. . .all over again when I think about it.
It was the summer of 1997. We were getting ready to leave for a relaxing vacation at our favorite destination, Pismo Beach. I was in the house finishing the laundry and packing the suitcases. BigBob went to the garage to get the car ready.
So the boys, who were then 10 and 5 1/2 years old, went outside to play. I reminded them to stay on the quiet circle where our house was located and not go out onto the busier street with which it intersected. There are two entrances to the circle from the more heavily-trafficked thoroughfare and plenty of room between the two to ride bikes. I also asked #1Son to keep an eye on his little brother, who was speeding up and down the sidewalk on his Big Wheels tricycle wearing a neon green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helmet.
The street that ran parallel to ours is also a circle, but it can be accessed in either direction from the busier street. So it is possible to turn left or right and loop around back to the main intersection.
After a short while, #1Son came in the house, breathless and red-cheeked from riding his bike, and asked, “Hey, Mom, where’s Mattie-Boo?”
I froze, but it was too soon to panic. “He went outside with you and you were supposed to be keeping an eye on him, remember? So why are you asking me where he is?”
“Well, I was riding my bike and he was on the sidewalk on his Big Wheels trike, but when I turned around and looked again, he was gone.”
I was certain that MattieBoo was out there on the circle and #1Son just didn’t see him. So I went out to the garage and told BigBob to go out on the driveway and see where MattieBoo was.
“I don’t see him,” was the response.
And then I felt it for the first time. That sinking feeling. Deep in my stomach. I felt a scream rising up from the innermost recesses of my brain, but stifled it.
“Well, he has to be out there. He went out with #1Son and I told him to stay on the circle.”
“I don’t see him, but I’ll go look.” With that, BigBob hopped into his car, leaving my Camry with oil dripping into a pan under it, and took off. I was confident that in a few seconds, he would be back, and MattieBoo would come peddling down the sidewalk with the sun bouncing off that ugly green helmet with the big smiling face of a turtle on top.
Instead, BigBob came back alone. And that sinking feeling was slowly giving way to full-fledged, oh-my-freakin’-god-where-is-my-child? panic.
I had not gotten dressed yet that morning. I was going to finish the packing while BigBob readied the car. Then we were both going to shower, dress, throw the kids in the back seat and hit the road, arriving in Pismo Beach just in time for dinner and some evening play time in the hotel pool.
So I threw on my really unattractive, but totally comfortable, fuzzy fuchsia bathrobe and headed outside. I no longer cared that the neighbors might see me with my hair askew and discover what kind of schmatta I puttered around my house in.
I couldn’t drive my car since there was no oil in the engine, so BigBob took off again in his car to search the adjoining streets, while I walked up and down the circle, hoping against hope that little green helmet would round the corner.
I contemplated calling the police, figuring that at 10:00 a.m. Monday morning in livable, lovable Lodi, they were probably just sitting around the donut shop gossiping and they may as well come help look for MattieBoo. By this time, he had been missing a good 30 minutes and my bathrobe was soaked with my cold sweat, I was breathing rapidly and shallowly, felt dizzy and thought I might pass out, but knew I couldn’t give in to the effect my fear was having on my body. I had to find MattieBoo. My baby.
So there I was with the cordless phone in my hand, ready to dial 9-1-1, pacing up and down the circle, calling out, “MattieBoo!” when the next door neighbor, a middle schooler, came home with some of his friends. He instantly knew something was wrong. “Did you see MattieBoo on your way home?” I asked him. “No,” but he and his friends took off immediately to join in the search. A few minutes later, they were back. “We can’t find him.”
Nausea set in. The world was spinning. I really thought I was going to lose it.
BigBob came back again and he was pale. He was panicking, too.
“You’d better call the police. I can’t find him anywhere, but I’m heading out again.” He named the streets he had searched, including the next circle over, but planned to retrace his steps. After all, if he was out there on his Big Wheels, he was a moving target. And if he wasn’t there because someone had taken him . . .
I refused to think about it.
Just then I heard sirens on the main thoroughfare a few blocks away. They sent a shiver down my spine the likes of which I have never experienced before or since. “Oh, God . . . please don’t let those be for MattieBoo.” A vision of that hideous green helmet lying in pieces on the busiest street in town flashed before me and I summarily banished it.
Without my car, I was powerless to do anything but keep pacing and call the police to assist. The dispatcher was professional, sympathetic and reassured me that an officer would be along shortly. “I’m sure he’s just gotten lost and we will find him, safe and sound,” she said in a comforting, if utterly unconvincing, tone.
It seemed like an eternity, but a few minutes later, as I stood there willing my knees to hold me up, I looked down the street to see BigBob’s car rounding the corner.
And in the front seat next to him, peeking up just above the dashboard, I could see something very green — and exceptionally beautiful.
I will never forget his little face when he smiled at me through the window of the car as BigBob pulled into the driveway. There was my MattieBoo with that enormous helmet encircling his gorgeous little bespectacled face. He was grinning from ear to ear.
The car had barely stopped when he hopped out and ran over to me, “Mom! I was riding my Big Wheels and Daddy came and got me!” He had no idea how panicked I had been or why I was crying uncontrollably. I grabbed him and refused to let go, carrying him into the house. I went straight to my bedroom and flopped down on the bed, still squeezing him while BigBob got his Big Wheels out of the back of the car.
“Mom, why are you crying?”
“Because I was scared to death. Where were you? We’ve been looking and looking for you.”
“It’s ok, Mom,” he said, taking both of my cheeks into his little hands. “I was on my way home. I wouldn’t leave you.”
Just then BigBob came in. “Where did you find him?”
“Oh, he was just riding along, completely unconcerned. When I pulled up, he told me, ‘I’m trying to get home, Dad.'” He had gone out onto the busy street and ended up on the next circle over.
Ironically, he had been riding around and around that circle, trying to get back onto ours. But the first few times BigBob drove through that adjacent circle looking for him, he was on the opposite side and did not hear BigBob calling him. The same thing must have happened when #1Son and the other boys rode their bikes over to that circle to search for him. Finally, BigBob got lucky, ending up on the same side of the circle at precisely the same moment as MattieBoo.
I let him go back to playing with his brother. They were both aware that I was upset, but completely oblivious, of course, to the extent of my distress or their father’s. I made them stay in the house the rest of the morning while I finished packing, BigBob completed the oil change, and we finished readying to begin our vacation, during which I never took my eyes off either of my babies.
Having learned his lesson about the neighborhood geography, MattieBoo never again left the circle without my permission.
There have been other moments since then when I have gotten a sinking feeling in my stomach, but, thankfully, none exactly like the one I experienced that day.
Originally published August 25, 2007.