My second guy was 8 years old at the time and we were on our biennial trek to bask in the glow of that adorable talking mouse and his magnificent tribe. It was our day at Magic Kingdom and in typical Disney fashion the crowds were akin to 4am at Walmart on Black Friday. Just obscene. And not particularly ideal for us introverts, guys, but obviously Tinkerbell sprinkles the joint with feel-good-fairy-dust and her spell makes me blinded to even the most absurd congestion. I mean, a 90-minute wait for a 30-second ride seems perfectly reasonable, right? Ahem.
As per usual we had sufficiently over-indulged on everything the kingdom could serve up and when the sun began to dip low in the sky our crew, and 98,000 of our closest friends, migrated instinctively towards Cinderella’s Castle for what was sure to be the most beautiful fireworks display at the ball. We were staking our territory (read: 2-foot square of concrete) for the big show when it hit me suddenly like a hot brick to the face.
Oh, Jesus. Where is Brennan.
He was just here, right? Right?!
HE WAS RIGHT HERE.
Or, wait. Was he?
When did I last see him?
Didn’t we get off that ride together?
Wasn’t he behind me?
I blamed my older son for not staying by him.
I blamed my younger two kids for needing so much attention.
I blamed the crowd for making it hard to see or move quickly in any direction.
I blamed my husband for, everything.
And then I stopped blaming and I cried.
WHERE IS MY BABY.
The next ten minutes shifted into slow motion and thrust me into the most desperate of places. As I looked out across that sea of unknown faces and bodies all swarming mercilessly, I wanted to scream out EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU NEEDS TO MOOOOOVE SO I CAN FIND MY BRENNAN.
I came unhinged.
Was he safe?
Was he crying out for me?
Was he scared?
Did he think I left him on purpose?
Did we have a plan in case we got split up? Oh my god we didn’t have a plan.
WHY DIDN’T WE HAVE A FUCKING PLAN FOR THIS.
And then the darkest of thoughts came rushing into my mind like snipers and in seconds they annihilated any shred of hope that was clinging to my heart.
What if he is hurt.
What if he is in the arms of a predator.
What if we don’t find him.
What if I never see his sweet face again.
WHAT IF I LOST MY CHILD FOREVER.
The what-ifs grabbed me by the throat and tightened their grip until I was left gasping for air. I hadn’t watched closely enough. I took my eyes off of him and in a moment he was gone from my side. I let my child down. I had failed as a parent. These thoughts strangled me until I could no longer see straight.
The parade would start in a few minutes and after that we’d be trapped on this island between the castle and the rest of the park. The streetlights began to dim in preparation for the show and darkness swallowed our view in every direction. We decided to split up and without words or a plan we moved in opposite directions frantically calling Brennan’s name into the night sky. I pleaded silently with the universe to give me another chance. I told her IF YOU DO THIS FOR ME I WILL NEVER AGAIN TAKE MY EYES OFF OF HIM.
With tear-stained cheeks and a rapidly beating heart in my throat I set off down a path feeling helpless but relentlessly determined. Just then as I looked up a group of people parted and in the space between, there he stood. My baby. Our eyes met and I don’t have much recall on those next moments, but I do know this: When he was finally wrapped in my arms again I instantly felt whole. Vulnerable and imperfect, but whole and OH MY LORD SO RELIEVED and just incredibly grateful.
Here is the part that has really stuck with me, though, you guys. In one of my lowest and most vulnerable moments as a parent and human I wondered WHY ME. Why MY child?! As though the pain would somehow be easier if it weren’t my own. As though the burden of that struggle would feel better if it just went somewhere else. ANYWHERE BUT HERE. That is hard to write and even harder to admit. But then, when we create enough space to be brutally honest with ourselves we know that empathy is easy, until it’s hard.
Until it’s someone ELSE’S mistake. Until it is HER vulnerability and imperfection when she fumbles and takes her eyes off of that child for a minute and suddenly a knee is scraped or an eye is bruised or he slips away at the park or the mall or the grocery store or the zoo or the amusement park or for-god’s-sake from her own backyard. OR ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. Despite everything. And when we can distance ourselves from that discomfort it makes our rightness feel HUGE and that other person’s vulnerability small and insignificant. Maybe? It becomes so simple to say: DO BETTER. Instead of saying: I AM THERE WITH YOU AND I UNDERSTAND.
It could have been anyone’s child that went missing at Magic Kingdom on that summer day two years ago. But it was mine. And when it is HER turn for hard moments, or HIS, or YOURS, they are really mine, too. Ours. Aren’t they?
Because we are all imperfect. And vulnerable. And we all fumble and yearn for understanding from others. And empathy connects us. Right? It weaves together our hard moments and creates a safety net for us to land on when we stumble and fall. It reminds us that we are NEVER alone.
It says: I see your struggle, friend. I’m with you. And I understand.
Today, let’s be courageous enough to question our rightness and judgments and, instead, let’s offer this gift of understanding to one another. Even (and especially) when it’s hard.