To Chris, The IKEA Employee, Who Helped Me Find My Son

by Michael McWatters
Originally Published: 
Ikea is a sensory wonderland for Colin: too much, too little, and sometimes just the right amount. Michael McWatters

Dear Ikea Chris,

I apologize for not knowing your last name; the conditions under which we met weren’t conducive to a more formal introduction. But please know that I’m extremely grateful for what you did for me and my family on Sunday at the Brooklyn Ikea.

You already know the beginning of the story, because you witnessed it: I was in the self-service area grabbing a cart when I let go of my son’s hand for an instant. Boom! He was off like a shot! I ditched the cart and was in hot pursuit. You saw me; I saw you. You said, “Is that your son?” I mindlessly said, “Yes,” and continued my chase. I honestly didn’t give you another thought: I had a visual bead on Colin and hoped to catch him before he got too far ahead of me.

Plants, Housewares, Lighting — I was able to see him even though he was gaining ground. And then I lost him. His small frame and nimble moves made it easy for him to thread the throngs of shoppers with their carts and oversized Ikea bags.

What I didn’t know—couldn’t know—was that you took off after Colin, too, but on a different trajectory. Your hope was to intercept him if I didn’t. Smart move, Chris, smart move.

I ran through the lower level, eyes darting left and right in case he found a resting place; eventually I came to the stairs leading up to the Ikea Cafe. A thought: Colin loves their french fries. Worth a shot, but no dice. Then I remembered he was drawn to a specific bedroom display, so I began a lap around the second floor looking for the setup.

A moment of calm before the storm.

You work for Ikea, so you’re probably very familiar with the layout; I, however, felt like a rat in a maze filled with meandering shoppers and Scandanavian home furnishings. I tried to be nimble, but I sideswiped at least two unsuspecting customers as well as a Ypperlig floor lamp. (It wobbled but didn’t fall…I think.)

After ten gut-wrenching minutes, I finally made it to his favorite bedroom display. Again: no dice, no Colin.

And now panic set in.

You see, Colin is autistic. He’s verbal, but his pragmatic language is weak; he struggles to explain things, particularly to strangers. When he’s scared, he has anxiety-fueled meltdowns which make it nearly impossible to engage him. He doesn’t know which strangers to trust or where to go if he’s lost and, as you saw, he’s prone to impulsivity. I imagined him running out the door and across the icy parking lot, confused and scared.

I was about to ask for help when something magical happened: a voice from above, a savior with a PA system: “Michael McWatters, please come to the rug department.” One more time for good measure: “Michael McWatters, please come to the rug department.” Huzzah!

Not as simple as it looks.

I ran to the nearest directory: Rugs, downstairs. But how to get there? The map was inscrutable, or my mind wasn’t working very well. Or both. I could only picture Colin wailing, so anxious he’d begun to cough or throw up, as he’s done in the past when upset. So although I’m middle-aged, I once again summoned my mediocre-at-best high school football moves to avoid collisions while still making haste to Rugs.

Glassware, Lamps, Kitchenware — RUGS! And there, to my relief, was Colin. He was lying atop a waist-high stack of rugs, smiling, rolling, getting his sensory on. And there you were, Chris. I recognized you instantly: the guy who saw me running after my son. So much to say, but first I had to check on Colin: 15 minutes apart, but he’s fine, natch. It’s me who’s a wreck: sweating through my heavy winter wear, panting and enervated from the adrenaline blast.

Happy as a clam.

“Thank you thank you thank you! I’m so grateful!” I said. “I had no idea you were looking for him, too!”

“No worries! Glad I could help,” was your cheerful, humble reply. “He’s a funny kid. Took me a bit to get him to tell me your name so we could page you.”

I felt the need to explain. I said quietly, “He’s autistic…” But before I could finish, you nodded knowingly. “I could tell you needed help when I saw him take flight. I’m just glad I caught him.”

“Me, too. You have no idea.”

Or do you? Maybe you know how many autistic kids go missing every year. Maybe you’re aware of the fact that nearly half will run away before they’re 17 (the technical term is “eloping”), often with tragic results. Maybe you just had a sense.

Whatever the case, you did a remarkable thing. You saw an impish kid running away from his dad and understood there was something more at play. Most people wouldn’t have given the situation a second thought — and I don’t begrudge them, as outward appearances are deceptive — but you did, and you took action. You spared us both from excruciating anxiety…or worse.

So, Ikea Chris, thank you. I didn’t get your last name, and I should have, because the letter I wrote to Ikea corporate is incomplete in that regard. In it, I described Sunday’s events, told them your first name, and asked that they recognize you for your compassion.

If our paths cross again, I hope you’ll let me buy you a plate of Swedish meatballs in the Ikea Cafe. Colin will have the fries.

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