It was a simple enough question which I figured had a simple enough answer. It was Memorial Day 2016 and we were spending the late afternoon at good friends of ours who were making a BBQ. The grill was starting to cook food and smelled amazing, and the kids kept parading in and out of the house, to the backyard, back to the basement of toys, upstairs to the living room and occasionally outside of the house where they’d come back to the yard through a gate. It was a glorious early Summer afternoon and the kids all seemed happy to be happy hanging out with friends and playing with toys. I had just been working with the hose on the side of the house so the kids could get a little wet (they were wearing bathing suits in anticipation) when my husband casually asked that question. I figured my free-spirited 3 year old daughter was either in the backyard, playing with toys in the basement, in a bathroom somewhere, or upstairs. Except she wasn’t. Slowly, as we started to look through each room and call her name without any response, my heart began to beat a little faster. The house and yard had been completely searched. She wasn’t there. That’s when I started to panic.
The house was a couple of houses away from the street and across the street there was a park. Could she have crossed the street to go there? I ran to look, frantically calling her name, explaining to friends who were casually sitting there what was going on. She was not in the park either. I came back to the house where my husband had also been unsuccessful at locating her. At this point, neighbors of our friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, started to realize that a young child was missing and were coming over asking what she looked like and where she was last seen, hoping they could help find her.
It has been about 6 minutes since we discovered she was missing and my husband decided it was time to call the police. Despite their notorious reputation for taking forever to respond to calls, 2 squad cars showed up minutes later. My husband was super calm (though terrified inside) and showed her the photo we took that day with her white terry robe and yellow crocs. I was a hot mess, picturing myself on the evening news sobbing to please find my baby girl…..picturing Meira lost or kidnapped and afraid…..and the worst case scenarios which I can’t even write here. And through these fears, i felt tremendous guilt. How could I have let this happen?? While the police radioed their squad about the missing child, I kept running up and down the block, calling her name, willing myself to see that little ponytail and yellow pair of crocs.
And than my phone rang. No one ever calls me. And it was a friend of mine from the area (Dina*) who really never calls me, she texts or whatsapps. I had a sense of relief and shakily answered and heard the sweetest five words.
‘Are you looking for Meira?’ I burst into tears. I couldn’t even answer.
‘Esther, She’s OK. She’s at the Cohen’s house’.
What???? That was a full two blocks away!! How do you know?
So Dina told me that – get this – Shira Cohen had just posted a photo of my darling daughter on the local whatsapp chat asking if anyone knows who this little girl is. While we were hyperventilating and calling the police, my daughter discovered – possibly the best backyard in the neighborhood and was posing for a photo on the slide. Now, I ask you – does she look scared??
Well, word quickly spread that Meira was found safe and sound Thank God and we could all breathe again. Probably the first real breath in 10 minutes. The police went with my husband to get her (I guess they wanted to feel like they were part of something) and I asked my friend how could Meira have walked the full 2+ blocks and turning at the right place? (Thank God there were no streets) and that’s when Debbie pointed to the yard. Her backyard did not have a gate like ours did, just trees surrounding it, which you can technically go through. Meira went through three different yards to get to the Cohen’s. My guess is she noticed the play structure from far away and went through the small forest to get there. She knows how to get what she wants, my little girl. But really none of that mattered. What mattered was she was safe and coming back.
When the police brought Meira back a minute later, I held her so tight. I was still crying, but they were tears of relief and gratitude. And yes, mixed in to those amazing feelings was also a sense of pain. Pain for parents around the world that do make it to the evening news, that also felt panic and hysteria and did not get the sweet ginormous relief that I was lucky enough to get. The moms of children who were suddenly and senselessly taken by accidents, shootings, illness or in some very rare cases, kidnapping. I cried for those moms then and I do so now as I acknowledge ‘by the Grace of God’ are we lucky enough to tuck our children in each night, healthy and whole.
As a quick epilogue, we did manage to enjoy the rest of the BBQ that night, although I got many concerned texts and calls from neighborhood people. I mean – it was on the neighborhood whatsapp……no better way to spread the word that my 3 year old was out of my presence for a bit of time. I thought there would be judgement and gossip, and maybe there was behind my back. But amazingly, besides for one nosy women who wanted details, everyone else just sent support, love and hugs. One friend of mine who was in the park actually passed by and was crying in relief and I was so touched at how much this episode had scared her as well. Another friend brought over rumballs later to take the edge of the stress of the day (yes, alcohol and chocolate were in order that night).
And than, the stories started coming in. So many had them and it was like suddenly I was a safe person to share the scare with. The boy that managed to unlock the door and cross the street early in the morning. The child who went home with the wrong family from shul. Even a little girl who was left in a taxi when Mom closed her door and started going around to retrieve her. All had happy endings following some very very scary moments. And these are all good moms, attentive and loving moms, not neglectful or uncaring. Because sometimes, no matter what precautions you take, crazy stuff that you don’t anticipate still happens. One of my friends admitted that when her neighbor brought her wandering daughter back to her house, she had not even noticed she was gone. And that she was more concerned about ‘do-gooders’ calling the police and ACS than the safety of a curious child who doesn’t cross streets and lives in a safe community. I kinda wonder how it would have been if I had only noticed Meira’s whereabouts when Dina called me. Probably wouldn’t reflect so well on me and I think i needed the scare.
That summer, I chose NOT to keep Meira away from parks despite the scare, though I was much more vigilant than usual. And when I’d momentarily lose track of her for a few moments, my heart would start pounding again until I’d see her. Despite the awful 10 minutes I encountered, I still feel that my laid-back and free-range parenting styles benefits my kids far more than it hurts them. And statistically, 99.99% of kids reported missing to local police are found alive. That does not even include the kids who were found before involving the police! That tiny statistic is still terrifying, especially when you think about a child crossing the street, but these stories generally end well. They just are not the one to make the evening news.
I share this story publicly despite knowing that it doesn’t paint me in the best light, since
- I want to publicly thank God for keeping my daughter safe that day and all my kids safe always. I think about this every Memorial Day and am so grateful for my healthy children.
- To remind parents to use a bit of extra vigilance when in a place without proper enclosing and with a child who is not afraid to wander a bit.
- But also to let parents know, if something like this does happen – its OK. Don’t judge yourself. You’re not a bad parent. These things happen ALL the time and 99.99% of the time, the ending is happy and quickly resolved.
- If this happens to your child, don’t hesitate even for a second to ask for help. Had I initially mentioned on the whatsapp that my daughter went missing, I probably would have gotten her back much sooner. It’s not the time to be embarrassed or worry about judgement.
- If you hear about this happening to another child in the your neighborhood, or happen to see a wandering child, don’t judge. Obviously, if the same kid keeps going off numerous times, its a problem, but if it’s a one time thing, just help the kid find her mom and give her a hug or maybe some rumballs. It takes a village to raise a child and we all need to part of it.*Some names in this story were changed for privacy reasons