Today started out, like so many days do. The sun was still hiding behind its chilly grey blankets, refusing to come out from its cozy abode. My children were up early,their sweet voices chattering over cartoons in the living room. My head filled with to do lists, before my feet had greeted the carpet next to my bed. I sighed, as I often do lately, giving myself another moment to wake up and steel my heart for another busy day.
An hour and a half later, we were leaving. Seven clothed bodies, scrambling to find our places in the minivan that would take us to where we were going. My best friend had pleaded with me for all of us to go to her church in the valley for a petting zoo and Easter egg hunt. It will be so fun, she said, we’ll do it together. I am a sucker for togetherness, and so, we went.
But when we got there, we found that half of our fair city had decided to attend. And, well, crowds. There were so many people that we felt instantly overwhelmed. Our quaint, country church, eggy ideals were smashed by the presence of so many strangers, we felt overstimulated and underwhelmed. After a quick family vote, we headed on, to more promising pastures, Lake Coeur d’Alene.
We swatted at the moodiness of the heavy clouds, with a picnic in the park, a short walk, and the huge play structure. My children love this place. I want to love this place, but there is so much to it, that I cannot rest. It is well built, and imaginative, yet also filled with dark corners and beams that I cannot see all of my children around. Whenever we come here, and we come a lot, I am on my feet, walking and checking, and walking again. There are benches, but they are for the people who visit with one or two children, so they can sit while they watch their kids play right in front of them. My five children race around the structure as if they have something to prove, little Joshuas circling Jericho, curious to see how many times around they can make it, before it falls.
My husband and I divided who would be watching who, as I took pictures this afternoon. I am always watching, all of them. Always scanning, and counting, without letting my eyes or heart rest. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….. on and on it goes. It is my rhythm, my lifeline. It feels as if my own heart waits to resume its beating until I have confirmed that they are all accounted for, that life is still worth living.
We played for an hour, maybe a little more. I took too many pictures, as I always do. Then, as we were preparing to leave, the sun came out from its dwelling. We couldn’t bear the thought of being rude guests, and so did not leave, when the sun had beckoned us to stay. The children slid down slides and pumped their little feet back and forth, reaching ever higher and higher on the swings. I aimed my camera to catch the way the light danced across their beautiful faces. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I breathed. I basked like a sun-worshipper in the warmth of my children’s laughter, let it wash over the tired parts of me.
I forced myself to enjoy each moment. To be still and enjoy being fully present, reminded myself that I was exactly where I needed to be.
The sun, fickle mistress, stayed out in splendor, forcing the hands of time to wave their white flag in surrender. We had to go, we were already late. We rounded the children up, and let them say their goodbyes to the new friends that they had made, and would most likely never see again. I was thinking about the little red-haired boy, who had such a hard time accepting that my son was leaving, marveling at how attached he seemed to my child. It’s because my Jonah was so kind to him, I thought. I hope he has people in his life who are always kind. And then we were walking towards the exit/entrance part. Something is not right, I felt, and thought. 1, 2, 3, 4. No. That’s not enough. 1. 2. 3. 4.
Where is Ellie, I yelled to my husband, around the panic rising like a mountain in my throat? Is she with you?, I asked, or more likely pleaded and begged. No, he said, turning around. 1, 2, 3, 4. I could not breathe. My heart did not beat. Of this I am certain. Everything around me sped up, and I slowed down. The bark became quicksand at my feet. I could not see her. I looked and looked. We ran, four children in tow, all around, calling out for her, with no answer.
Ohmygodohmygodthiscantbehappening. All words flowed together, as the seconds stretched into eternity. Ellianah! I called, now frantic enough that parents went over to their own children and made sure they were safe, even if mine was not. Ellianah. I looked and looked. I prayed, dear God, I prayed so hard. I ran to the outside and looked around, my eyes straining to see a wisp of her flowered dress. My mind, thinking over the face of every man I had seen, trying to put together a description. She was no where. But she had to be. This one of five who mean everything to me.
I began stopping strangers and asking them if they had seen her. My other children calling her, and meeting only an aching silence in return. I will find her, I will, said her twin, and off she ran, as I stood there scaring a group of childless college girls, all dressed in black and trying to understand me. How long do I wait before I call the police, I wondered. This can’t be real, I thought, even though it felt very real. It felt like falling off a curb that you misjudged in height, suspended, but stumbling, without the ability to catch yourself.
I was still talking, when I heard the shouting, and I tried to understand what happened. Zoe yelled first, then her dad. Did you find her? I yelled, but could not make sense of their reply. Did you find her? I asked again, fearing the answer more this time. Then everything stopped, as Zoe ducked out of sight, my husband running closely behind. If she’s there but hurt, we’ll make it through, she just can’t be with one of those men. And then she was there, dejected face and flowered dress, walking sheepishly towards me.
I could not move. I could not stay away. I felt knocked out to sea by waves of relief and torment, and the horrible what-ifs, and what could have beens. Thank you, I said, out loud, not caring who heard. And then she was in front of me, my hands on her sweet face, cupping the cheeks that I brought into this earth. Needing to touch her, needing her to be real, and here, and safe. I love you, I said, because isn’t that the most important thing? I love you, I repeated, because having her here with me is a luxury. “You scared me, so bad,” I croaked around a sob. “I didn’t want to leave yet”, she said, “and so I hid.”
I held her and cried. “I was so scared”, I said again. I was not mad, though my body shook. I felt no anger. I only felt, as if I was given a second chance. I felt, as if I was in the presence of something holy. And gracious. And good.
We are home now, and have been for hours. Can I confide in you that I am still not okay? I am holding and loving and parenting, but inside I am breaking for what could have happened. We have talked it out, and found comfort together. We have made a plan for the future. And we are all being so careful of each other, showing only the most delicate sides to this fierce love we share. But I am still struggling to shake the feeling that all the peace and happiness we share could have been gone in a moment, had things gone differently.