As I reflect over the events of the last week in particular my heart aches. It hurts for poor sweet Mikaela Lynch, Owen Black, Drew Howell and other children who have recently wandered into danger. It hurts for their families who will never ever be the same. It hurts in fear of losing my own babies. While they’re not technically babies anymore, to me they are still just as vulnerable and losing them would cripple me, to be sure.
My youngest is on the Autism spectrum. Long before we had a diagnosis we still knew that there was something a little different about Ben. We never quite knew if he was listening to us. We never knew if he could feel pain the way we do. We never knew if he experienced fear. He was our dare devil, to put it mildly. But I can tell you for certain it never occurred to me that he would walk right out our door and take off on his own adventure.
Until he did.
When he was about three years old he literally made my heart stop for the first time in my life and it’s never quite been the same since. We trusted he was just like our other children. That he had fear of the unknown and would stick close to home. I learned the hard way that he would forever be our child that we must watch like a hawk. One Sunday evening I was cooking dinner while my husband was working upstairs. Ben was in the living room completely in my line of vision and earshot, watching one of his favorite shows. Our front door was open with our screen door locked, allowing in the warm spring air.
Amidst the sounds of cooking and pans clanging, I must have completely missed the sound of the door unlocking and unlatching. After an unknown amount of time…may have been 5 minutes, maybe 15, I called up to the gentleman that dinner was ready and to have the kids come downstairs…including Ben who I assumed had joined his siblings to play.
He wasn’t upstairs. He wasn’t downstairs. He left.
My heart was in my throat as I threw open the front door instantly yelling his name as I choked back the panic. I called my neighbor to see if he had meandered next door…she was one of his favorite people. No luck but she quickly met us outside where we feverishly began to assign search areas.
The neighborhood was impossible….a ray of homes only 10 feet apart lining both sides of the street capped at both ends with retention ponds. Jesus. I went to the dark place and fast. I ran…shoeless and with my phone down the street to the pond closest to our house. My husband jumped in the car and drove around the neighborhood asking kids if they had seen any sign of him, recruiting small search parties of older children along the way. As I sprinted down the sidewalk, the homes on either side began to resemble an Alfred Hitchcock movie…the street lengthened and my legs began to feel like stone, growing heavier the closer I got to the pond. Flashes of our family on the 5 o’clock news, police canvassing the neighborhood, all flooded my head and finally brought the burning tears to my eyes. How did I lose this baby?? How could I be so careless?
As I reached the pond I saw a large rubber ball floating along the edge…and in that moment a switch was flipped. I looked down at my phone and knew it was time to call the police as I headed toward the water.
As I lifted the phone I heard a commotion. I looked back down toward my house and saw a cluster of children screaming undeterminable words, almost dancing in the middle of the street. As I focused between the scurry of neighborhood kids, I saw two chubby bare thighs and I knew. It was him. (God love him, he was in nothing but a thermal shirt, diaper and sandals. At least he put on his shoes.) I don’t know that my sadly out of shape legs could have carried me to him any faster. I scooped him up as the kids in their excitement followed us all into our home. After thanking and hugging our helpers, the gentleman could see that I was on the verge of losing my shit and quickly sent them on their way…lest they see me “ugly” cry. Nobody wants that. I didn’t know whether to spank or squeeze him…or both. After I regained my composure I held him tight the rest of the night...and vowed from that point on we would provide an environment that would keep him safe and contained.
I generally don’t take him places where he could get lost in a crowd. Lord knows if he slipped out of my hands and ran, I would not likely be able to catch him. Family gatherings, if not in a small enclosed area, never allowed me to sit and rest. We were forever asking “where is Ben?” and do to this day when he’s not under my nose.
Do I keep him under lock and key every moment? No.
Do I avoid what could potentially be rewarding experiences for him or our family because I’m scared to death of losing him? Yes.
I don't necessarily regret avoiding Disney World or places like it. I'm not sorry that we live in an area that doesn't allow for him to freely ride his bike. I have a much shorter leash on Ben and have for four years because we now know he's a wanderer. I am so damn thankful I got a second chance to be an overbearing, overprotective mom. What I wouldn't do to give these parents who have lost the loves of their lives that chance too.
Right now the parents are hurting. And they’re questioning themselves. And they’re taking criticism. And GOD all they need right now is our love and our support. It could be any damn one of us in their shoes right now. Because we never know it can happen to us until it does. It takes less than a minute for a child to walk out the door and out of sight. Whether we want to believe it or not, we can’t all be on guard every damn minute. We take bathroom breaks. We cook meals. We are human.
Please…do three things after you read this:
(1) Say a prayer, send positive juju, light a candle for these families that they find peace and support as they move through the following days, weeks, months, years. You can leave thoughtful messages and notes of encouragement for Mikaela’s family at http://mlvillage.org/about-mikaela/.
(2) Help thy neighbor. Maybe not your actual neighbor…but your community, family, friends. Know that after hearing of these stories those parents who are already on high alert for their own children who have a tendency to wander will be even more-so. And they are tired. Lend a hand. Or two.
(3) Please check out and donate if you can, to the National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Box Toolkit campaign. They offer grants to families who cannot afford to purchase these kits on their own.
Hug your babies. Tight.