Last summer we were sitting with a gathering of people from our new nursery school. We were at Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the country, under a tree that was adjacent to a large expanse of grass next to a baseball field.It was flanked by playgrounds and dotted with birthday parties and moon bouncers, as it was on every lazy Sunday afternoon at the height of summer.While it is a common meeting place for families with young children, it's hardly a safe haven from the dangers of city dwelling.They find from three to six bodies a year in Griffith Park,sometimes more.
We were having a lovely chat when our new friend suddenly and quietly asked her husband where their older girl was. The child had just been there, eating grapes and fixing the picnic blanket. Her mother had been holding their second child, who was a teeny baby, and their first,who would be two in January, had simply vanished.
The father quietly put down his lunch mid sentence and stood. He looked first at the play ground directly behind us, then to the picnic tables, in the hope that she was playing between the benches. Then to the dirt road, then to large expanse of grass that disappeared into the bushes adjacent to the freeway.We all stood and looked, semi frozen with the reality of what had just occurred. The park looked like a video game-kids running,people jogging all directions, single men walking slowly across the grass, couples lying on blankets and kissing.All this activity, and no child in sight. He began to call out her name, as we all did, but there was an eerie sense of futility, not that she was actually gone, but more that it seemed impossible that we would ever find such a small person in such a large, crowded, and perilous space. We split up,each taking a different direction, yelling her name and scanning for a hopeful sight of her adorable small frame ambling across the grass. I happened to take the section to the rear, and walked directly across the grass to the far side where a moonbounce was tucked under a large oak tree.As I approached, I began to run. I saw only unfamiliar silhouettes jumping up and down. I started to call out in broken Spanish about a small missing child to the smiling hispanic woman who was peering in at the jumpers when I saw her. In the corner of the moonbounce,I saw her round sweet head atop her small precious body,quietly rolling around.I called to her, and she looked up,with no sense of the trouble she'd caused in wandering off. I coaxed her out and scooped her up, feeling a wash of relief, and the smallest flash of anger that children have so little understanding of the trauma they cause in silently pursuing their bliss. I told her that her parents would be very happy to see her right this minute, and we ran across the lawn, rushing to spare them even one more second of the blinding, chest crushing, dizzying terror that they had been experiencing for the last four minutes. I think someone saw us and called out to them.They met us on the grass,a cool layer of calm over full body petrifaction. There was no admonishment, just hugging and semi hysterical laughter as an attempt to salvage the rest of the afternoon.
We may tuck them in bed that night and thank our lucky stars, but we never quite recover from those experiences. As parents,it scars us subcutaneously,deep in our psyches, because we know that it was we who let them slip away unnoticed.We know in our hearts that we just got lucky and happened to find them safe, this time.
This happened again a few months ago at the zoo with a stranger's child.I saw the beginning of it, just as before, with the alarmed questions to each other about where the middle girl had gone. They were two women with two other kids.They immediately split up, calling her name frantically. I approached, and asked what she was wearing.She told me a brown dress with pink flowers and pointed to the younger girl they were with."Just like that with blonde braids.She's five...",she said, breathlessly, and told me her child's name,Brooke.I left my two kids, safe with Daddy by the penguins and went the opposite direction, secretly patting myself on the back for often dressing my kids alike for this exact reason. I scanned the crowd as I passed the otter exhibit, feeling again like I was in a strange video game, with elephants, and macaws and popcorn carts moving in the foreground. I was overcome by the same feeling of futility, because there were so many possibilities of where she could be. I got to the top of the crowded trail and saw a huddled group by the fence,with a small blonde braided girl in a brown shirt with pink flowers. I told them her name was Brooke, and asked her to come with me.They had a fleeting moment of suspicion as I swooped in and took her by the hand back down the hill. I told her that her parents were looking for her by the penguins.I followed the sound of their voices,hoarsely calling out for her, into the snake exhibit.They were reunited in front of the boa constrictor window. Three minutes of hell, over at last. Again, no admonishment, just hugs.The mother had the same layer of cool over abject terror.The adrenaline surge must have been exhausting.She thanked me, not for just helping, I think, but more for understanding exactly how she felt.
I returned to my family, who were ready for ice cream and tired of waiting for me.
As we walked back up the hill to the Dippin' Dots cart, I felt a terrible and overwhelming sense of compassion for the families whose hell never ends.The ones who look all afternoon, and eventually call the police.The ones who tearfully describe what she was wearing to the officer and explain that they had only looked away for a minute. The ones who have to get in their car as night falls, and drive home, leaving behind the last place they saw their child alive. They lie awake wondering if she is still out there, lost, scared, alone.Or worse yet, is she with someone who may wish to do her harm.
It is unimaginable that people endure this,let alone survive this. Life is so fragile, really, painfully and punishingly fragile.
I think I will GPS my kids until they are in college. That's legal, right?