Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Cautionary Tale

Valentine's Day is typically a day of taking comfort in the arms of the ones you love. And this year, that proved true but for extraordinary reasons.

On Saturday, the day before V-Day, my husband's cell phone suffered a casualty that rendered it useless. We decided to take a trip to the local mall to get a suitable replacement. There was a long wait at the kiosk and Nate grew restless with impatience as we waited for assistance. I thought it would be a good idea to take him to the kids' play area so he could release some of his pent-up energy.

As usual, he had a blast running about with the other toddlers and preschoolers. Unlike the other parents who sat by idly as their children played, I stalked Nate as he ran from post to post. He was spinning large wooden wheels, watching the enclosed beads tumble to the bottom of a transparent well. I watched him climb into a large plastic boat and crouch down as if he had found a hideout. He weaved his way in and out of a dragon maze. He even slid down the slide all by himself. We smiled and laughed as he toddled wildly through the playhouse, dodging the other youngsters like a wide receiver. As I watched him proceed into a small tunnel beneath the slide, a young boy (I'm guessing he was about 4 or 5) approached me with a worried look upon his face. He asked me if there was a nurse around. I scoured him over for signs of injury and asked him if he was hurt, to which he responded no. Thankful, I asked him if he was lost. Maybe he was looking for his mother or caregiver, who happens to be a nurse? Before he could answer, he ran off to his family on the sidelines. Whew, I thought. Crisis averted.

I looked up and glanced around. No sign of Nate. I walked over to the tunnel he had crawled into just 5 seconds prior. Empty. Panic set in as I ran laps around the playground, searching relentlessly for my blonde-haired boy. He had vanished.

That fast, in what felt like a split second, I had lost sight of my son. He was gone. I wasn't sure if I should piss my pants or vomit. Perhaps both. I had a wretched knot in my stomach and my heart had risen to my throat. I was so incredibly scared. This was not happening. I was living a nightmare at that moment.

I stood still, trembling, as I tried to gather my wits and develop of a plan of action. But all that flashed through my mind were images of someone abducting my precious son. Or him running off into a busy crowd to be trampled. Tears welled up in my eyes as I darted out of the play area and into the mall to search for a security guard - or anyone - who could help me put out an APB. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed 18-month old boy named Nathaniel. Nickname Nate. 26 pounds. 32.5 inches tall. I imagined the looks of disgust being shot my way as I explained the situation to law enforcement. Guilt washed over me as I thought about how I had allowed my son to be put in a dangerous scenario. I vowed from the moment I saw those two pink lines that I would do everything in my power to protect him. And here I was. I had let him down. I should not have let him out of my sight. Not for one second. I should have ignored that little boy. Or should I have? I thought I was doing the right thing. That I was helping. But now I'm here. What kind of mother does this...?

Suddenly, someone yanked me out of my internal monologue. A man, who had noticed the look of fear plastered across my face, asked if I was missing a little blonde-haired boy. Rather excitedly, I told him yes, I was. He said he and his wife had noticed him running out into the mall and his wife had gone chasing after him. I aimlessly ran in the direction of his pointed finger and sure enough, a young woman was walking toward me with Nate in her arms. He was smiling, blissfully unaware of what had just transpired. She told me that he was running full-speed ahead toward a Victoria's Secret. (Let's not even go there)

I don't think I have ever felt more relieved in my life, as I swooped him up and squeezed him so tight that I thought I might take the life out of him. I profusely and tearfully thanked the woman but I think I was still in a state of shock and disbelief. I smothered him in kisses, pressing my cheeks against his soft, white wisps of hair. I kept whispering, I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Even though I knew he couldn't grasp the weight of my words, I had to say it aloud. I knew it wouldn't absolve me but I wanted - I needed - him to know how missed he was. The two minutes that he had disappeared seemed like an eternity. And by the grace of God, the world stopped long enough for him to come back to me. The color could now return to my face.

On the way home, we passed an Amber Alert sign and I couldn't help but sob. That could've been my son's description on that billboard. My son could've been a news story. A statistic. Someone else wasn't as lucky to have a good samaritan step in and save the day. I cried myself to sleep that night. Thank God, I could spend the next day, Valentine's Day, with my family and try to forget this horrible incident. The hubby was very supportive and assured me that despite how I felt about myself, I was still a great mother and that I did everything right.

I keep replaying the scene over in my head, wondering how I could've prevented it. I couldn't in good conscience ignore the little boy that approached me. Try as I might, I won't be able to weed out distraction 100% of the time. So what do I do? Do I avoid play areas that aren't completely contained until Nate is older? I've never really cared for those harnesses. You know, the ones placed on a kids' wrist or around their body. I always thought it looked as though the child was a dog, and said I'd never use "one of those things". Save for the airport or something. But I'm seriously considering purchasing one now that I've been faced with the gravity of having my toddler run off. Not that I plan to ever look away from him for a second again. But for peace of mind.

Sharing this story is a bit therapeutic but it's also a PSA for something we all know but maybe don't always take as seriously as we should. All it takes is a second. Literally. Our babies are faster than we think. Don't take your eyes off of them.