Sunday, January 10, 2010

Paradise Lost

Last week, I lost Toby in Costco.

And yes, I’m just now getting around to mentioning this, because an odd thing happened: I kind of forgot.

After I found him, I drove home a little shakily, but by the time we got back to the house, he was asking about lunch and wanting to watch a video and things were so normal that I had no trouble going about unloading the car and popping Spirit into the DVD player for its four-billionth viewing and doing some work. And then we went to karate and I made dinner and reminded people to do homework and supervised the brushing of teeth and the donning of pajamas, and after the lights went out I think I may have watched Cold Case. And then the next day there was the pre-school rush to contend with and then the week just carried on in its rapid-firing, epically-proportioned sort of way, piling on the days as it always does, and before I knew it, it was Saturday and I was driving the kids up to ski practice and back and doing about eight loads of laundry and crashing on the couch midway through an episode of Mad Men. And then I was waking up early to go to church and it wasn’t until this afternoon, six miles into a ten mile run, that my mind finally slid into that relaxed-fatigued gear and through its multi-layers of defenses--and a pounding Green Day play-list--slipped this single, indisputable fact:

Last week, I lost Toby in Costco.

And instantly, half a dozen horrifying, unmentionable possibilities of what could have been fanned out before me, each one more gruesome than the last, and it’s a wonder I didn’t physically stumble on the gravel of the shoulder of the road. Because during that single moment last week, I had felt this close to my life (Toby’s life, my life, all wrapped up and knotted) changing forever in the worst imaginable way. This close to the comfortable cycle of chores and bedtimes and school and work coming to a screeching halt.

This close to losing one of my someones I cannot lose.

Maybe we always are. Maybe we’re always walking a blind edge that drops off into endless abyss. We wouldn’t know; we prefer blinders. No, we need blinders, just to keep one foot in front of the other. I’m no different.

Of course, nothing did happen. We had been in the check-out line (so close to being finished and earning our slices of cheese pizza at the food counter) when Toby started wiggling a bit too much. And then announced to the warehouse at large that he needed to go potty. And since I could see the doors to the bathroom from where I stood loading vats of applesauce from my cart onto the conveyer belt, I sent him there with Calvin (age 8).

I watched them disappear together into the men’s room. The next thing I knew, I was writing out my check and Calvin was back at my side.

“Where’s Toby?”

He stared at me with his ‘huh?’ expression. “He came out before me.”

The cashier was still waiting for my check. I had only one of the two kids I came in there with accounted for, but unbelievably, my first thought was: don’t hold up the line. I scribbled out my check distractedly:

“Came out before you? Are you sure he isn’t still in there? Did he wait outside the door?”

Calvin mirrored my manufactured, don’t-make-a-scene calm. (Ask anyone: in a crisis, I‘m always calm.) “I’m pretty sure he’s not.”

“Pretty sure?!”

I sent him running back to the bathroom while I pushed my big cart away from the line and toward the front entrance where those big bay doors lead out into the parking lot. I imagined him on the other side of them. Involuntarily, I imagined him taken on the other side of them. I weaved between people with carts to get the attention of the employee stationed at the entrance.

Like Calvin, she was ‘pretty sure’ she had not seen a little blond boy in tan pants and a blue shirt with airplanes all over it.

And then Calvin ran back, shrugging, and I spun back toward the check-out area, scanning it at my best estimate of five-year-old level. Nothing.

Back toward the bathrooms. Nowhere.

I called to him, weaving through the ridiculous plastic picnic tables by the food counter. No answer.

I ran back for my cart (mostly thinking he might be there? Why would he be?) and then--yanking Calvin along--back into the store aisles at large. Finally--perhaps three or four minutes later?--I saw him. He was walking up the aisle parallel to ours…the one with pillows and duvet covers and inexplicably, socks. I saw his blond head bobbing along and the crushing anxiety I hadn’t even fully registered left my body in a whoosh of relief that nearly swept my feet out from under me.

He sighed when he saw me. “I’ve been looking for you!”

He has this habit of pronouncing ‘for’ like ‘fer’, but I didn’t correct him. I didn’t freak out in any way, actually. But I held his little hands and just stood there for a minute, breathing.

And then Calvin asked if we were getting pizza.

And the irony, of course, is that I go to classrooms and teach kids what to do if they get lost all year long as part of my responsibilities in Search and Rescue. Toby’s sat in on dozens of these talks. Any other day, he’d have been able to tell you what to do:

Stop.

Stay in one place.

Wait it out…whether in the wilderness or in store aisles, whether in doorways or under desks with our hands over our heads…however we are taught to weather potential crisis we cannot avert and cannot withstand. And then if we're a mother, or a father, or anyone else who loves in that risk-it-all, everything-on-the-table way that leaves us both breathless and utterly defenseless, we pray that those singular moments--the terrifying ones with the power to change lives in all the worst ways--will pass over or around us, and, a merciful God willing, away from us altogether, out and over the abyss.
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