Here we are in Baja, bobbing around in the Sea of Cortez near Isla Espiritu Santo, and I’m teaching Kip how to snorkel for the first time.
I lost track of my youngest son Sunday afternoon. At a crowded beach on Chicago’s North Side, I looked around and discovered Kip, my soft-cheeked, sweet-spirited, strong-willed, face-caressing, twinkly eyed, soulful, viking-metal-loving, sun-bleached blond of a four year old was missing. “Where is Kip?” I asked his buddies, my husband, my friends. “Have you seen Kip?” He was completely out of range. Friends scooped up babies, grabbed tiny hands and, all together, combed the shoreline both directions in search of him.
He wasn’t by the kayak. He wasn’t by his other little friend, who’d wandered a ways south as well. He wasn’t up in the grasses. He wasn’t on the sidewalk. He wasn’t on the wall from which he’d asked to jump earlier. He wasn’t on the playground. He wasn’t anywhere. I tried to still my worry so I could feel his energy, wherever he was. I figured maybe I could detect on the woo-woo waves whether he was in danger, and where he might be. My gut told me he was ok, but I prayed. And prayed. And prayed some more nonetheless. He couldn’t swim very well, and yet he had a lifejacket on, so after a cursory search, I ruled out drowning and my mind jumped almost immediately to “someone took him.”
I stopped a lifeguard. “Hi. I’ve lost my son. Is there protocol in place for when this happens? Anything you can do to help?” She very calmly led me to another lifeguard, who asked me what Kip looked like and what he was wearing. I told them in detail. Someone radioed someone else. My surrounding friends looked at me with concern. They hadn’t found him, either.
Charlie, my oldest, who has beautiful intuitive gifts, looked shaken. He had been running down the beach yelling, “Kip!” I grabbed his hand, knelt down, looked into his eyes and placed my hands on his heart. “Charlie. I need to ask you to do something really huge. If it feels ok to you, drop down into your heart, close your eyes, look in the center of your forehead and see if you can see Kip. See if you can see where he might be.” He nodded his head once and closed his eyes, then opened them almost immediately and turned around. My gaze followed his. One of our friends, with a baby strapped to her chest, was rushing toward me with Kip’s hand in hers.
Kip’s hands. Oh, his sweet hands. They hold delicate things so softly and grip cameras just so to snap photos like this one, on the Ambar III last April.
I promptly lost all composure.
I ran to my amazing little boy, scooped him up and wrapped my arms so tightly around his damp lifejacket, hand on the back of his head as though he were a newborn. He sobbed into my neck. I sobbed into his cheek. We both held each other and heaved.
“I was so scared, Mommy,” he bawled. “I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“I’m so sorry you were scared, my Kippy. You’re ok now. I was so worried about you,” I cried and cried. “I am so happy you’re ok. I am so, so happy you’re here in my arms. We are going to do a better job of keeping our eyes on each other from now on, ok?”
“I just wanted to give Maya these stones I found,” he sobbed even harder. As we suspected, it seemed he’d gone on a mission for his favorite girl. “I was trying to find sea glass to give her, but I didn’t find anything good. I kept looking, but could only find these ones. And they’re not even that good!” He opened his cool little hand to reveal two stones, which were warm from his careful guarding.
“Oh, buddy. She’s coming back from the paddleboard with her daddy right now. Would it make you feel better if you could see her and give them to her?”
“Yeeeeesssssss!” he cried. “I want to give her these rocks I found for her.”
I don’t know how that amazing little six-year-old girl knew to be thrilled with the nondescript rocks he brought her, but when she approached moments later, he presented the two smallish stones and her face completely lit up.
She said something like, “Wow, Kip! Thank you so much! I love them!” Right then, his face cracked into a big smile and everything we’d just experienced seemingly washed away from his being.
My recovery wasn’t as quick. It felt as though I’d aged a year in however many minutes it was I thought he might be gone. My eyes hurt. My heart felt tender. Brian couldn’t fall asleep that night. But hours after we returned home, I was able to go into Kip’s room and curl up next to his sleeping body, safe and sound. And that felt absolutely euphoric.
He gave her a couple unremarkable stones, she gave him this hug. His heart is full.
To be clear, this is not a cautionary tale
I don’t need to tell you to learn from my mistake and make sure you watch your kids closely at the beach. Because, if you have kids, or even friends, or cats, you all probably do that already. That’s why I’ve omitted the details of the moments before we noticed he was missing—they’re inconsequential because we obviously weren’t en pointe, and mistakes happen. To everyone. It’s really obvious that if we’d been keeping a closer eye on the little guy, this wouldn’t have happened, and any amount of ridiculing you could throw down would pale in comparison to what’s already been unfurled in my own head. (you’ve met my inner mean girl, yes?)
But I do want to drop a tiny piece of preaching
I was surprised by the response of passersby once I had Kip safely in my arms. When Laura found him, the countenance of the lifeguards and the surrounding people who’d worn masks of concern moments earlier shifted completely. They glared at her as she ushered Kip back to our spot on the sand. As I hugged my baby and cried, the lifeguards looked me up and down, cocked their heads and darn near rolled their eyes at me. On the way toward me with Kip in hand, one woman even snarled at my friend: “Happens fast, doesn’t it?”
Unfortunately, this was a bad thing that happened. We effed up, and it could’ve gone much worse. Thank God, our beach companions and the pack of concerned little kids who searched for Kip, everything turned out ok and I was supremely supported in the emotional aftermath despite the weirdness of strangers.
Next time it turns out ok for someone—anyone—would it be possible for all of humanity to hide their disgust, pretty please? Like, maybe try tapping into a loving or compassionate place and saying something to the tune of, “I’m so happy you found him,” or “Oh, wow. We were concerned. Glad he’s ok.”
As the cropped t-shirt of one woman strutting down the beach an hour or so later read in huge block print, “Shit happens.” It sure does, I can attest. To everyone, I might add. (Even to generally type-A, hypervigilant parents.) And, when it does, an outstretched hand and little compassion goes a long way.
Kip parties on. And now understands a bit more about the importance of staying with his grown ups. Note: This was second his costume change at our block party this summer–he washed off *most* of his face paint and threw on this Hawaiian get up from Aunt Andrea so he could really tear it up. And, of course, by “tear it up,” I mean stub his bare foot on the curb and rip his pinkie toenail off. This kid has given me too many a fright this summer…