This is how I remember it. There are a lot of details that didn't get included, either because I can't remember them all or because I was unaware of them. Panic is not good for recall. Just sitting down to write this has adrenaline pumping through me. My arms are tingly and there's a ball of dread planted firmly in my stomach. I won't ever forget this, but I don't like to recall it. This weekend has been more adventurous than what I would consider to be necessary. This weekend, on Saturday, for a little over an hour, Sweet Girl went missing. And that is when my life ended.
It was a regular Saturday: laundry was being done; the kids were annoyed we were doing 'adult' things like cleaning; Sean and I were trying to accomplish some small errands. Little Man was binge-watching Paw Patrol and Sweet Girl was anxious to go to the playground. Saturday morning continued as normal. Then Sean went to collect the kids and take them to the playground so I could run to school and get some work done. Sean walked out and saw Sweet Girl's scooter at the end of our street but Sweet Girl was nowhere around. He came back to tell me about her scooter and to say he was going to one of the two playgrounds near our house to look for her. We were worried, but in a peevish kind of way. It was irresponsible of her to leave her scooter haphazardly in the middle of the sidewalk and to just walk away. But she's eight and she definitely knows how to get to the playgrounds she loves, so we assumed we would easily find her and have a discussion about being a good steward with your possessions as well being a good citizen and not blocking a sidewalk that many people use. Then Sean called me to say she was not at the first playground. Something pinged in the back of my mind. It was ugly and made of the fears we don't parade around in the light of day. I pushed it back. While Sean went to the next playground, I checked in on Little Man ensuring he was still safely enthralled in the adventures of those tech-savvy puppies and then I left to look around the neighborhood. That's when I saw with my own eyes her abandoned scooter at the end of the street, absent of a rider, and that ping in the back of my mind came back stronger. And it brought friends.
I was fighting panic and yelling Sweet Girl's name as I walked up and down our street. Sean came running back to say she wasn't at the other playground. Panic got the upper-hand in the fight. Sean hopped in the car to drive around the neighborhood. Three of our neighbors went out on foot. I stopped the mailman to ask if he had seen a little girl (she's just a little girl) in our neighborhood that looks like the hundreds of pictures I have on my phone. (But what could a picture do? What would that image do to convey everything I needed it to? I couldn't. A picture couldn't say that she's funny in her own way. It couldn't tell that she struggles everyday to say what she wants to communicate. A picture couldn't let anyone know that she made me a better person. It didn't say that me being a mother meant being a mother to two, and she was half of that equation. This picture of a little girl didn't say if we don't get her back I can not go on. It didn't say her absence would end me.) He hadn't seen her. He had noticed the scooter when he drove by about 15 minutes ago, but he hadn't seen the girl in the photos; he hadn't seen half of my heart, just the scooter. I stopped a man and his daughter out for a bike ride. They hadn't seen her but he would ride home with his daughter and come back to help look. (Thank you, thank you, thank you, please keep an eye out, please look for her.) Panic won in a TKO.
Feeling helpless in this situation is an inadequate statement. Already-flowing tears became a constant stream. Guttural noises replaced the more nuanced speech of our species to express fear, terror, panic, grief, guilt, loss...all of the things that readily fly from Pandora's Box. I sent a text out to friends asking for prayers. I needed to DO something. I could think of nothing and yet my mind went through every single piece of information I've ever gleaned about missing children and abductions. Sean returned from his search and called the police. (Oh my God, we're calling the police.) A coherent thought came out of my mouth: "Tell them she's on the spectrum. She has trouble communicating, especially when she's scared. She might not respond if they call her name." And my wonderful husband and wonderful father of our children replied: "I already did." My friend, Chelsea, arrived and helped a neighborhood woman - a stranger until now - create a message to send out through Facebook to alert families in the area and families of students at Sweet Girl's school. (Oh my God, she's still not back in my arms yet.) The police arrived. A female police officer went through the house to make sure she hadn't returned undetected. Little Man came out to question why the police were at the house. (What do I tell him? How do I say we may not get to see your sister again? How do I not scare him but let him know that we are scared? How do I say that this could be a defining day in our lives?) I told him we're looking for Sweet Girl and that we don't know where she is. He says he doesn't either and he decides to stay outside and play on the roofing materials stacked in our driveway.
I remember every crime show and book I've watched or read featuring child abductions. I remember the law enforcement asking those parents about any recent housework or renovations. The crews are usually primary suspects until alibied out. And there was the roofing materials in our driveway, and the construction dust settling on a neighbor's new landscaping, and then, down the street alone, there is Sweet Girl's scooter. (She wouldn't just leave it there. I just want her to walk around the corner. To come back. To have her back. I need to know that she is not scared. I need to know that she isn't hurt. I need to know that someone is not hurting her. I need to see her walk around the corner.) But the police haven't asked for that information, so I push that back. I answer my phone when it rings. Someone saw the message through Facebook and is pretty sure she saw Sweet Girl walking toward the neighborhood pool. I relay the information to the police and the wonderful people who are there helping while my mind works through all the instances its ever seen of kids with autism eloping to water. Some returned safely. Others didn't. I call the neighborhood pool and probably permanently scar a lovely lifeguard with my beyond-reason tone of voice when I say that I'm looking for my daughter. (How can I be looking for her? I should know where she is. I should be able to say with certainty where she is.) They haven't seen her but they'll let everyone know to keep an eye out. Here's my number; call me with anything you think might help. Anything. Sean goes out in the car to search again.
I am a singular thread of a nerve thrumming with every negative emotion. I can not remember what the last thing I said to my daughter was. It wasn't angry. We didn't fight. I probably reminded her to pick up her toys. But if that was the last time I get to talk to her, I will not be able to stomach that the words were so banal and commonplace they can't even be recalled. If it was the last time I was going to get to talk to her, I should have told her that even on our worst days we have made the favorite team I've ever been a part of. I should have told her that she is constantly re-making me into something better than I used to be. I should have told her that without her I wouldn't even know the many things I take for granted. I should have told her that she is my definition of courage. The last words out of my mouth to my daughter, should have been "I love you." (And why can't a love this strong lasso her home to me right now?) But I can't even remember what I said. (Oh God, that can't be the last time I talk to her.) I look at Little Man. He smiles at me. I say "Let's put our hands together and say "Please bring Sissy back safely." He's a good kid. He does it. He continues to play and my mind fast-forwards to what our night might be like. Am I going to have to put him to bed without his sister? Will he want to sleep in her room if she is not there? Will I ever let him leave my sight even to sleep? Will I have to hear him ask why he gets more gfcf chocolate doughnuts than usual in the morning? Will there be an empty bed tonight? (Oh God, I'm a mother of two. Two. I need them both.)
A vehicle pulls up at the end of the driveway. And I see, through swollen, red-streaked eyes, a head of brown hair with a small braid on the right side. I see a flash of a lavender dress. (Is that her?) I see pale skin sweetly kissed with freckles. I see blue eyes that show there is more going on in her mind than her mouth tells. (Please let that be her and not a cruel trick of my overworked mind.) I see my Sweet Girl get out of a vehicle at the end of our driveway and my voice breaks on her name. My throat closes as tightly as my arms do around her. I lift her to my chest. I cradle her on my legs. I ask her where she's been. I put her down and touch her face. I put her hands on my face. I put my head on her chest to hear her heart. I cry harder and ask her where she's been. Where has she been? Chelsea has the presence of mind to call Sean home. I hug the people who drove her home. I hug the police officer. I hug Chelsea repeatedly. I keep two eyes on Sweet Girl while my arms encompass our heroes. Sean returns and hugs her to him and reaches out to me. I can't stop crying. The words "Thank you" aimlessly escape my mouth but not nearly as many times as they should and land somewhere in the middle of the group of people who brought me my girl. And that is when my life began anew.
Sweet Girl tells us she went to the playground and then couldn't find her way home. She says she heard the bell for the Polar Express and went to find it. I'm still working out what all that entails in her mind, and I am determined to fully understand that. I will figure it out so we don't repeat this day in any iteration. She says she was only a little scared and that she missed home: she has always been stronger than I am. Sweet Girl was found by an employee of our neighborhood association who was maintaining the trails and brought back thanks to the people who helped get the word out. She was probably over a mile from home as the crow flies. She was wet because she walked through sprinklers. But she was not hurt and the most important thing for me is that she was home and in my arms. We could not be luckier.
I wrote this and shared it to hopefully spark conversations. We've had several here in our home. We've been working on our address - or our house's name as we call it - and phone numbers and what to do if either Sweet Girl or Little Man somehow get lost. Please have those conversations with your kids. I thought we were done with Sweet Girl wandering away. I was wrong. And this could have been my worst mistake. We are the luckiest people in the world because it ended well. The worst situation ended in the best possible way. So many people who didn't have to help put their lives on hold to help hold up a family who thought their lives might be crumbling around them. Not everyone is this lucky. So please have these conversations with your babies and hold them tightly. That's the other thing we've been doing a lot of around here, and it's probably going to be another couple of years before I'm willing to let go.