Two seconds. Maybe three. Okay, maybe six seconds. Maybe as many as six seconds passed while I was waving goodbye to our friends, suggesting a play date for the next day, squeezing in a detail or two about my son’s climbing fort in the yard and maybe some cocoa afterwards. Then I turned around. And my child was gone.
We were at a big home town football game, which had just ended with a three point loss. We were behind the concession stand, near the floats, which loomed up from the parked trucks like stoic mascots, the blue and white painted whales, the streamers and balloons waving in the wind.
People were starting to head up to the parking lot behind the school. I don’t know if they were there for the other team or what, but at first those who passed seemed quite heedless of the panic in my voice as I shouted my son’s name and pivoted around in circles scanning the periphery of my vision like a sharp shooter desperate to find my target. I tried shouting up to my friend Holly, but she couldn’t hear me in the wind, and as the figures of she and her son receded toward the parked cars, I knew I couldn’t afford to run up to her without risking losing time and distance with my child.
With the speed of ricochet I was zipping around, trying to cover all the bases, when a friend from the community saw me and heard the fear in my voice. “What’s he wearing, Rachel?” she asked, and I promptly answered, “Brown.” Great, just great, I’m thinking to myself, I might as well have dressed him in camouflage. “Brown corduroy coat, brown pants, blue hat.” Then I added, “He’s probably back here at this tent.” I dipped back into the tent set up for the home team, but saw no little person in brown.
In my two minutes of frenzied zigzagging, where I had that sinking feeling of a nightmare descending upon me and bearing down hard, where all the horrendous scenarios started playing in my mind…what if someone had taken him? What if he was right now speeding away in some car? I knew that I couldn’t waste any time. I had seen a man in uniform standing on the other side of the concession stand… the unmistakable dark blue of a police officer. I ran right to him, stood in front of him, and realized I knew him.
“Steve,” I said, my urgency crystal clear in my staccato bark.
“Hi,” he said, with a friendly warmth in his voice. The last time I had seen him, we were at a community gathering for a child who had just drowned, a seven year old boy from our community. He was the first born son of my oldest friends on the island. I had been visibly distraught, Steve had embraced me. “I can’t find my kid,” I said now.
“Okay. How old?”
“Two,” I said.
“What was he wearing?”
“Brown. Brown corduroy pants, brown corduroy coat, blue hat.”
My voice was breaking.
“You stay right here,” he said, pointing to the space directly in front of the concession stand,” and he took off around the corner, talking into his radio.
I stood there for a few moments, stunned, a deer in headlights. I hated the helpless feeling of having to stay where I was, but I also understood completely. People passing were taking notice now… “What happened?” a woman said to her friend. “A child?” They looked over at me.
And in the next moment, there was Stephanie, the friend that had come to my aid, walking toward me, holding the hand of my little two year old, who with his other hand was still happily holding and munching his barbequed chicken sandwich. Save a little stream of snot under his nose, he looked unfazed, no worse for the wear.
I crouched down to embrace him, tears now streaming down my face. “Oh Cayce,” I cried. “You scared me. Don’t scare me like that.”
“He’s not upset, though,” Stephanie said. “He’s fine. He was behind the tent.”
I pictured him standing behind the player’s tent, happily eating his first ever concession stand barbequed chicken sandwich, taking in the scene, completely oblivious to the fact that he was lost or that, in those few moments, his mother’s world had turned upside down and just as swiftly righted itself again.
I thanked Stephanie, saying now I just had to let Steve T know. And in the next moment along came the uniformed officer, assessing the end of the crisis and talking into the radio clipped to his lapel.
Squeezing my little chicken sandwich eater tight in my arms, I headed up the hill to the parking lot to go home. My friend Holly and her son were still in their car, trying to make their way out of the parking lot. I breathlessly recounted how in those five or so minutes that had passed I had called in the cavalry because I had lost Cayce. I felt a little embarrassed, deeply guilty, and even incompetent.
At home, C’s father echoed that sense of embarrassment in having gotten the police involved. But telling the cops was the best thing I could possibly have done.
I would rather be embarrassed, even mortified, than sorry. And while there is always the possibility that I “overreacted”, or that I could have found him myself without causing myself the embarrassment of notifying the authorities, why take that chance?
Earlier yesterday I signed on online petition requesting that the Chancellor of the University of California, Davis, step down from his position after allowing local police in full riot gear to pepper spray a bunch of peaceful student and faculty protestors in the face. An old professor of mine, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Hass, was among the protestors who were hit in the head by a police baton. The whole situation makes me sick and sad. They are just working stiffs trying to hold on to their jobs. But the job they are being given right now is nothing I would wish on my worst enemy.
In the midst of these dissonant times, where police all over the country are being put between a rock and a hard place and viewed in a very unflattering light, yesterday’s lesson serves as an important reminder. Never be afraid to ask a cop for help. They just might jump in to save your day. I have a feeling that, given the choice, that is what they would almost always rather be doing.