Running errands, I came to a horrifying realization. My toddler, nearly 2, was not in the car. Thinking that he'd somehow wriggled out of his car seat, I called his name. No answer. Racking my brain, I tried to recall where I'd last seen him. I could not remember. Frantically, I retraced my steps, shouting his name. My little Kung Fu Panda was nowhere.
Mercifully, I awoke in a sweat. Immediately, I ran to my son's crib. His chubby arms to each side, he lay on his stomach, his little butt thrust in the air. Because of the warm night, his honey-blonde curls were plastered on either side of his face. His long-lashed eyelids were still pressed together. He was only sleeping late. My body must have sensed the hour and been alarmed at the quiet.
I am so lucky I get to wake up.
My main paycheck comes from transcribing cable news programs, so I watch many stories about parents who aren't so lucky. I wish I could simply change the channel. If I want to get paid, however, I must keep watching. Sometimes, I feel as if I'm strapped down, my eyes propped open with toothpicks, as news anchors interview weeping families, replay grainy surveillance footage, and repeat the meager known facts: what the children were wearing, where they disappeared from, who saw them last.
I want to embrace those families. I want to rescue the children. I want to see the perpetrators punished to the full extent of the law. On the nights when the stories change from hopeful to tragic, the nights when bodies are recovered, I rush into the room where my husband is caring for our son. When he's awake, I hug my panda. When he's sleeping, I watch him longingly. Only then do I return to work.
For me, such stories don't stay in the transcripts I deliver each night. They are in the back of my head every time a stranger gets too friendly. While they all claim to be grandparents, or estranged fathers, whenever somebody sidles up to me and my little guy, my spirit animal -- a bear, naturally -- swells around us both. My claws, and jaws, are at the ready. I shut these strangers down with curt responses and walk away, grasping my son firmly by the hand or, better yet, holding him close.
My little panda, who picks up on my vibe, refuses to talk to those who impose on our space. Instead, he reserves his bright smiles and nascent conversing skills for those whom I introduce. "This is Miss Jen, Mommy's friend," I tell him, and he says hi, while standing close to me. If he recognizes her, he'll give her a hug. If not, he hangs close to me until he feels more secure.
Again and again, I have drilled into his head that he must "stay close to Mommy" when we are out together. This was born of necessity, when he first discovered his ability to run. I tried, briefly, to use a harness (a.k.a. a leash) to restrain him but found this only made him sink to his knees in frustrated tears. To keep him safe, I realized, I had to teach him to keep himself safe.
I was a stubborn, willful child, and my mother never tires of telling embarrassing stories about my rebelliousness. Once, when my parents were visiting friends in Texas, I decided I wasn't going to walk any further. My mother was very pregnant with my brother and told me I couldn't be carried. So I plunked my little butt down on the pavement, and Mommy and Daddy called my bluff. They walked away.
To hear my mother tell it, they walked until I was a tiny little speck before they finally relented and came back. To my mom, this is an amusing story about a willful child. To me, fueled with these nightly news stories, it is a chilling tale.
So many things could have happened in those long moments when I was out of arm's reach. So many horrible endings. I could easily have been one of the disappeared. Perhaps my spirit bear protected me, even then, expanding its starry fur in a bubble around me. I can see her -- me -- that tiny blonde speck, unaware of how fortunate she would become.