I thought I lost him, Julie,” I cried. And then, like the always do, the tears came for real. Tears of the what-might-have-happened, tears of thank-god-it-didn’t.
“I know,” she replied, “I know.” She hugged me quickly and we walked on.
In making the short trip from the sun bears to the children’s rides, three deep and abiding lessons washed over me:
-Never underestimate the power of a village. Without the boys’ Godparents that day our job would have been more difficult, our older son would have been more panicked, and our younger son may not have fared so well. For so many years my husband and I insisted on a fierce independence and pioneer spirit when it came to child rearing; thank goodness on that day we could rely on our dear friends to help, even without the time or words to ask.
-Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. As I searched for my son, even as I retreated deep inside to stay calm, others were helping me, supporting me, empathizing with the fear I was experiencing. The ultimate example of this, of course, is the kind woman who waited with my son. It is not only a gift but also a resource that we are so deeply connected in experience and humanity.
-Never underestimate the power of self, especially when paired with prayer. I’m likely not one many would trust in an emergency. I tend to freak out quickly and over things that really don’t matter. In this moment, however, a moment that could have had the most dire of consequences, I was calm and collected and focused—that is, at least until the emergency was over. I don’t know if I could have remained that way for more than the few minutes I had to endure the unknown, but this experience showed me the depths of my emotional resources and, perhaps most importantly, that I’m never alone.
As I watched my son on the car ride, spinning around and around on a road going nowhere, wrestling the steering wheel like turning it made any difference at all, head back in laughter as his dad pretended to tickle him every time his car “drove” past us, I put my hand on my heart and said simply and profoundly, “Thank you.”
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