Ok, so not really. But I could have been. And so could you. And for 27 minutes one summer day I was that mom.
Along with several sets of friends, I took my kids to a water park in the capital city of Taipei, Taiwan while we were living there. We had been to the park previously with visiting family so I knew where things were located. I had all three kids with me but my husband stayed home in order to attend a training seminar on a church management system. The older girls could both swim well and knew the rules of water parks. I put our little man, who was 3, in his U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation suit and we headed out.
The rule was that the kids had to stay within my eyesight unless they had permission to go off with another parent from our group. Toward the end of our time all three kid were playing in the same general area, though not together. My eyes were constantly bouncing from kid to kid…1…2…3…1…2…3, keeping track of them. Then it happened. 1…2…and no 3. Certain he was right there I walked a small circle around where he had been playing before I looked up to check on his sisters. He wasn’t there. Thinking he had joined his sisters or another group of kids from our larger group I checked. He was not there.
Panic set in. He was missing. At a water park. In a foreign country. As the minutes ticked by with no sign of him, my panic level rose. I couldn’t adequately convey what was happening to the Chinese-speaking lifeguards. No one in our group could find him. No one around us spoke enough Chinese to convince the guards to take some kind of action. I was describing him to everyone around who spoke any kind of English and people, complete strangers, began to search the water park for him. I went to all the places we had been that day. I looked around the ice cream stand and the food court. I looked at the slides he wanted to do but was too small. No sign of him.
As I returned to the area where he had been playing I was at a total loss as to where to look next and what to do. I began praying. Out loud. In English in a Chinese-speaking country. I took a deep breath, ready to go look again when a man came up to me. A dad. From Australia. He asked me what my son was wearing. He said, “I have little boys. I will find him.” I was grateful for his help, although a little surprised by his calm assurance that he would find my little man. He took off running, calling his name and yelling for his sons to help him find where a little boy was hiding.
I was left standing at the top of a slide platform, in an attempt to get a better view of the kids area and hopefully spot his bright green and blue flotation suit. I kept reminding my self that a panicking mom was no help and to keep a calm head. I kept reminding myself that he was wearing a flotation suit and would not drown. And I kept praying.
After 3 minutes, and 27 total minutes, the Australian man and his sons walked up to me, holding my little guy by the hand. “He was hiding by the pinball machines in the arcade. I knew right where to look.” I tried to thank him, but he just smiled at me and walked off with his arms around his boys. I don’t even know his name.
As I write this, tears stream down my cheeks. Tears over remembering the anguish I felt. Tears of relief that my son is happily banging on his piano 5 years later. Tears over the realization that very easily this could have had a very different outcome.
As parents, if we are honest, most of us will admit to losing track of our kids at one time or another. Maybe it is in a department store when they hide under a clothing rack or a grocery store where they run into the next aisle. Maybe its at a park where they wander to the swings when we thought they were on the slide. In most of these situations no one else knows that the child has wandered away. No new crew interviews bystanders about the experience. And no one is hurt. But in some cases the outcome is much worse. There are parents still waiting for word 5, 10, 20 years after a child wandered off. And while there are obviously cases of neglectful parenting that may have led to these various situations, often it is not because a parent wasn’t watching the child. I didn’t have a cell phone out. I wasn’t attempting to watch the kids from a distance. I simply looked away from the youngest one for no more than a minute to check that his sisters were still where they were a few minutes before and he was gone.
The truth is, these things happen. Maybe not as sensationally as a child getting into a gorilla enclosure, but they happen. They happen to most parents. Good parents who pay attention to their kids.
I have no idea what transpired to allow this child to get away from his parent(s). I have read accounts that don’t portray the parent as being on the phone or otherwise engaged, but I cannot testify as to what allowed this situation to occur. I would question the security measures in place that would have allowed a small child to accidentally gain access to this exhibit and I am sure the zoo will be doing the same thing. What I can do is offer a bit of grace to this parent. Because, for 27 minutes in 2011, I was this mother.