Many years ago, when my kids were 7, 4, and 2, we went to the auto show at McCormick Place in Chicago. There were people and cars as far as the eye could see. For reasons I still can’t explain, I decided to do something I had never done before: I gave them each one of my business cards and told them to keep it in their pockets, just in case. I also pointed out the security desk and told them that if they ever got separated from me, they should return right here to this very spot, and I would come for them.
It was really just an exercise; my first try at what I planned to make a regular safety routine once they got older, and the likelihood of getting separated from them in a crowd was greater. Today, I thought, was just practice.
Until suddenly, it wasn’t.
My son was pushing the stroller with my 2-year-old in it. His 4-year-old sister, true to form, was doing everything within her little power to keep pace with him, especially when he took off running. He was well ahead of me despite my calls to “Wait! Slow down! Stop!”
When I caught up to him around the bend (where I found him parked in front of yet another open and inviting car trunk), my head count came up short. I had my firstborn and I had my baby, but my middle child was nowhere to be seen. I said her name out loud — very loud — and called out to her to “Stop hiding!”
Inside though, I was already feeling a chill working its way up my spine. My breathing was getting shallow and my heart was pounding hard, though my vision was getting strangely acute. I asked my son where his sister was, but I knew even before his little mouth curled into a frown of confusion what his response would be: “No.”
The world was not right. In an instant, life as I knew it was on a free fall into a black hole. But instead of getting hot with fury and panic, I got strangely cold, calculated, and eerily calm. The noise of the arena moved very far away. All I was listening for was that familiar little voice calling my name. I scanned and I searched the crowd, methodically. It was slow motion in my head, though I know my body was moving at a fast clip.
Before I knew it, over 15 minutes had fast and I had still not found my daughter. I was nearly frozen through with abject fear when a shrill sound suddenly cut me with a blast of heat. My phone was ringing. The number on the screen was blocked. After so many junk calls I almost let it go, but something, some sixth sense told me to make the connection.
“Hello?” I said, as I strained to hear the caller over the roar of the crowded event. My mind strained to assemble the sounds into familiar words and finally the picture was clear. The person calling was from security. The guard had my card because my daughter gave it to her. She was waiting for me.
I raced to the security desk, still right there at the entrance, where we had left it what seemed like ages ago. I saw my pint-sized minion waiting expectantly, almost patiently, for me to arrive. I collapsed to my knees and scooped her up in my arms.
Soon after, the security officer told me the story of how my little girl, not even five years old, had lost track of her siblings. She searched for them, but unsuccessfully. When another family noticed her plight and asked if she needed help, she told them unequivocally that she needed to get to the security office to call her mom and that her mom would come for her. The family escorted my daughter to the security booth and Kaiann promptly produced my business card for the officer, who — quite bewildered by this articulate little munchkin with saucer-sized brown eyes — called me.
And now, here we were. I looked deep into my daughter’s face. She held my gaze and said definitively, “I did what you told me to do Mommy. I was a big girl.” Then my brave little big girl buried her face in the crook of my neck and cried.
It was that day that I learned what has been one of my most powerful parenting lessons so far: Our kids are never too little for a safety plan, and they’re never to big to feel safe in your arms.