There were just too many choices.
a feeling i’ll never forget.
just like that, he was gone.
thoughts i never thought i’d think.
Or simply put:
that time i lost my kid.
The list could go on and on but what it boils down to is that Theo slipped away from us at the mall on Friday night. It seems like every parent with adult children has a story to tell about that one time their child ran off. My mom has one of those stories. Ryan’s mom has one of those stories. If genetics had anything to do with it (they don’t), it was only a matter of time.
We were sitting inside a Simon mall playground – you’ve seen them, they have that half wall that goes all the way around. It was time to go, if we wanted to get the boys in bed at a decent time. Looked at my phone, it was 7:23. I was putting Theo’s shoes on and Ryan, Dexter, and our nephew Spencer were standing outside of the playground. Theo was being silly, talking like a baby for reasons unknown to me, saying “Dada! Deh-der! Sen-cer! Pease don’t weave me!” I looked up at Ryan, 20 feet from me, bounced Theo off of my lap onto the floor and gave him an off-you-go kind of pat on the butt and said “hurry! Catch up to daddy!” Ryan was in plain, direct sight, just outside of the playground walking to the left of entrance. I stood up and turned around to grab my purse and shopping bag and mindlessly walked out of the play area looking ahead to Ryan.
just like that, he was gone.
As I caught up to Ryan, he turned and we both looked around. Our eyes met and we both said, “Where’s Theo?”
Instantly, we both set off in opposite directions, lapping the playground and scanning the area for his little body. Ryan went outside and I ran over to the change-operated rides nearby. We continued doing this dance for a couple of minutes. My mind was racing, but my body was calm. At this point, I was thinking he couldn’t be too far away. But I didn’t know which way he went and as more and more time passed, my thoughts were getting more frantic. I pictured him. Was he running? Walking? Was he scared? Did he even realize he’d lost us? I realized quickly that wherever he was, he was getting further away. Ryan was frantically searching in every nearby store as I stayed closer to the play area. At least five minutes had passed and it hit me hard that this is not working. We need help. Now. I went to Guest Services.
The 16 year old blonde with braces eventually looked up at me from her iPhone and before she could get the words “can I help you” out, I said “we’ve lost our 3 year old son. We need help.” She immediately jumped out of her seat and grabbed a radio. She asked for a description and was writing it down as she described him to someone on the other end. Within moments, a security guard was at the desk calling out Theo’s description and commanding that all mall entrances be covered. It was a surreal feeling to hear him say those words.
“We’ve got a missing three year old white male, brown hair and brown eyes, last seen at the playground wearing orange shorts, a white t-shirt, and gray and blue tennis shoes. Repeat…”
I couldn’t stand there another minute. I asked if they needed anything else from me. They took my phone number and said they’d call if he was located, and ask that I let them know if we found him. I took off, back down the corridor towards the playground. I crossed paths with Ryan, who’d been looking for him in every store in that part of the mall. He handed me Dexter and the shopping bags he’d been carrying and said he was going to start running. Too much time had gone by. We were both frantic. Our nephew just kept repeating, “this is not good. This is scary. This is bad. This is so sad.” Dexter kept asking me “what happened?” and “where is Theee-dore?”
Oh, the thoughts I never thought I’d think.
I went outside. There’s a fountain and patio area just outside that entrance near the playground. Theo loves that fountain. I circled the fountain, looking for his little body in the water. I scanned across the parking lot as far as I could see. What if he’s gone? What if he’s kidnapped? What if we have to leave here without him? What if I never see him again? What if.
All of the sudden, a police car pulled up right in front of where I was standing and pacing. I ran over and as he was getting out of his car, I said “we’ve lost our son. He’s three – ” and before I could say anything else, he put his hand on my shoulder and said that he knew and that’s why he was there. As the words were coming out of my mouth, I burst into tears. This was really happening. Now the police are involved. I walked back towards the mall, with the officer by my side. Tears were streaming down my face and I began to sob. We entered the mall and I heard the best sound in my life.
Across the officer’s radio, “can you call the mother? We’ve got little Theo here at guest services.” I’ll never forget that moment. I went into a full-on ugly cry.
It was a feeling I’ll never forget.
I took off towards the service desk and almost ran into Ryan as he darted across the mall, Spencer with him. I slurred something to him that he didn’t understand because he kept going so I motioned to him and somehow he understood that Theo had been found. He sprinted to the service desk and was holding Theo when I got there. I felt like my body could collapse when he was passed into my arms. It was a reunion like none I’ve ever experienced. I squeezed him and cried even harder than ever before, saying over and over “I was so scared, I love you so much.” I heard the policeman say “I don’t think mom’s ever gonna let him go.” And he was right. I didn’t ever want to stop hugging him or feeling him against me. I wanted to smell his hair and breathe in everything that was real about my little boy.
Two kind ladies said they found him standing in front of Sephora, about 250 feet from the playground. As many times as we ran up and down that corridor, I don’t know how we missed him. They said he was calling out for us and they took him to the service desk. THANK goodness for those ladies. It made me wonder how many people saw him, knowing he was probably lost, and didn’t say or do anything. As we were leaving the mall, I looked at my phone. 7:45. He was out of our sight and our arms for about 20 minutes and it felt like 100 years.
It was terrifying and traumatic. Theo did not want to talk about it afterwards or the next day. We had to drive by the mall Saturday and I felt a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat as I remembered the raw vulnerability I felt there the night before. I thought about the what ifs. What if he still wasn’t home? What if it had turned out differently? What if, what if, what if. What if we weren’t so lucky? As horrible as it was, it’s a learning experience. It’s heightened our sensitivity to make sure that the other knows when one of us is sending a child to them. To make sure we can see them at all times. It’s a feeling I don’t ever want to forget, because as long as I remember how I felt that night, I will never take having my babies in my arms for granted. We are so lucky.
The one that drives us absolutely insane with his antics. He’s home. He’s safe. He’s snoozin’ away in his comfy bed. Him and his baby brother are our everything and I don’t know what we’d do if that changed.
We celebrated the every day ordinary on Saturday morning with donuts. And Sunday, we spent the day relaxing at the lake. Soaking up all the normal, cute, funny, brilliant moments that these two bring to our lives.