When You're Standing in the Middle of the Philadelphia Zoo, Communication Is Cut Off, Your People Have Left, You're Only Four, and You're All Alone
When I was four (to the best of my recollection) I went on a family vacation to Pennsylvania. The only reason I remember even that much is because of what happened later. I have very few memories from that age, probably like most people. The ordinary day to day details certainly don’t stick in the minds of persons of low language proficiency, of which I certainly was one, being only four and all. Probably most regular four-year-olds are low language proficiency, relatively speaking. Only certain events—either wonderful or traumatic—sear themselves into the psyche of young children.
Our family vacations were often cross country road trips, visiting my parents’ friends in other parts of the country. On this particular vacation we went to see my mom’s cousin and husband, and their kids. An outing to the zoo was the planned activity for one day, chaperoned by just Ann and Bob, the other parents, with all seven kids. My parents went somewhere else while we went to the zoo. Maybe just sat in the shade and took deep breaths sipping lemonade. Once you have kids, that sounds better than most other activities. Or maybe they had business. I don’t know. It was nothing that impressed me enough to remember. And it didn’t matter to me. I was only four. And we were going to the Philadelphia Zoo! (The "Philadelphia" part meant little to me. But the "Zoo" part, I got that. Animals. Monkeys. Loved monkeys.)
At the zoo, we saw lots of animals. Or so I assume, because that was a pretty ordinary day to day zoo detail that didn’t sear into my psyche. It was what came later. When they lost me. In the Philadelphia Zoo. That one, yes, that one was seared into my brain.
I bet it was seared into Ann’s and Bob’s brains too. I once lost someone else’s kid and you don’t forget that. I had my sister’s two kids over. We were going to go for a walk, so I had all six kids getting ready for the walk, putting shoes on, getting hats, getting water bottles, all that prep stuff. When I stood up from tying just one more pair of shoes, I did another head count and came up short. Caleb was missing. After many calls for him to show himself, I searched the house. It wasn’t a good time for an impromptu game of hide-n-seek, and after searching awhile, I announced this fact to Caleb wherever he was hiding, and to the universe. And any neighbors who were listening.
Once the house was ruled out, we started searching the yard. I assigned my kids different parts of the yard, admonishing them to stay in pairs. I kept Caleb’s sister Sara within arm’s reach of me. I was starting to get a little nervous. It felt pretty awful.
Once the yard was cleared, we had to start venturing farther. By this time, I was forming in my head how I would phrase it when I had to call my sister to tell her that I'd lost her son. How do you say something like that? There isn’t a way to rehearse that one.
Normally I didn’t let my kids go alone to the school a quarter mile up our street alone, or to those questionable apartments across the street from the school, but times were desperate. I broke my usual safety rules to send my kids up there, just in case, because I was running out of ideas. It made no sense. Where could he have gone? Why would he just disappear like that? He was just here. My brain didn't know how to process the idea of him being gone. I wasn’t ready to settle with the idea. My psyche fought it. It couldn’t be. That had to be wrong. He couldn't really be missing. If it lasted very long, my brain would have exploded. When two of my kids finally came into view far up the street escorting their wayward cousin between them, the relief was something beyond description. It’s that moment when you can breathe again. And quickly tell your sister on the phone to cancel the FBI, it’s going to be okay.
So I can imagine how Bob and Ann might have felt, only I bet they felt even worse. Because the Philadelphia Zoo is a bit more overwhelming than even the school and sketchy apartments by my old house. And when the kid is gone long enough that you have to talk to the police, that probably just makes your heart drop like an elevator broken free in the Empire State Building.
What I remember is looking at the monkeys. Everyone was around me, my three siblings and Ann and Bob and their three kids, and we were in the zoo all looking through the cage. Then I saw a water fountain and was suddenly so thirsty, I had to get a drink even if it meant I had to wait in line and lose my front row view. I queued up, still watching the monkeys but with most of my attention on that cold water gurgling out of the fountain. Finally, I got a drink and next thing I knew, I looked up from the spigot and I couldn’t find my people. The group pressing in around me wasn’t my group anymore. So I went searching for them. I wandered, looking at the people I passed, looking for this Ann and Bob I barely knew and probably couldn’t even recognize, because what four year old can pick a face from a line up anyway? But I knew my two sisters and brother, so I looked for them. Finally, I just stopped and stood there in the middle of the Philadelphia Zoo, totally out of ideas and on the verge of realizing things were moving rapidly into crisis mode. (Like maybe Ann and Bob were realizing in another section of the park, probably beginning to have a really bad moment when they counted again and only came up with six, then had to figure out who the number seven was who wasn’t there, because they barely knew us. I bet something seared right then into their psyches for all time.) As I stood alone, confused in the center of that humongous park, a nice lady bent down and said hello to me. I had stopped talking by then. She asked if I was lost. I just stared at her with wide glassy eyes. I didn’t know if I was lost or if my people were lost. I just knew things weren’t like I’d expected for a day at the zoo. She took charge and said to go with her. Since she was the grown up and nice about it, I did what she said. She escorted me through the zoo to some building and we went into a room with two or three big men in blue shirts. She arranged with them to leave me there. I wasn’t tracking with all the grown up talk. The men sat around, saying stuff I didn't follow, and I just stood there, silent. When they asked me stuff, I didn't answer. I couldn't. My talking was gone. They had me sit on a wooden chair lined up with other chairs by the wall. I sat stiff and unsure, wondering what would happen. One of the men talked into a microphone on the desk describing what I looked like and what I was wearing. I remember sitting in those chairs for what felt like a long time, just watching those big men. They seemed nice enough, chatty and laughing a lot, but it didn’t matter to me. I was alone.
From those seats, I heard some commotion by the door and looked up. Bob came bursting in. I did kind of recognize him after all. But what mattered was my oldest sister, Cyndi, was with him. Flying out of the seats, I leapt into her arms and hung on like nobody’s business. I hugged her like I’d never hugged a sibling in my life. The tears finally let loose and the sobs burst out. My people had come for me. I wasn’t lost any longer.
And Bob didn’t have to make a really difficult phone call to my parents either.
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