Thursday, October 6, 2016

Now I Know What Happens When You Lose Your Child at Target

This incident happened a few weeks ago, so I've had a little time to, I guess you could say, recover.

This is what happened: After Ethan finished his soccer game two Saturdays ago we headed to Target (along with Chloe) to pick up a few things. Dan and Anna had other plans that morning.

After we walked in, Ethan clumping with his soccer cleats, and took our first turn towards toiletries, Ethan asked if he could go to the toy section. During the summer, I would let Ethan and Anna go off without me for a little while and head to that part of the store. I'd wind around and meet up with them a few minutes later. Ethan would always, and I mean always, head over to the WiiU console they have set up over there and start playing, with Anna just a few aisles away.

There have been a few times Anna hasn't been with us when Ethan asked to head over there on his own. With trepidation, I said yes -- and tried to make sure we hurried over there even more quickly than usual. The few times he'd done that, he was, of course, at the WiiU playing.

So Ethan headed off to the toy section, as I called out, "Don't leave that area!" It was the very last thing I said to him. You can see where this is going.

Chloe and I picked up some of the things we needed at the front of the store. Only, we were moving more slowly than usual, because now Chloe has decided she doesn't like to ride in the cart. She's pretty good in the store, but she is a dawdling toddler. As a result, getting back over to the toy section took a bit longer than I would have liked.

Side note: I realize there are some people who will not approve of my decision to leave Ethan alone in the store at any time. I understand that; it's one of many reasons I wasn't particularly eager to write this. But I also know that lately we've been trying to extend his "leash" (for lack of a better word) just a little. He's been great in supermarkets, finding food for me and promptly returning. We've had many talks about strangers or "tricky people" to the point of almost scaring him. And he's such a darned creature of habit with that WiiU I honestly didn't think letting him head over there was THAT big of a deal.

We walked up to the WiiU. He wasn't there. My immediate thought was to check the Minecraft aisle, his second-favorite spot. Nope. Empty. My heart did a little skip.

Next I checked all of the toy aisles, you know, in the department I told him not to leave. Nothing. My heart started beating faster. It's no secret I've struggled with anxiety for most of my life and have an extremely overactive imagination. I had to use every ounce of strength to slow my thoughts down for a moment and just THINK.

The bathroom. I wondered if he'd decided to walk down to the restrooms near the store's entrance. Normally he uses the family restroom. It was empty. I knocked on the door to the men's room and called his name. Nothing.

Well, maybe I missed him and he's already back at the toys, I told myself, walking faster and faster. Chloe kept protesting, so finally I plopped her into the cart. She started screaming as we pushed way faster than normal through the aisles. People were starting to stare.

The toy area was Ethan-less. I wondered if he went to look at the Halloween costumes, so we whizzed over there. Nope. I pushed randomly down aisles, calling him. Chloe joined in, too.

There are times when I wish I was one of those people who could maintain calm, give off a little chuckle, and just think, "Well, the kid's got to turn up SOMEWHERE around here."

But no. No, I am the one whose favorite book throughout high school was The Year Without Michael, an acclaimed young-adult novel about a 14-year-old boy who just disappeared one Sunday afternoon walking to his friend's house. They never found him.

Wouldn't you know, I had just come across that book, plunked high on a shelf, a few days before. The scenes ran through my head.

In retrospect what I should have done next was probably calm down and take a very careful walk through every aisle of the store, calling Ethan's name constantly. But no. I suddenly had The Year Without Michael drilled into my mind. Flyers on telephone polls. TV news. Police interviews.

This is what they call, in the behavioral health world, "all or nothing thinking." It's not healthy obviously. It's also a very hard habit to break. Especially if you've been doing it for nearly 40 years.

We pushed past about half of the store as I called Ethan with of course, no response. My next thought was to go to customer service and tell them I couldn't find my son. I figured (silly me!) that maybe they would overhead page him, tell him his mom was looking for him and to report to the front of the store or something.

"You can't find him?" the woman at the desk asked again, to be sure. Then she took out her walkie-talkie and started radioing someone. "Hey, we have a Code Yellow."

I have never seen the team members of Target act with such military precision. "Post someone at the doors!" I heard the radio crackle, and two employees appeared out of nowhere, blocking the exits. Several others took up posts all along the front of the store, near the Starbucks café and bathrooms.

"What does your son look like?" someone asked.

I can't believe this is happening, I thought, as I stuttered that he had dark blond hair and was wearing his soccer uniform. Cleats. I wondered if the police were going to appear. I saw myself being interviewed by the news ("And the last I saw of him, he was still wearing his soccer uniform"...).

Two other employees appeared and said they were going to comb the store for him. They took off after getting a description, and I stood there with Chloe and waited. I wondered if I should call Dan and tell him I lost our son. I wondered: could someone, some awful freak, could possibly have ushered him out of the store? Adam Walsh, Adam Walsh, ran over and over again in my head. Of course we are all familiar with the story of the little boy whisked away from a store when his mother turned her back, and later murdered. His father went on to launch the show America's Most Wanted.

This all sounds rather comical in the retelling, but I think most people realize that it's not at all. Not when you live it often. Not when you often know what you're supposed to do but your mind gallops off in another direction almost before you know what happened.

There is a Bible verse that talks about taking every thought captive and making them obedient to Christ. Basically it relates in a very real way to learning how to train your mind to not immediately chase down rabbit trails. It's the antithesis of "all or nothing thinking." It also is a discipline. And for some of us who have trails well-worn with bad habits, it's not as simple as quoting a Bible verse and going on your way. It's as hard as training for a marathon, in some respects. Sometimes anxiety really just does feel easier.

But I knew, in that moment. I had to stop. This was completely out of my control. I whispered a prayer, staring at the scores of people unloading carts, pushing their way through the aisles. I prayed and prayed because I knew there was nothing else I could DO. And then, for a few moments, something happened. The pounding of my heart and of my thoughts faded to something dull and almost unrecognizable. I felt it. Peace.

A few minutes later the two employees who'd taken off to search appeared in the distance, with Ethan walking between them. He was completely oblivious, meaning he had no idea how worried I was or that the store was up in arms looking for him. Where had he gone, by the way? To look for Minecraft books.

"But I told you not to leave that section!" I exclaimed.

"I thought the books WERE still in the toy section," he said, maybe because sometimes Anna went to look at them.

I thanked the Target team profusely, and everyone went back to their regularly scheduled Saturday morning.

But I was bothered. I felt provoked. My nerves felt jittery for hours after. And after catching a glimpse, even momentarily, of what it felt like to have peace in the midst of a storm, I knew I wanted more.

This is not so much a story about losing your child in Target. This is a story about working on overcoming anxiety...or maybe, learning how to better respond to life's curveballs.

I stepped back and realized: There were things I could have done better, but at least I was trying. Any parent would have had at least some level of freak-out.

This is what we must keep doing: we must be kind to ourselves, and we must keep trying. God knows: we're fallible; we're mere dust. I'm thankful, as the verse says, that we have a high priest that sympathizes with our weaknesses, because this one's a doozy.

But I'm not giving up.

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