"Tessa? Gotta go, Claudette. I don't see Tessa."
I poked my head in and out of curved spaces between round racks. As a veteran mother I didn't panic right off. Kids wander. You find them. It is a cycle that repeats itself dozens of times on every shopping trip if they are not in cart, stroller, sling or on a leash. It's going to be fine.
I kept my calm search up for a few more moments, but after almost a minute, the thought, THE thought, that horrible, sickening thought flitted through my brain. This is the men's department. This is where men come. Where is she? Why is it so quiet? What if a man...?
"Tessa!" Now I am beginning to sound firm, a little urgent maybe. "Tessa, this is mommy, where are you?" She knows it's mommy, idiot. You are scaring her. You are scaring me.
This happened once before, three years ago nearly to the day. Nine months pregnant, I was hobbling through Ross with tiny Ellie, my then 3 year old. She was microscopic for her age, 5th percentile, still in 12 month clothes. She kept hiding in the racks in a very one-sided game of Peek-a-boo while I rummaged for a gift. Then she was off, down the aisle, giggling. I guess we're playing tag now, I thought. I lumbered off and tried to catch her. I could see her tiny head bobbing down the row as I pursued her, and in a moment she reached the end. With one last glance and a triumphant chortle, she turned the corner and disappeared from view. It took me about 5 seconds to reach the end of the row, but when I turned expecting to see her, she was no where. I scanned, looked, retraced, and began to get nervous. The store was locked down, the shoppers were alerted over the PA, and in a few frantic minutes a woman appeared carrying her.
"I saw the purses move all by themselves, and when I looked behind them I found this tiny, little girl." I thanked, panted in relief, and held Ellie close. At that moment, Miss $7.50-an-hour in a blue vest steps up and lights into me. "You should really keep an eye on your child! They can disappear in a second!" Really? NO KIDDING! I wanted to yell, but I didn't have it in me. I HAD had my eye on her, but my elephant belly couldn't keep up with my eyes. Too spent to even respond, I thanked the purse lady and left the store giftless, and gifted. Blessed that my child was in my arms, frustrated she had run, furious at all the evil people that I imagined had taken her, kicking myself for not having forced her to ride in a shopping cart, I ran to my van. I was sobbing before I even got there, much to the surprise of the guy on his cell phone nearby. I buckled her in, climbed in the front seat and heaved, gasped, and almost threw up. Ellie remembers it as the day she made mama cry.
Now I was there again, searching aisles and between displays, only now there was here, this moment, this unreal moment.
I imagine there could and will be someone who will find this their perfect moment to judge and criticise me as a terrible mother, undeserving of the beautiful children I have and seem to loose so easily. You are right. I suck.
How tiny a toddler becomes when they can't be found. This time I didn't wait as ling as I had the first time. I looked above the racks and calmly called out to the small handful of other shoppers. "I have lost my 2 year old girl. She is wearing all pink. Will you please look around and see if you can see her?" I didn't wait for responses as I moved through the store. I ran down the main aisle calling her name. I called to a clerk, "My daughter is missing, she is two, wearing pink. Call security and do that Adam thing." I couldn't remember "Code Adam", but I knew I wanted the doors locked until she was found.
I began running up and down the aisles calling for her, and in that moment time dragged to almost a stop. I suddenly was outside of myself, watching myself run, hearing the sound of my feet in time to the strange background music from the 70's that randomness had selected for this moment. And I could see the faces of other shoppers. As I called out, I began to realize that no one was looking at me. A woman continued to thumb through a stack of polo shirts. I called out to her, "please won't you help my find my little girl?" She ignored me.
Another woman ran at me and yelled, almost angry with intensity, "Tell security right now!" "I did!" I answered back, and then she firmly teamed with me saying "I'm looking!" as she walked briskly away. OK, one person to help. Better than none.
Now, as much as I was looking for Tessa, I was aware of all of the other bystanders who were NOT. Maybe I would have to ask each one myself. I didn't want to waste the time in doing so, but the number of racks and aisle was so daunting, I decided I must. I ran up to a man and, touching his arm, begged "please help me find my little girl!" He looked at me strangely.
I thought I heard a casual page over the intercom that a child was missing. I began to move in slow motion and thoughts of "no, this isn't real. I will go home and she will be there." began to pop into my head. Everything my eyes touched became almost sparkly, colors vivid, sharp edges sharper... and bright, very, very bright. As I looked in one direction, I pictured her being swept out the door in the other direction. I began to ricochet around in an ineffective running wander. Shaking began to take over, and the reality of how much time was passing made my head a storm of the kind of what-ifs that make you retch.
I ran down the main aisle now, not sure what to do next, and looking up, saw a man walking toward me. In his arms I saw his child, and it was only after I saw her pink clothes and her red, teary eyes, that I knew it was her. Her beautiful, huge blue eyes that I thought I might never see again, looking at me. The abruptness of having her safe, of the evils I had imagined not being true, hit me like a wall of water and I nearly collapsed. The man handed her to me and I chanted "Oh, thank you, oh thank you."
I had enough clarity for a moment to ask him where he had found her, but he stared at me with a confused look that I registered. He didn't understand me. My brain processed his dark face, striped shirt and worn boots and realized the Mexican man in front of me had not understood me. He had not understood me then, or when I had asked him to help me. Not my words at least. I imagine that the frantic calls of a mother translate to any language. I repeated my inquiry in Spanish, "Donde?" In the rack, hiding, he told me.
My arms gobbled her up. I held her to me and she began to cry and melt into my chest. She gripped my neck and we cried, as I murmured to her all my love and relief. I kissed her head and felt her skin, and filled the empty whole in my heart that had already tried to form there with the realness of her. I sat down on a display table and held her to me as the security guard and sales clerk converged on us with simple smiles and "I'm glad she is OK". There seemed a sudden intimacy in the moment that they excused themselves from as the swiftly went back to their work. A call went out over a walky talky somewhere with a crackled "cancel, the child has been located". Then in seconds we were alone. The entire department, perhaps the entire store, seemed empty. The intensity had cleared the whole department. I didn't even try not to cry, and I sat on the table long enough to stop shaking a bit. The woman, the one who had actually helped, ran up and sighed one of those oh-what-a-relief sighs. When her eyes met mine they instantly filled with tears, and I thanked her. In that moment I think I was thanking her for seeing my fear, answering my grief with understanding, and for mothering the moment. I braced myself for a lecture, but none came.
Later that day, waves would hit, again and again, of the taste of that fear-followed-by-relief filled moment, and the imaginings of where we would be now if it had ended the other way. I have not lost it, either. In the weeks since, I have held her and been grateful over and over again.
When I asked Tessa if she remembers that day, she tells me that pants fell down and she tried on her tippy-toes to hang them back up. I think she hid when she couldn't reach the hanger, thinking she would be in trouble. When I asked her if she remembers mama crying she simply says, "No, you was happy you got me for you."
Indeed, I am.