Last Friday, my eight year-old daughter, Essa, stayed home from school with a bad case of everyone-else-in-my-class-is-sick-so-I-wanna-be-sick-too-itis.
As a mother, I’ve experienced these strange illnesses before. My son, Taylor, once had I-can’t-go-to-school-because-I-sprained-my-ankle-and-halfway-through-my-day-off-started-limping-on-the-wrong-foot syndrome, and my other daughter, Grace, recently struggled with I-didn’t-get-my-book-report-finished-therefore-I’ll-cry-until-my-face-turns-an-unnatural-shade-of-puke-so-I-can-stay-home-and-finish-it disorder.
Needless to say, I’m usually unsympathetic to the sudden onset of these strange and often fleeting maladies, but last week, when Essa came down the stairs looking like this, I caved.
Essa’s hair is unusually dark in this picture thanks to highlights expertly applied by the Sharpie she’s not supposed to have in her room. That application, coupled with a furrowed brow, deeply pained eyes, and hair sticking out in so many directions she must have styled it herself, makes for a pretty clean case.
Knowing Essa wasn’t that sick (she had a sinus infection), I asked her to take our dog, Wrigley, to the bathroom while I shuffled Grace into the car for the four-minute drive to school. Completely unhurried and in zero danger of receiving a dreaded tardy slip, I pulled out of the garage and left Essa behind with Wrigley, talking to a neighbor who lives up the street.
This is where I left my daughter.
This part bears repeating, so I will. I intentionally, without thought or concern, drove off without my eight year-old daughter.
When I got home, Essa was gone.
When you leave your child alone and assume that upon returning she’ll be at the kitchen table coloring, in the bathroom, or en route to her room in search of a favorite book only to find she isn’t anywhere she’s supposed to be? The sound of her absence is deafening.
My first thought was that Wrigley had gotten loose, so I immediately ran to the back yard and up into the scrub oak calling their names. No luck. I then jumped into my car and drove the area where we often walk our dog. Twice. Still no Essa. I came back home and searched the house, yard and scrub oak again. Nothing. I next called a monitoring company (when you adopt a dog, the shelter often puts a microchip in him so that he can be returned if he’s lost), with the hope that Wrigley’s chip could be tracked. It couldn’t. Still alone, battling the roaring silence in my house, and scared out of my mind, I started to cry, and in that state of panic, called our neighborhood security. Our security officers, in turn, contacted the county Sheriff, and within five minutes, three security vehicles and two patrol cars screeched to a halt in front of my house.
That’s Essa and me in front of the scrub oak where I was trying to find her…obviously on a different day.
In almost thirteen years as a mother, I’d never, not even for a second, lost a child.
For me, the most poignant moment in that endless vacuum of time was pulling Essa’s child identity card from my wallet to give to the police officer; the one you think you’ll never use. She’s wearing her favorite softie bunny t-shirt, a pair of puppy earrings that she begged me to let her clip on for her school picture, and a huge grin. My baby was right in front of me, only she wasn’t. It was just a picture of her smiling at the world from the confines of a one-dimensional, laminated card, surrounded by information only meant to be used under the worst possible circumstances.
One officer took the card and left, and I covered my face and sobbed…a release of emotion so guttural and deep that it felt like the entire world had shifted beneath me, shaping itself into a self-created prison I had never, in my darkest nightmares, expected to know.
As I turned toward the house, I saw a little girl and her dog walking down the street in my peripheral view. My little girl and my dog. The confluence of emotions I felt in that moment is almost impossible to describe. Love. Relief. Incredulity. Happiness. Disbelief. Thankfulness. Wonder. I could use a million different descriptors and never get it right.
As she approached, I saw that Essa wasn’t alone. She was with the neighbor I’d left her talking to when I took Grace to school. That neighbor, who’s name I don’t know, who’s house is somewhere up the street, who I’ve exchanged small talk with when I pass her walking our dogs but who’s never been invited into my family’s life, and who appears to be my age (which is to say, not young), thought it was O.K. to take my daughter for a 45-minute walk without my permission.
Even more disturbing to me however, was that Essa thought it was O.K. too.
And that’s why I’m telling this story.
There are at least three important emotions I left out above in trying to describe how I felt when Essa came home. Anger, embarrassment, and shame.
I was embarrassed to call the police when I couldn’t find my daughter.
I was ashamed to admit I’d left her alone.
I was angry with the woman who took her for a walk without my permission.
I was angry with Essa for going.
But most of all, a thousand times over, on top of my conscience, through my heart and back? I was angry with myself. I’m a mother. My primary job is protect my children. My secondary one is to teach them. I did neither in this case.
Somehow, between raising three kids, skirting in and out of once strictly bound parameters that have loosened with time, brushing hair and trimming nails, packing healthy lunches and hiding Halloween candy, I neglected to teach Essa the many shapes a stranger can take, and that just because you recognize someone doesn’t mean you can walk away with them. To her, the lady she left our house with was a nice person with a dog who she could trust. To me? That lady was, and still is, a stranger.
How could I have allowed such a huge disconnect between the two?
Once Essa was safely inside, a compassionate police officer explained that she falls within an age range of children who have a difficult time determining who a stranger really is. We all tell our children the classic “Stranger Danger” stories, often revolving around a creepy man at the mall who attempts to lure them into his car with candy. But what about an adult who doesn’t fit that description at all? What about a person that an eight year-old girl, who still believes in Santa and considers her favorite stuffed animals to be among some of her besties, might see as a friend just because she seems nice?
When it comes to dealing with adults, I’ve always taught my children to be kind, polite, and to defer to authority. I’ve never told them to pull back, be suspicious, say no, or walk away. It’s a gray area, but it’s one that she, and every child, should better understand.
Last Friday, I set off a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the payment of a small price for lessons my entire family has now learned. You only have to turn on the news to see that I was lucky.
I’d like to express a sincere and heartfelt thank you to all the officers who responded to my call. Every person who came to help me find Essa acted professionally, compassionately, delicately, and diligently. It’s a day I’ll never forget, and I will remain forever grateful to everyone who assisted and supported our family.