I am a mother and I thought I felt the pain of mums with missing children. I have sobbed for Madeleine, I have shed countless tears for hundreds of children that have simply vanished on the Cape Flats – never to be seen or heard of again. While I empathized with those mothers and their pain I only really understood a small fraction of what they went through when we lost a child a couple of weeks back. It wasn’t a little “I turned around and she had vanished” kind of disappearance at the store… it was worse than that… more like forty five minutes of blind panic, while I discovered that Cape Town doesn’t actually have very much of a “missing-child-policy” in play in their shopping centers, let alone their parking garages.
Let me just say that I am all for free-range parenting… while I hear an audible gasp and “What about the crime in our country” I believe that by locking ourselves in our homes and letting criminals walk the streets we are giving criminals a piece of paradise while we sit in prison. That just doesn’t work for me!!! When our children are old enough to drive we cannot suddenly present them with a driver’s license and send them out into the world… there has to be some sort of training.
Obviously using caution, we have trained our children to run errands, progressing from easy ones like dropping the ironing off at the laundry; to grocery shopping across town. Most children in the world run errands, in fact it is only a very elite few that are driven from their home to their school to their extra-murals and home again. With a number of kids we have the added bonus of safety in numbers and my kids never go anywhere on their own. Our older kids are dying to go to the library and exchange their books on their own, but fear the librarians and their “No Unattended Children” sign… that keeps them away.
Of course I don’t leave them unattended at the mall or tell them to walk home from friends after dark… but reasonable errands in a reasonable world. Of course we live in a world where crime is a factor and of course we are South African and have experienced real and alarming crime first hand. But statistically speaking the threat to our children comes from folks that are closer to home. It is not the passing stranger that is going to suddenly and spontaneously grab our children… more like a close friend or a relative, that you would never in a million years have suspected. And, while we have experienced heinous crimes against best friends and family members, the worst personal crime for us has been washing taken off the wash line… again and again. I reckon that kids that take my boys sweaters off the wash line, or the elderly lady trying to sell me our own garden cushions at the gate, probably have bigger needs than I do.
All that being said – we lost a child. We had spent a lovely morning on an outing and we headed for the parking garage afterwards. My kids were jovial after an outing well done. Between the parking pay machine and the car we were in were two rows of cars… possibly twenty meters away. We left the pay machine, walked down the path towards the elevator and stairs… everyone was together. At the bottom of the stairs my kids were playing at not stepping on the lines. They were not holding hands as usual, but they were all together. I was carrying a toddler with a freshly broken leg and happy that my kids were together and a cohesive group. We got into the car and a carseat was empty. Turnaround time about fifteen seconds. I didn’t panic, I knew she was lost and would stand where I had left her. Left se7en kids in the car and walked to the last spot we had seen her. Calling her for reassurance, all the way. I was totally wrong.
No sign of her. Each of my kids has a special whistle that they respond to immediately, without fail. There was no response. I started shouting, screaming, calling… as soon as I realized she wasn’t where we had last seen her. The security guards ambled off. I called out that my child was missing… they kept ambling… away. Families took one look at this screaming woman and took a wide birth. One woman stopped to help me. She got in her car and drove around slowly, calling for my child. After twenty minutes… TWENTY minutes she came back to me and suggested that I stand at the exit and checked the cars leaving the garage. At that moment my child became not just lost but for me something extremely sinister could have happened. I knew she wasn’t in the parking garage anymore, but I didn’t know where to look.
When I started stopping cars as they left the garage to ask if they had seen her… then the security guards ambled over and asked what she was wearing. Remember this folks, if your child goes missing… hold up the traffic. It was now about forty minutes since she had vanished – she could already be out of the city by then. The security guards still looked at me like I was mad, and I could see them wondering how to get me to stop interfering with the exit traffic… I told them to radio for help. They have radios for crying out loud… they are chatting on them all the time, could they not use them as a tool. A child matching my child’s description had been seen at the information desk.
I almost collapsed at the mixture of relief and horror at the idea of her crossing a major road, at least four lanes of hectic traffic. I dashed over the road, right across the center to the information desk. She was not there… Yes a small girl had been there, they could tell me her name and age, they could tell me that she was with her “mam.” They could tell me that two men had taken her for ice-cream. Wh-a-at… I was in such shock at this stage, beside myself doesn’t begin to describe it. It was school holidays and outside in the open there was a fair-like atmosphere, kids and people everywhere. Chaos. I couldn’t see her anywhere. And continued to shout… seriously couldn’t whistle her whistle, what if there was no reply. Frantically praying, she had to be close. I eventually saw her at the end table happily eating ice-cream with two fellows. I swooped in like an eagle-mother… smooshed that little body close to mine, ice cream and all… and took her home.
To this day I don’t know exactly what happened, small children only say so much. Who were those guys and why were they waiting on the stairs, did they not see all of us, did they scoop her up and take her to information? Why did the information desk let her go with them rather than announcing on the public address that that they had a small lost child with them. They can announce a sale on socks for crying out-loud. I never got to thank the lady in the parking lot for trying to find my child. I can say I was left fairly traumatized, I did go to bed for about a week with a stress headache and the sorest throat on earth.
I can say it happens in a flash. I can say I am so grateful to God for watching over my child and bringing her back to me. And yes when we go to bed at night I hold this one just a little bit closer. If you see a mom, who has lost her child don’t walk away, don’t think: “How could she.” Rather ask how you can help, you really can intervene. To all the mothers in the world who have lost a small child, I don’t know how you do it. Today I am thinking especially of you and your grieving hearts.
Have I taken my kids on an outing near a parking garage or even a mall since? Not actually. Have we spoken about it with our kids… yes, a lot. Of course my children know not to wander off with strangers and eat ice-cream, and yes of course they all say in a horrified voice that they would never, EVER do that. But when it comes down to it… I have a feeling that whatever our children say they are soft targets, easy to lure away. For some great tips on how to talk to your kids and keep them safe, have a look at this fabulous post by Jennifer Margulis.