The day I lost my child in the Atlanta airport was the worst day of my parenting life thus far. For 15 hellish minutes, my world collapsed.
He was 4 years old, and we were returning from a family vacation in New Hampshire. Our flight from Atlanta to Asheville was delayed. After sitting for an hour at one gate, airline officials moved us to another gate about 500 yards away. There we sat for another hour or so.
The concourse was packed with people, speeding up and down the walkway like lemmings nearing a cliffside. In an attempt to relieve our kids’ bored irritability, Enviro-spouse herded them across the concourse to examine a row of vending machines. A few minutes later, I glanced up from my book. I saw E-spouse. I saw the girl. I didn’t see the boy.
I abandoned our luggage and hustled nearer, head swiveling, looking for that familiar blonde head. Then I yelled to E-spouse, “Where is he?” I heard my voice catch. E-spouse started. “He was just right here,” he said.
My heart pounded as adrenaline surged through my system. But I knew I couldn’t afford to panic. Panic can’t organize search parties. Panic can’t deal with emergencies.
I grabbed our girl and sat her down with the luggage, explaining to her and a woman sitting nearby that the boy was missing. I told the girl not to move from that spot and asked the woman to watch her. The girl started to cry, but I didn’t have time to comfort her, other than to say, “We’ll find him.”
E-spouse had already jogged one way down the concourse and back. He met me in middle of the stream of hassled travelers. “You go that way and I’ll go the other,” one of us said. I ran, dodging people. I looked in the bathroom. I asked a passing stranger to check the men’s room for me. I asked an airport worker to look in a cleaning supply closet. I described the boy to about 20 people, then turned back to our gate.
I told the gate attendant the situation. He was less than helpful, saying something like, “If you haven’t found him in half an hour, I’ll make an announcement.”
Luckily, another passenger overheard me — a dad, traveling alone. Quickly, he roped in some other passengers. He told me they’d help look for my son. I described my child again, now struggling to hold myself together. E-spouse returned empty-handed, looking lost himself.
I ran the other way. I felt like I was suffocating. Worst case scenarios spun through my head. I remembered reading that in abduction situations, the first three hours are crucial. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that abductions are rare, particularly in a place with such heightened security.
I headed back to the gate, ready to rip the microphone away from the evil gate attendant and make my own announcement. Just then, I saw E-spouse coming from the other direction with our boy in his arms.
At that moment, a piece of my heart exploded. I felt it. It healed but left a trauma scar.
Funnily enough, the boy wasn’t upset. He hadn’t realized he was lost. He’d just wandered down to the gate where we’d first been stationed that day, looking for me. He’s always been a bit of a wanderer, a dreamer, a fairy child.
I practically ripped the kid out of my husband’s embrace and carried him back to console his sister. E-spouse rounded up the searchers, giving them the relieving news. The atmosphere at the gate had gone from frustrated boredom to concerned anxiety to par-tay. Suddenly, we strangers were all friends. People were patting the boy on the head. One woman hugged us both. I stuck my tongue out at the gate attendant. Though I considered giving him the finger.
Then, the stories started pouring out. One family had lost their 3-year-old at Disney World for two hours. One woman lost a kid in the grocery store for 30 minutes. One family drove off and left their 8-year-old in a gas station bathroom. They were 6 miles away before they realized they were missing someone.
The stories were comforting, though holding my boy was most comforting. I struggled not to smother him.
What astounds me still is that an unaccompanied toddler wandered the airport for at least 15 minutes and no one noticed him. No one walking along behind him thought, “That’s weird. That little boy seems to be alone.”
In the aftermath, I taught my kids that if you’re lost, find someone who looks kind, preferably a parent. Ask them if they have a cell phone, and if they can call your mom. My kids now have memorized my number, but for a while, I’d write it on the boy’s arm with an indelible marker any time we were going somewhere with lost kid potential. Like the airport. Or Bele Chere. Or the state fair.
We’ll occasionally review important information that kids should know: phone numbers, street address, mom and dad’s real names. We’ve talked about stranger danger and stranger help. I don’t want to frighten them. Much. I just want to make them more aware, which they naturally are, now that they’re a bit older.
I’ll be in the Atlanta airport again this weekend, although without my kids. Even so, that scar on my heart will ache as I walk along the concourse. And I’ll keep an eye out for lost-looking toddlers.
Anne Fitten “Edgy Mama” Glenn writes about a number of subjects, including parenting, at www.edgymama.com.