Gate Change: The Time I Lost My Kid at the Airport

Airports are educational. Here, a boy experiments with techniques for sitting on a chair. Photo courtesy of Beller family.

Gate 1 was around a corner. My daughter was running on the main corridor, up and down the vast promenade. Our flight was delayed. My wife had gone to get something, a magazine I guess, and I gave my daughter some room to run, as I often do. Maybe forty feet.  Her joyous, furiously busy two-year-old body got bigger as she approached, smaller as she  moved away. We were in such a controlled environment, I reasoned. What could happen? Then she ran around the corner into Gate 1.

Thus began my most genuinely frightening moment as a parent. There have been scary, “Where are they?” moments, but in most cases part of the fear always involves my wife.

By this I mean that in other instances I was worried, even afraid, during those moments of not being able to see or find my kid, but the fear encompassed what would happen when I told my wife.  I suspect I am not alone in this, among the fathers. The panic during those situations — regrettable,  inevitable  — when you find yourself calling your child’s name at a rapidly escalating volume, is usually a combination of being worried for the kid and being worried about what your wife will say.

“Honey, I lost the kid.”

It just didn’t sound good.

And then what?

“Can you come help me look for her?”

I’m always telling my wife to calm down. To not worry about this or that. But what if she did calm down? Then I would have to start worrying.  Maybe this is something that mothers don’t get sufficient credit for. My wife worrying means I don’t really have to.

About Gate 1:  My daughter disappeared around the corner. I started walking. I expected her little body to pop back out into view. After a few seconds I picked up the pace. After about ten seconds I started running. A moment later — about fifteen seconds from when I lost sight of her — I turned the corner into the boarding area of Gate 1.

It was empty. I  can recall that moment like it was a still photograph: all those chairs bolted together in long lines. I was suddenly in the Bourne Identity or some such action flick, scanning the perimeter and noting relevant facts. There was an obscuring kiosk–she could be behind that. There was the huge door that would have lead to the plane, if there was a plane. But there was no plane.  There was no way she could have pushed it open. And there was the acreage of grey carpet. What if there had been another person in there when she ran in, and that person had pushed the door open for them both to go through?

Nothing moved. The impossibility of her not being in there collided with the fact that the still photograph refused to become a moving picture.

You know what can really scare the living daylights out of you? The sound of your own strange voice yelling out your kids name. I’m sure every parent is with me on this. It’s bad until you hear that strangled voice of yours shouting their name, and then things get very bad quickly and it’s all you can do to keep it together.

The fear was a chest thing. A hollowing out of the chest. Of the whole torso. It was very light. And inside that empty space in my chest, suspended in mid-air by dark  magic, was a drum tuned way too tight, frantically beating. The sound was somewhere between a war cry,  a ritual sacrifice, and the nastiest alarm clock ever. That freaky, unfamiliar noise blended with my voice shouting into the room as I jogged up the rows of chairs.

Parents, when they are not being beaten to a pulp by the relentlessness of it all, cherish their children’s childhood. They know how special and fleeting it is. But we often forget that childhood is when you spend a lot of times having the shit scared out of you, for reasons both imagined and real.

Now I was perched in that weird place in life that has its parallel in bad dreams. With bad dreams there that moment when the dream is interupted by a voice in your head, tiny at first but quickly gaining stature, saying,  “It’s a dream, it’s a dream. Wake up!” And you struggle to the surface.

This was the opposite. I ran through the room shouting her name thinking, Please let this be a dream. The real world was so bright and still and quiet. The fluorescent lights buzzed like a good old neon”vacant” sign outside roadside motel. I was begging.

And then the little minx popped into view. Very pleased down to the ends of her pigtails.  I swooped down on her like Lawrence Taylor. I mean, we’re talking bird of prey wingspan and speed. But I was all kindness and love as I gathered her in my arms.

Used to be a runner. Now a writer.


And now, about four year later, I have another runner on my hands.  A boy. About  19 months old. We head to the airport, flying for the holidays. It’s fun to see him go up and down the concourse with his little safety vest strapped on. His soft little hairs aflutter. His sister sometimes runs with him. I give them a lead of forty feet, still. It’s the way I am — I like to get in the ocean and swim to horizon straight out. Then I turn around and see how far away the beach is. If I feel a pang of fear, I am happy. The  kids, though, when in airports, are allowed some lead to swim out amidst the chairs. But they get about zero seconds out of sight. If they get anywhere near a corner I start sprinting.


A practical note: those TSA full body scans: Absolutely not. My friend Nat convinced me. “Did you hear of the cancer cluster at Logan Airport for the TSA people who next to them all day? They are illegal in Europe, for Goodness sakes. They won’t let pregnant women in them. What does that tell you?” After I heard this I said,  “No full body scans for any of us.”  Apparently, this can lead to hassles, pat downs, remarks. But this never happens when traveling with the youth. We are waved through the old school metal detectors. It’s one of the many perks of traveling with small children.




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Thomas Beller’s Books and Projects

Recent stories on The Examined Life:

The Christmas Tree That Didn’t Fit Through The Door

In Praise of Adults

My Daughter Vs. A Band of Boys

The Age Of Repetition

The Wife’s Life: Absurbistan



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