It was mid-morning. Bright white clouds dotted along a blue sky backdrop. It was warm and slightly humid with a slight breeze. The boys and I had just returned home from errands and decided to head out on a bike ride.
We brought along a bag with a few slices of bread to feed the geese. In the week prior, they seemed to be everywhere—crossing streets, pecking through front yards, and corralling their babies back into the ponds scattered throughout the adjoining neighborhoods. That day, however, there were none to be found. After biking up to the last pond on the trail with no success, I put together a new game plan. We were going to bike back to the first pond closest to our house and then regroup.
My 5-year-old began to race off in the direction of the first pond, and I told him to slow down and wait for his younger brother and me. He said OK. He’s great on his bike. He knew where the checkpoints were. He knew that he was supposed to wait for us to catch up before receiving the all-clear to ride on to the next checkpoint. He was always good about waiting.
Until that day when he wasn’t.
I look back on it now, and my heartbeat still quickens at the memory. The moment I turned the corner into view of the tunnel and realized he wasn’t there. Racing through the tunnel with my 3-year-old in tow, trying not to panic. Coming out of the other side and looking in both directions, my son nowhere in sight. The frightening call to 911. He had just been with me. A few minutes earlier, I had trailed a little behind them, smiling at their surety, at how fast time flies, and how much they were growing. It had been one of those beautiful moments in motherhood, and now my son was missing. How does that happen?
It was less than 20 minutes of terror, but it felt like a lifetime—waiting on the phone with the 911 operator as instructed and for someone to find him. All I could do was sob and continue to scream his name, hoping my voice could somehow reach him when I couldn’t. And when they finally found him, when he jumped out of the back of the police SUV and into my arms, I could only imagine how other parents whose children have been missing much longer must feel. That overwhelming sense of relief almost brought me to my knees.
While you may say that it will never happen to you, most veteran parents would disagree. At one point or another, there may come a time when your child is temporarily missing, whether it be in a grocery store, at a park, or even on a bike trail. What you do in a situation like that can make all the difference.
1. Assess your area.
Are you outdoors or indoors? In a familiar or a new place? Are you in a high-traffic area? What are the most pressing dangers of your surroundings?
2. Decide when to stay or go.
If a child wanders off, chances are when he or she realizes they’ve wandered too far, they’ll come back to the last place they remember being with you. If they come back and you’re not there, they’ll wander off again to find you. This happens a lot, according to the 911 operator. If you are in a grocery store when your child goes missing, immediately head to the front by the doors and notify an employee. They have protocols in place to lock down the building until your child is located. If you are outdoors like we were, however, it’s best to stay where you are, especially if it is a familiar place.
3. Make the Call.
Five minutes missing is still five minutes too long. Every second counts when your child has disappeared. Call 911 to get help in your search. There is no shame in calling, even if your son or daughter appears before officers get to you. It never hurts to have additional backup.
4. Stay calm.
Once they’re found, that overwhelming sense of relief can turn into anger. You may want to yell about how irresponsible they were and how worried you were, but it won’t make anyone feel any better. Most likely, they were just as scared as you were. Hopefully, that’s lesson enough, but if not…
5. Practice the protocol.
A friend suggested I tag my sons’ bikes with my contact information should anything ever happen again. That’s something I never thought to do and a great idea. When he was missing, my son told a woman on the trail that he was lost. The woman asked if he knew my phone number, but he didn’t. If it had been on his bike, he could’ve been home sooner. My husband and I are also going to run drills periodically to make sure both of our sons know what to do in case of an emergency (of any kind). It’s important at any age to be well-informed for emergencies.
Above all, look out for your community. I am so incredibly thankful for my neighborhood. The woman my son first encountered on the trail who offered to walk him home, the neighbor who works security for our development and helped the police find him, the police for bringing him home to me. I am indebted to each and every one of them.