Sit back and let me tell you about the time I lost Nate.
Yes, lost him.
At the Jersey Shore. And if there’s a scarier place to lose a small child, I don’t know it.
Ok, maybe a Jewish ghetto in 1939 Poland. Or inside a tiger cage. Pedophiliac tigers. Or inside a labrynth with pedophiliac tigers and a genocidal maniac running around. Speaking German.
Anyway, the point is that it’s scary to lose a kid at the Jersey Shore. And it was Sunday afternoon, so it was especially crowded. Yes, crowded with families and college kids, but also with child traffickers armed with lollipops and ice cream. Not to mention jellyfish and stingrays and sand sharks and riptides and tsunamis and sunburn. Genocidal tigers suddenly seem so tame.
My one consolation is that if Nate or Sam were ever kidnapped, they’d surely talk or scream so much that a kidnapper would have no choice but to drop them off at the nearest police station. I know, because I’ve been close to doing that myself.
I mean most mornings in the car I can’t get a word in edgewise. Yes, please Nate, recount last night’s dream to me one more time. And keep planning your fifth birthday party that’s seven months away.
Anyway, back to losing Nate…
Most everyone else in our party had returned to the house for lunch, and it was just Nate, me, my brother-in-law, and two of his friends who were having very mature post-collegiate conversations about retirement plans, budding entrepreneurship, and what they look for most in a woman as they select a mate: sense of humor.
Nate, who is rapidly turning into the nosy neighbor kid from Home Alone, had run over to the family parked adjacent to us to converse with the dad. They had a little boy who looked to be slightly younger than Nate with lots of sand toys and a small plastic pool that was enticing to Nate. I casually strolled up and stationed myself a few, non-awkward yards away, between Nate and the water.
I smiled at the dad and turned to the water for a moment to ponder the grandiosity of the Atlantic Ocean and the smallness of my own being. I mean really, could I be more insignificant? Especially in New Jersey?
But really it was just a moment.
When I turned back, Nate was gone. Gone.
I scanned the landscape immediately surrounding us, looking for a blond four year-old in a light blue bathing suit with surfboards on it. He was also wearing his navy blue puddle jumper and carrying a red boogey board that was bigger than he is. Hard to miss. Or so I thought.
But I still didn’t see him.
I marched down the beach to my left about a dozen paces, my eyes still searching and weaving through the parties of people, through their blankets and tents and chairs.
Still no sign of Nate, and my heart was starting to beat faster.
Am I panicked? Or am I overreacting?
I sped back to our sand real estate hoping he’d just wandered circuitously back to our chairs and planted himself under the umbrella again. He’s terrified of melanoma.
But he wasn’t there.
“Uh, Patrick,” I hoped my worry wasn’t evident in my voice. “You don’t see Nate, do you? He was right there and now he’s gone.”
Patrick and his two friends jumped up like the Navy Seal Green Beret Superhero first responders they are and immediately started sifting through the masses of sandy people strewn up and down the beach.
“Tighe’s going to kill me,” I whispered to myself and immediately thought of how many times I’d uttered those words in front of Sam and Nate and then had to explain that their dad’s not actually going to end my life. Kids are so literal. I suddenly couldn’t wait to see Nate again and over-explain something to him. Anything! Maybe we’ll start with stranger danger.
I picked up my phone and dialed Tighe.
“Tighe?” my voice definitely cracked, “Can you come back to the beach? I lost Nate and I have no idea where he is. That’s what lost means.”
He definitely picked up on my panic. “Yeah, I’ll be right there!”
I started to imagine Nate and how scared he probably was at this point. That’s what killed me. I wasn’t worried that he’d drowned—he’s terrified of the water and avoids it at all costs, just ask his swim teacher. I wasn’t worried that he’d been kidnapped—what are the odds that kidnappers trudge through the hot sand to pick up a kid and drag a squirming, screaming body back across the sand to their car, which is probably parked a few solid blocks away? Doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Especially when you can probably just easily pluck a straggler off the boardwalk or from an ice cream shop, separated from his herd, thus avoiding the sand and beach patrol altogether. I like to think that kidnappers are practical people.
But Nate’s alarm was my greatest concern at this point. It had been at least fifteen minutes since he had last seen me. His panic is probably causing him to run even faster, darting from chair to chair looking for someone he recognizes. He already wakes up with night terrors several times a night, how long will this ordeal haunt him?
I just wanted to get on the loudspeaker for a minute, to silence the crashing waves, and tell every single person to please shut up and ask them if they see a frightened little boy. Wearing a puddle jumper and carrying a red boogey board. Again, hard to miss.
Suddenly, I saw Patrick waving his arms at me and pointing down the beach. “He’s here!” he yelled.
I took off in that direction and saw Patrick and his friend accompanying Nate, chatting away and still balancing his boogey board at his waist, down the beach. I can’t remember the last time I felt such a wave of relief. Like, one minute I’m caught in a nightmare that will destroy my life and suddenly everything’s back to normal and we’re just a happy family celebrating summertime on the beach.
Not only that, but Nate’s smiling.
“Hey Mom,” he said casually. “I asked that man and he said I can play in their pool.”
He was not the slightest bit alarmed that he had been missing for over a quarter of an hour. In fact, he had unknowingly been “found” two blocks down by a teacher. She had alerted the lifeguards and was calmly escorting him back in our direction, asking him appropriate questions and making him identify his uncle Patrick when he approached him.
I am so grateful to her.
The Atlantic Ocean may be enormous, but we are not insignificant. At least to each other.
We returned to our chairs, as though nothing had happened, as though my world was never about to implode, and watched as Nate returned to pester the family next to us.
Suddenly, he pivoted to the left and sprinted down the beach along the water’s edge. How does he run so fast wearing that puddle jumper and carrying the boogey board? I wondered.
I turned to Patrick. “There he goes again. Excuse me.” I rose from my chair and sprinted off after him. My hamstrings were sore for a week.