One child, our oldest, our daughter, is on the baseball field, our two younger boys are at the adjacent playground: one asks to go to the bathroom. I attempt to lure the youngest, the three-year-old, from the monkey bars to come too, but he is adamant to stay, and the other boy is holding his knees together and cupping his groin. It’s okay, my friend says, I got him, I can watch him. She is watching her young daughter, too, and in this moment, I just want to my five-year-old to make it to the bathroom to avoid an accident.
It is blazingly sunny, one of the first hot days of summer. The darkness of the bathroom is suddenly chilling. I wait outside the stall in case he needs help re-fastening his baseball pants. Mom, he says to me and anyone else in the bathroom, do you know that I had two popsicles after the game? One was blue and one was yellow, so wouldn’t that make green in my tummy? His voices echoes off the tile walls. We can hardly hear the screaming, yelling, cheering of the many baseball games in the park.
There is no soap to wash with, and I rinse his hands for him because he can’t reach the faucet. I rinse his hot, dusty face, and splash water around his mouth where the green popsicle residue seems permanent. I splash water on my neck and arms to cool off.
When we exit, we are strolling leisurely, and the sun feels so good on my face. It isn’t until we’re just feet from the playground when I see my friend waving her arms, frantic, yelling I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and there’s no sign of our small, blonde child—I looked away for a second and he was gone—usually it’s his hair we see first, duck fluff I call it, I’m scanning the playground the parking lot the ball fields the playground my friend’s distressed face, she’s running through cars in the parking lot and looking under them, and I call 9-1-1.
I tell the dispatcher that we’ve lost a child in a park, the same park where several cars have recently been broken into. She will send a car. I think about the phrases precious seconds, stranger danger, free-range parenting, allowing for exploration, and the words distance, separation. I need to go to the bathroom immediately.
My fingers are shaking so hard that I can hardly text my husband who is at the field watching our daughter. My voice can’t shout his name loudly enough because my throat is closing around tears. I am trying to stay calm. My arms feel heavy. I look for blonde hair everywhere.
Here he is, my husband yells, and the blonde hair is bobbing up and down toward me. I scoop up our boy and show my friend that he’s okay: he was in the stone dugout with his sister, didn’t hear us calling his name. He was hot. He forgot to tell my friend where he was going.
The officer questions me, questions my friend, who is so overcome with guilt and apology and worry that her face has changed and looks aged. I embrace her and tell her that this happens, and it does, to us all. I carry my small child on my hip over to the officer: this is him. Here he is. My son cries: he’s scared. Our daughter’s game is over, and the scene devolves into embraces between parents and hot children in uniforms dragging equipment and water bottles to minivans, which disperse from the lot.
I am still holding our child’s hand. I want to run over there, he says, pointing to an empty baseball field.
Go, explore, I want to say. I want to say, Stay here. Stay right here. Don’t move.