A fuse that led to the fate of the rest of my life was lit and burned for five helpless minutes. In the sixty seconds that followed those five minutes, it reached its target and detonated my heart inside my chest. Now, I will never not know what that feels like.
As mothers, (which is the only side of the parental equation I can speak from) we have a thousand fears for our children. Some speak to us louder than others and they are different for everyone. I’ve got two specific mother-fears that bully themselves into my brain when I’m preoccupied by how fleeting and fragile this life can be. They are my loudest fears because they render me helpless. I have a hard time feeling helpless.
The first of these fears is witnessing my child get hit by a car. The second, is my daughter being abducted by a pedophile. It’s horrible to write and horrible to think and in my most frightened moments I imagine these two scenarios coming true and just with the thought of it I am ripped down the middle like the pain of a never-ending childbirth. When I think these things, which is usually while I’m trying to fall asleep, I have to stop my thoughts, remind myself to breathe, and push those thoughts from my consciousness for fear that I will summon them into my life with the energy I put forth thinking about them.
As I write this, I am in the midst of one of life’s chaotic transitions. It’s a stressful time and everything is a jumble of confusing, painful circumstances that are out of my hands and that helpless feeling that I hate so much is all around me. I am in transition because I am learning powerful lessons about acceptance and control and I am spending my precious mental energy trying to learn them. At the risk of sounding new-agey… I’m working hard to stay centered; to find my zen amidst the chaos that is unfolding and to focus only on what I can control which are my own thoughts and emotions. Simply put, I am trying to find joy and peace within.
Yesterday, I took both my kids to the mall. There is a play area on the third floor dedicated to families. The businesses include a well-situated cupcake stand, a Gymboree Gym and a children’s hair salon. Most of the space is an open play area with various things for young kids to climb which is all encircled by a half wall. There is only one way in, and one way out of this encircled play space. On the outskirts are the businesses and there is one back hallway with restrooms, a service elevator, and emergency exit stairs. Standing at any place on this floor, you can see everything else except the back hallway. It’s a
petri dish, nice, safe place for kids to play where mothers and fathers can relax a bit. Naturally, we’ve been here dozens of times.
Prior to taking my children to this place, one of those personal issues triggered an emotional reaction in me. I wanted to talk to someone about what was happening because that is how I process, I talk to friends and/or, I write. Since the latter was not an option, I phoned some friends on my drive. Unfortunately, none of them were available.
When I got off the elevator to this play place in the mall, my 3-year-old ran immediately to climb on her favorite things and make friends. My 1-year-old son has just learned to walk so my primary focus was to follow him while he toddled from thing to thing making sure other children didn’t plow him over in the process. Every few minutes I looked up to make sure my daughter was playing nice and being safe. After ten or fifteen minutes of this I looked at my phone and realized that I missed a call from one my friends. I called her back at 1:28pm. During this call my son walked out of the encircled play place toward the cupcake stand, around the half wall, and toward the elevators. I followed behind him with my phone to my ear. I was on the phone with my friend for seven minutes and I had spotted my daughter once during that time. Today she was wearing a bright teal dress with a matching teal bow in her hair. She was easy to see in the sea of children on this busy Saturday.
On the seventh minute of my call I looked up to spot her again, only this time, I did not find her. I picked up my son and walked back into the encircled play area with him on my hip. I hung up with my friend to focus on my search. First, looked behind every climbing apparatus and inside every cubby hole. I moved on to the half walls then outside the walls to the cupcake stand, the hair place and inside the Gymboree Gym. I asked the ladies at the desk if a little girl in a teal dress walked in there and they said no. I asked them what I should do if I can’t find my kid and they dialed security. Five more minutes I looked for her and the panic was rising in me. The fuse was sparking and burning brighter with each passing second. By the end of the fifth minute I have checked the restrooms, over the ledges to the atrium and the elevators. Two security guards in black and white uniforms have arrived and they are asking me questions–How tall? How old? What color this? What color that? Name? I can barely think of those answers, but I get them out.
I know I need to call my husband but I can’t remember how to use my phone. I start to yell her name louder and louder. Brooke! Brooke! People are staring, but I do not care. As I turn to face the security guards again a man is walking up behind them. On the sixth minute he reaches out his hand and in them are my daughter’s silver and pink sandals. He says, “Ma’am, are these her’s?” I think I say yes but I can’t remember. The look on my face conveys that they are her sandals and the look on his face conveys something worse. His brows are furrowed in fear and concern. The next thing he says quakes my world and a bomb explodes inside me gutting me completely.
“I found them in a stall in the men’s restroom.”
I think I screamed. I’m pretty sure I screamed. Everything melted around me. Faces contorted into shock and I couldn’t tell if it was because I screamed or because they are processing what I am processing. My heart was beating from every cell in my body before this minute, but now the whole world pulsed. My body tingled like a limb that’s gone numb. I was holding my one year old son, but I could not feel him on my hip because I was feeling the weight of the world caving in on my head. I felt nothing and everything at the same time. It was both more real than any reality I’ve ever known and a complete out-of-body experience.
Details were flung at me and seared into my brain, things I never wanted to hear were flooding my ears and I was trying to make sense of this sudden sensitivity to chaos while trying to move by body in its numbness. I remember wanting so badly for the world to just stop for a minute. STOP TURNING SO I CAN FIND MY DAUGHTER! PLEASE GOD FREEZE TIME UNTIL I CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT’S REAL AND WHERE MY BABY GIRL HAS GONE!
I don’t remember how I got there but I was headed to the men’s room. Before that, I figured out how to dial my phone and my husband was on the line but I couldn’t communicate to him exactly what was happening. All I could scream was “Someone’s taken Brooke!” A security guard reminded me that she’s not taken “she’s just missing” so I repeat those words to my husband hoping that his version is the right one.
Suddenly, I am surrounded by a million people and they were all in my way as I tried to make to the men’s bathroom in the back hallway. Now, there were not just two security guards, but what feels like a hundred. Black and white flashes were running here and there. They were asking me basic questions that I can not answer. As I pushed my way through or maybe they were letting me, I don’t know, my brain registers the service elevator, the emergency stairs. I fight back vomit that’s been inched its way up my throat the whole time. My husband is on the phone listening to my screams when all the sudden… there she is.
She bounds through the back door of the Gymboree Gym that leads into another hidden, back hallway with a woman I do not know. At the sight of that teal dress and her round, smiling face my body collapses against the wall and I fall to my knees with my son still in my arms. I’m scream-sobbing. I don’t want to touch her, I’m too scared. She comes to me, she hugs me, not the other way around. My son cries out of fear and my daughter wipes my face of tears saying, “Stop crying Mommy. It’s okay Mommy. You don’t need to be sad, Mommy. I went potty by myself and then I got trapped in that room!” She says trapped in an exaggerated, joyful way, like it’s a fun game she just played. The woman at Gymboree that called the security guards is trying to hand me a glass of water and my daughter says, “Here Mommy, you need some fluids,” and she pushes the glass to my face.
Isn’t that ridiculous!? In that moment my 3-year-old tells me I need some fluids?!? I want to laugh at the absurdity of the thing but I still can’t stop the tears and sobs so I just say, “Yes, baby, yes, you’re right, Mommy needs some fluids”
It took me an hour to stop shaking. It has taken me a day to wrap my head around this event and what God is not-so-subtly trying to tell me because if you’re me… that is the question that runs like an undercurrent through everything that happens in my life. For hours the one thing preoccupied my thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking about the moment I was handed her shoes. I became obsessed with trying to articulate that moment and what my body went through. I wanted to label that pain, define it, put words to it and understand the power it had over my world in that moment. You would think a normal instinct would be to run from that horror, to numb it. In fact, that is exactly what I did when I got home with a bottle of wine and a pill or two.
In the wee hours of the next morning when I am prone to wake without reasons, when everything around me is quiet once more and my head was clear of booze and medication, something whispered from that space between things and told me that what happened was a gift… a blessing. Huh? Whatevs stupid, quiet, space, shut the ef up before I punch you in the throat you “space between.” That was my first reaction, but I think maybe there was some leftover wine in my liver doing the talking. When I calmed myself and began to drift off again, and the quietness returned, I came to understand what I was being told.
I was preoccupied with understanding the intense pain because it is a feeling I have never known, and now, will never forget. That feeling of white-lightening terror is a part of me now. I will forever know what my worst fear feels like because of those minutes. I will never not know the sound of my life ripping in two. What a rare gift that is to be given? What an amazing experience to know this level of Hell and then come back from it unharmed? It’s nothing short of a blessing, really.
Just like there can be no light without dark, no tall without short, no here, without there, there can be no joy without pain. This dichotomy is one of life’s grandest Truths.
Because of the depth of pain in these minutes, the joy in my life will always be rimmed with that memory. Like a halo, it will amplify, expand, make brighter, more accessible, more plentiful–it will make my joy more ethereal than before this day, the day I was given the knowledge of how deeply painful life can really be.
I can already feel all of this after just one day. I look at her with new eyes. I look at the chaos that is still unfurling in my personal life with a new perspective. Don’t get me wrong, it still sucks, but I know definitively just how much worse it could be, and with that knowledge, I know I can bear the things I think I cannot bear. I know that I can find inner peace among broken pieces.
I was shown through my worst nightmare realized, the meaning, value and accessibility of my joy and I was shown that it is always right here, right now, if only I choose it. It was the lesson I have been trying to learn all along on a grand God scale.
Also, I know that in those five minutes of burning fuse panic and those 60 seconds of soul-crushing explosion inside my chest, there are Life Lessons that I will be deciphering for years to come; good lessons, essential lessons, gifts yet to unwrap. There will be lessons that I don’t even know exist that will come rushing toward me years from now when I see a little girl in a teal dress or spot some lonely toddler sandals on the floor. Depths of empathy, layers of gratitude, rivers of joyful tears and mountains of meaning topped with uncrushable strength will forever flow from these six minutes when my world exploded, disappeared and then returned to me through a hidden back door telling me to drink my fluids.
But today, today my lesson is joy. Real, simple, abundant joy… if only I choose it. That is what I learned today. Today. Today.
And fluids. I will remember to drink my fluids.