After the recent news story that happened locally here in CO but ended up a national (at least) news story . . . I was reminded of one of my toughest mom days.
First, the local news story: A 6-year-old boy was thought to be trapped in a homemade balloon that traveled over 50 miles and reached possible heights of over 10,000 feet over 2 1/2 hours . . . was eventually found hiding in a box in his family garage attic. There is MUCH criticism flying around the internet and news media of this family. But my heart goes out to them. Their heartbreak and fear today will likely linger within their hearts for years to come. I can say this from experience.
My story may not have involved heights or weather balloons or national news coverage, but it was about 45 minutes of my own personal nightmare. To this day I can't think about that day for very long without having a wave of emotions come over me.
It was a little over 3 years ago. We had 3 children with one on the way (I was 8 months pregnant). The oldest was 5 1/2 and had been playing in our neighborhood cul-de-sac with the 8 neighborhood kids for about a year. We would watch closely out the front window and check in frequently. It had taken a long time to get used to feeling the kids were all safe playing together out there, but 4 of the households had regular communication about the kids and we had even gotten together as moms several times to talk about our rules and expectations while the kids were playing together inside and outside at each other's homes.
This was the end of the summer, and our next oldest had been stuggling with not being able to go out front to play with the kids. He was only 3 1/2 and I wasn't comfortable with him going out in the front. Even though the street was very calm and most drivers watched for their neighbor kids, it didn't seem reasonable to expect him to stay away from the street and be ready for the level of caution staying safe would take. So unless the friends were playing in the backyard, he was left out.
On this day, I had given permission for the 3 1/2 year-old to go across the street with his 5 1/2 year-old brother to the neighbor's backyard to play. They had strict instructions to stay together no matter what and I watched them cross the street and go through the gate across the way.
A little while later, my husband -- a teacher off for the summer -- decided that with the boys occupied, he would take our 2-year-old daughter with him on an errand to one of the local bike stores. He said goodbye and I began to have a few moments to relax (probably even put my pregnant feet up for a few minutes).
Soon, the 5 1/2 year-old came through the front door complaining about something. I don't remember what he was complaining about, because my thoughts went directly to his little brother who was suppose to be attached at the him to him.
"Where is your brother?" I said. "Where is your brother, Honey?"
It took a minute, but he finally registered what I was asking and he responded, "I don't know?"
My heart sank. My senses became heightened and I got down on my knees and looked him right in the eyes. "Honey, you were playing at the neighbor's together. You weren't suppose to leave without him. You were suppose to stay together. Where is he?"
"Over in the backyard," he said, changing his answer.
I took him by the hand and walked directly to the neighbor's house to see for myself. I knocked and asked the mother if she could please check for my son in the backyard. We walked together and checked the backyard. He wasn't there. We asked the kids who were starting to gather. They had been playing together just minutes before. Did they see him? Where had they seem him last? How long had it been since they knew where he was?
It soon became clear that none of them were clear. And as the minutes ticked on, I began to fear the worst. Although our house was in the middle of the dead-end cul-de-sac, this neighbor's home sat on the corner leading out of the cul-de-sac. My thought was that my 3 1/2 year-old was new to visiting neighbors. Was it possible that he had tried to follow his big brother and gotten turned around heading out of the cul-de-sac instead of toward our house?
I believe I did what most parents would do first. #1: I tried to reach my husband. Realizing there was a vague possibility that he had ended up somehow taking the 3-year-old with him. But much to my frustration, he hadn't taken the family cell phone with him, and I couldn't reach him. #2: I went back to my house to search for my son. Even though I had been home and didn't think he could possibly have come back home without my knowledge, I knew it was only smart to check there first.
I burst through the front door with the 5-year-old at my hand. There was no way I was going to let him go. One missing child was enough. We don't have a huge house. So it didn't take long to go from room to room checking everywhere we could think of. Upstairs, downstairs, closets, bathrooms, under beds, under desks, in the garage (no, I NEVER checked the garage attic). Hollering the whole time for my son.
Once I was convinced my youngest son was not in the house, I took the 5-year-old with me and moved our search outside. I began to go door-to-door. See, I figured that although I couldn't be sure where the 3-year-old had gone, I felt if there was a chance he had wandered the wrong direction, then every minute he was missing increased the risk that something bad could happen to him. So with the oldest at my side, I knocked. I knocked and I knocked. And I told everyone I saw what he was wearing. People started coming out into the streets to help us search. A friend called the police. I hauled my very pregnant body, my 5-year-old son, and all my worst fears about my children house by house, block by block. I was not going to sit quietly and wait for police to come and tell us what they would do. I wasn't going to wait for my husband to come home to tell me if he knew anything or not. If my son had taken a wrong turn and was lost in the neighborhood, I was going to search high and low until we found him.
In the end, after an excruciating 45 minutes -- possibly the most painful parent moments I've had so far, my husband drove up and we found out my 3-year-old had been with him the whole time. The boys had met my husband and daughter in the garage before they left and when Mike offered to take them all along with him. The oldest said no, the 3-year-old said ok. My husband had simply not thought to let me know. The 5-year-old hadn't paid enough attention to know what his little brother had decided or even that he had also been invited to go with Daddy.
Within minutes the mystery was solved, my 3-year-old was in my arms, and all my greatest fears were averted. I cried. When the police arrived, I was sitting in the front yard with my 3-year-old in my arms crying and he was trying to understand what had happened while he was out with Daddy. I thought that day was going to end badly. For that little while, the longest little while I've ever had, I thought I might have lost my little guy. And my husband, he was SO regretful. I couldn't be upset with him, he hadn't meant to scare me. He felt horrible. But I had my little guy safe in my arms, so I was in no way upset with Mike. I was grateful. Only thankful and relieved. Overwhelmed with relief.
So, I can see how a family could spend 3 hours or more thinking their son was somewhere he wasn't. I can see how a mom and dad could assume that an older brother was a reliable and helpful witness. I can see that it is possible to know there is a slight chance that your persuit is in vain and to still carry onward JUST IN CASE. I feel for the Ft. Collins family. I know those parents are not soon going to forget the feelings they went through today. Because as far as they are concerned, they lost there little boy today and then found him again. As far as they are concerned, him being in the garage was nothing short of amazing and good.
We can be so quick to judge. So easy to think we have an idea of what is happening from afar. But I hope we'll take a minute to say, we don't always know from afar. Sometimes we have no idea what something is like to go through. Sometimes we can assume the best in people even if that is the boring thing to think. Sometimes we should let our judgemental minds take a break. Or perhaps we should put them in time out. We are all so often just parents doing the very best we can do at the time. Most often we are trying our best.
Since we are making up the reality we are thinking about others, what say we make it a kinder less critical view. What say we make up the nicest possible story this time. And if it is too late for this time, let's try a nicer story next time.
I will never forget the feeling that we were about to be the next parents who lost their child. I'll never forget thinking ANYTHING could have happened to my son. Just because he turned up ok, doesn't erase that 45 minutes.
Blessings to you and your family tonight. Hug them tight. Life is short. Love is HUGE. Don't forget. It is HUGE. Bless you all.