Our son, David, was four years old when we lost him at Disneyworld. And it took us forty-five minutes to find him.
In a movie, time stands still so that the terror of the moment sinks in. But when I watch an action movie in which the heroine hangs from a ledge with her fingers I always think, “Now, that’s impossible.” My suspension of disbelief snaps, because no woman I know has the upper body strength to hang from a ledge like that. In my mind, the plausibility of the narrative ends right there. I know without a doubt that were I dangling on that ledge, I would be dead.
But I know how it feels for terror to make time stand still. Forty-five minutes is a long, long time to look for your lost child. In those minutes, you do not trust anyone. The very sky clouds over, and every face in the crowd becomes the face of a predator. You boldly enter men’s restrooms. You call out your child’s name louder than is socially acceptable in any setting. You yell at the park employee who says, “I saw him about ten minutes ago,” but only for a second, because you don’t have time to rage adequately at that imbecile who did not intercept your child and bring him straight to you.
You do not cry, because you are on a mission. Crying comes later when your husband finds your son exactly where he was told to go in a crisis, at City Hall. Then the tears fall so violently and audibly that your son extricates himself from your arms and looks at you like you’re crazy (which, of course, you are).
Every fiber of your soul aches for days as the terror eases and your fingers, which it turns out could hold onto a ledge after all, get their feeling back.
When we tell this story, the only comic relief in it is David’s nonchalance when we finally found him. To him, getting lost was a lark. Here we were in a panic like none we’d ever known, and the uninterrupted calm on his face said, “What’s wrong with you people? I wasn’t worried. I knew you’d find me.”
* * *
I’ve come to think that a lot of parenting happens in forty-five minute increments like this. In a place that lends itself to panic, where we hang from a ledge and our fingers get numb. Where we wonder if our children will ever get past the pressing concerns of the moment. It starts with a colicky baby or a traumatic potty-training week. It continues with first-grade friend drama or a fifth-grade playground fight. The panic ramps up as our kids approach that season when we think, “This is my last shot,” as if we’re turning out a product, like an eagle scout project, that must be finished when they graduate from high school.
We wonder if they’ll follow our instructions and go to the safe place we designated for them. Will they remember what we taught them? Will they even try out our wisdom for themselves? Or will they proclaim, as one of our sons did, “I reserve the right to learn from my own mistakes.” Will they listen to the smooth words of a predator—including the innocuous ones uttered by their peers or their music or their culture—and will they follow those words into a darker place than we can imagine? And, finally, we wonder if we have what it takes to be parents at all.
Two weeks before our first child was born, I had my first flash of this kind of panic. I recognized the emotion because I’d felt something similar on our wedding day when the pastor read I Corinthians 13 to us, and I suddenly saw marriage as this impossible undertaking. How could I love like that? These are the moments when we become aware of how needy we are of a power we don’t possess apart from God. I suspect that I need healthy doses of this sort of panic to remind me.
Bill never knows when my words carry weight and when I’m just talking… how could he, when my intensity meter is always set to high? Emotionally, I’m a little like the boy who cried wolf. But the day I had my first panic attack about motherhood, he recognized that I was dangling from a ledge. It wasn’t childbirth that had worked up a fear frenzy in my soul, it was everything after childbirth. I was about to be a mother to another human being. I was not ready. I would never be ready. I looked down at the reason I couldn’t tie my own shoes, and I knew there was no turning back. “Bill,” I sobbed, “What am I going to do? I can’t do it.”
Bill has this way of slowing me down to his pace when mine is a downright hurtle. He does it with a cloudless look in his eyes that sometimes irritates me, but usually comes as a welcome relief. I just fall right in. “What did you do this morning?” he asked me.
I started to enumerate the items on my to-do list for that day, the ones I’d completed already. “No, I mean before that.”
“I got up and read my Bible. I talked to the Lord for a few minutes.”
“Right,” Bill said, “You did that yesterday, too, right?”
“Ri-ght,” I said, wondering what this had to do with anything.
“So, just keep doing that, walking with God day after day, and when the day comes that you are a mother, you’ll be ready.”
Now, this didn’t sound like a dramatic solution in the least. And I would be the first to point out that the habit I practice is not always equal to “walking with God.” But I think I know what he meant. He took the deep well of God’s Word and showed me that it was not a stagnant pool; it was a river.
That AA mantra “one day at a time” is brilliant. For the addict, the way off the ledge is always performed one day at a time. I’m addicted to getting lost in a crowd, to trying out my own wisdom before deferring to anyone else’s, including God’s. I’m addicted to the dangerous pursuits of sin and my own way. But the only way I’ve found off the ledge today, the only day I have, is the free fall of trust in a God who, for reasons I’ll never completely understand, ordained the ledge in the first place.
* * *
The story of David’s disappearance became a family classic which we placed in a category all its own. It was as if Bill and I had a touch of PTSD, and we needed to talk about it to get past it. But David seemed to have emerged unscathed. Not a peep from him about it, even when we gently prodded him to tell us about those forty-five minutes from his perspective. We marveled at his resilience and his confidence that we would find him, and so we left it alone. Until two years later.
One night, as he and I lay back on his bed, me reading a story, and David prompting me to wake up when I dozed off and missed a sentence or two, he sat up suddenly, and his face went white. David is, like his dad, the emotional opposite of me. Which means any overtly expressed emotion is a significant one. A thought had just occurred to him, and he could not hide the fact that it terrified him. If I were prone to such idioms as, “You look like a ghost passed over your grave,” that’s how I would describe David in that moment.
“Mom,” he said, trembling, “remember when I got lost at Disneyworld?”
I’m pretty sure it’s inappropriate to say, “Duh,” to your children, so I said, “Yes.”
“When Dad found me at City Hall, I had just gotten there,” he swallowed hard and said, “What if he had come five minutes before?”
He couldn’t finish his thought process, but I could. In his imagination, he saw himself orphaned at Disneyworld, perhaps even still there two years later, in some sort of lost child’s purgatory. From his older-and-wiser perspective, this was the logical conclusion. I understood. Sometimes a near miss can be as terrifying as a real miss.
“Oh, David,” I said, gathering him into my arms, “Daddy went to City Hall every five minutes. We would have checked back there over and over for weeks until we found you.”
Panic turned to the more familiar nonchalance in a flash. Because that’s what a child can do with terror when the parents they trust make it all make sense. We finished the story and I suppressed the urge to make him talk about it more. It was settled.
I’ve decided this is a worthy goal for parents: To trust God with our children like our children trusted us when they were very young. It doesn’t take long for fissures to develop in that trust, as David’s re-understanding of his own story proves. So that means we have to go back to the purest, most innocent faith we’ve got if we’re ever going to trust God as implicitly as a child. His child.
I think there may be forty-five minute’s worth of that kind of faith in me. If I reach back far enough. And if I look for it one day—or one ledge—at a time.