Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A childhood fear revisited

I was solo parenting this evening as the boy and I headed out into the night. Usually, Dad accompanies us on Wednesday evenings, but he was at home completing some unfinished business, so Marcus and I headed down to church by ourselves—he to his kid club activity, and me to choir practice. The kid activities start and finish at about the same times as choir practice, and it gets a bit hairy when I have to do the pick-up instead of his father.

I should have known that practice would run over a tad; we’re rehearsing extra songs for Christmas, we’re running out of practice time, lots of people are sick this time of year so sometimes attendance is sketchy and the practices are more confusing what with people coming back from absences… I should have planned to leave rehearsal early so that I could collect my son on time.

I didn’t. I figured I could rush out of rehearsal, run across the street, and meet him without incident in relatively punctual fashion.

And that’s just not how life occurs, especially when it’s occurring in crowded spaces with throngs of people milling and last-minute requests to sign service commitments and forgotten umbrellas and the like. I was late picking up my boy. And we’re not talking mildly late—we’re talking pretty darned late. I ran across the street to his building, not waiting for the “walk” sign, scurried past the other bodies as soon as I was able to do so, leapt into and out of the elevator, ran down the hall to his room, and—

It was empty. The light was out. He was not there. No one was there.

Oh my God! Where is he? I practically collared a woman I did not know who was leaving the room next door: “Where is my little boy? He was in this room, right here.”

She looked around, asked another club leader, and that kind lady pointed down the hall: “He’s down at the information desk.” Okay. Okay. Breathe. I trotted to the information desk, still panicked, looking all around, and then someone else pointed to where my heart was sitting on a chair behind the counter, all alone, not another kid in sight.

And oh, his little face, his small pointed chin, pale and worried. His grey-blue eyes, big like saucers and quite serious. I wanted to weep. “Oh Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so late.” He bit his lip, said nothing, looked at me with those enormous wet eyes. The ladies assured me he’d just gotten there, that he was fine, it was not a problem. But I felt awful.

I’ll tell you why I felt so awful: Because that moment, those few seconds and the look of confusion and concern on his white face, brought back to me with stark detail one of my own childhood fears: That my parents would leave me somewhere and never come to get me. Of course this never happened. It was a completely unfounded fear, a ridiculous uneasiness that had no source of reality whatsoever. But it didn’t matter; for at least the first six years of my life, probably longer, I was convinced that I’d be abandoned by my family.

I can recall many occasions, waiting for my mother to pick me up from school on days when she’d worked, waiting at school for my school bus when it was later than usual, even waiting for my ride home from a play date—and I would work myself into a state of frantic frenzy, anticipating what would happen to me when no one ever came to take me home. Why? What in the world caused this trepidation to bloom? I didn’t know anyone who’d been abandoned, wasn’t worldly enough at that point to watch the news and learn that yes, abandonment and worse does happen to some unfortunate children in this cruel world. So where did the frightened thoughts come from?

Who knows. I suppose there are very few childhood fears that make sense, really.

All I know is that seeing my son’s face brought it all flooding into my consciousness and I felt so terrible for having made him wait, for having left him to be singled out as the only little child whose parents hadn’t come. He climbed down from the chair where he’d been sitting, and I took his hand and held it tightly, apologizing profusely for my tardiness to the women who’d been keeping him company. Thank goodness a young memory is quick to change directions; even as we stepped out into the hall, Marcus was telling me about the cookies that a classmate had brought to class, one of which was wrapped in a napkin and clutched in his other paw.

We made our way to the elevator, and he said, “Mommy, what were you thinking?”

“You mean when I couldn’t find you?”


“I was confused, Baby, because I went to your room and it was empty. The lights were out. And I had to ask the lady next door where you were.”

“You had to ask the lady next door?”

“Yes, Sweetie, because I didn’t know where to find you. The funny thing is, I probably ran right past you when I was on my way to your classroom. I didn’t even see you sitting there because I was in such a hurry to get you!”

“You went right past me?”


“And the room was empty and lights were out?”


So went the ride home, a thankfully short ride, with him rehashing each moment of the ordeal several times. And when we pulled into the garage and I unlatched his seat belt, I reminded him that if ever I were late picking him up, he should remember that I was on my way and he needn’t worry. I would never leave him. As the belt slipped free and I went to withdraw my arm, he reached out and hugged it to his chest. And I snuggled him back.

And made a mental note to leave rehearsal early next time.

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