As a parent, I sometimes worry that tragedy could strike my son.
He might contract a serious illness. He might suffer a devastating injury. Or – my worst fear – he might go missing.
I can’t imagine what anguish a parent would endure if his or her child vanished. Whether the child was abducted, ran away or simply got separated in a public place, the feeling would be the same: uncontrollable panic.
One of my favorite TV shows is called Disappeared. It recounts true stories in which people, often kids, vanish without explanation. Sometimes, the episode ends happily with the missing person found. But often, the frantic efforts of family, friends and law enforcement – sometimes for years – don’t pay off. The show ends without resolution. Loved ones have no answers, only pain.
I had a very mild taste of the terror of a missing child recently. My 12-year-old son, Connor, and I went shopping. I parked in front of a Target, and we opened the doors of my pickup.
“Hold on for a second,” I told him.
I walked around to the passenger door and opened it to look for a shopping list. It had fallen on the floor and slid under the seat.
I reached underneath, grabbed it, then folded it and stuck it in my back packet. I shut the truck door and walked toward the store, expecting Connor to be waiting for me in the parking lot.
He wasn’t. I scanned to my left and right but still didn’t see him.
Hmm, I thought. This isn’t like him.
Where could he be?
I wasn’t terribly worried or upset. He’s almost a teenager, not an infant. He probably just walked ahead of me into the store to look at video games and CDs.
I walked through the sliding front door, grabbed a shopping cart and went toward the electronics department.
But he wasn’t there. I was more irritated than worried. I decided to do my shopping – I only needed a few items – and expected Connor to rush up behind me at any moment.
He didn’t. I checked out, then made another pass through the electronics before hurriedly walking the entire store. Still no sight of him. Now my concern exceeded my irritation.
I left Target, stopped and looked carefully to my left and right in the parking lot. I rolled the cart to my truck, tossed the items in the bed and paused, wondering what to do.
Connor and I had talked about going to a party supply store in the same shopping center after we left Target.
Maybe he’s there, I thought.
I jogged toward the party store. It’s much smaller than Target, so I viewed each aisle in only a minute or two. He wasn’t here either. I approached the cashier.
“I can’t find my son,” I told her.
“How old is he,” she asked.
“He’s 12, and he’s wearing a school uniform – khakis and a navy polo shirt.”
“Haven’t seen him,” she replied. “I’ll ask the other employees.”
Now my heart was beating rapidly and my body starting to sweat. I sprinted back to Target, ran through the store and still didn’t see him.
He isn’t here either
I debated what to do. Would I be overreacting to call the police on my cell phone? Should I alert Target security and have them page Connor?
I decided to make one more trip to the party store. Same result: no Connor. Then back to Target. This time, I immediately approach a security officer when I entered the store.
“My son is missing,” I said, trying to sound urgent but under control.
“We can page him,” the officer said.
Moments later, a loud voice echoed through the store.
“Connor H.,” the woman said, “Connor H. Meet your dad at the security desk.”
I’ve heard other kids paged in stores, but never my own. It’s a hollow, helpless feeling to hear your kid’s name projected through a cavernous building.
To me, it felt like the last desperate step before I’d shift into full-blown panic and call police. Could Connor – who is 5 feet tall and 80 pounds – have been snatched in the parking lot after I turned my back for a minute or so?
The thought seemed absurd – but it didn’t either. I felt like I’d looked everywhere he could have gone in the brief time he and I had been separated.
I hoped Connor would come dashing up to the service desk as soon as he heard his name. He didn’t.
I started down the store aisles again, not expecting to see him. Then I did.
He finally appears
Connor was about a hundred yards away when our eyes met. His expression was uncertain: Am I in trouble?
I was wearing a ball cap, and I slammed it to the floor.
“Where the hell have you been!” I shouted, not caring if anyone else heard me.
Connor didn’t say a word, only started crying. As he walked toward me, he said softly, “I was looking for you too.”
“I’ve been going crazy,” I said. “I was getting ready to call the police.”
Then, I realized no more words were necessarily. I felt a tinge of guilt that I had yelled at Connor when I first saw him, instead of embracing him.
We walked silently to the truck, emotionally exhausted. I started the engine, and we drove a few blocks.
“Want to get something to eat?” I asked.
By dinner, the dust had settled and we carried on as usual. Before Connor went to bed, I put my arm around his shoulder.
“I love you,” I said. “I was really, really worried this afternoon.”
“I know,” Connor replied. “I’m sorry.”
“Let’s stay together next time we go shopping,” I said.
My missing person mini-ordeal had lasted only about 30 minutes. Connor will probably forget it in a few days.
But I won’t. I’ll keep a closer eye on him in public, and I’ll have even more sympathy for parents of kids who never turn up.
“An estimated 800,000 children are reported missing each year – more than 2,000 children every day,” says the website of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “Clearly much more needs to be done.”
Don’t let your children add to the epidemic of missing kids. Tell them how much you love them. Tell them how diligent you’ll always be to keep track of them. But tell them they have a role too.
They should realize how easily a parent and child could become separated forever. It’s a frightening thought we don’t want to face. But we should. Fear can prompt both parent and child to take necessary precautions.
Most parents have had a brief incident or two in which they feared they might never see their child again. Fortunately, a parent’s worst fears usually don’t come true. But they can. Never forget that.
Missing Child Resources
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
- What To Do If Your Child Goes Missing
- A Family Survival Guide When Your Child is Missing
- AMBER Alerts by State