It happened in a flash. So fast you can’t even appreciate the cruel truth behind the painfully overused cliché. My wife was in the baby section with our oldest daughter when she asked my opinion about a type of bottle. I dutifully feigned interest and weighed in. When I turned back, our three-year-old was gone. I lost my kid at a Buy, Buy Baby, which sounds like a pun too far even for a Dad.
I had never lost track of my kids. I’d hear stories from other dads about the harrowing time Colin ran off at a park, or when Isabelle wandered away at the grocery store. It happens to everyone, I’d say obligingly. In my head, I was smugly crowning myself for being a better dad. Our oldest was six, and she had never been out of my sight unwillingly. Never lost in the crowd on the subway, not once in a sea of kids at the park. Not in the bedlam of an amusement park nor the chaos at the zoo. Even when we added a second to the mix, my record stayed pristine.
Emma, like her older sister, was looking forward to the baby coming in a couple of months. But she was three, so she was much more interested in the toy section, especially as it related to her upcoming birthday. I had physically pulled her away from a toy horse when my wife had beckoned for my expert opinion on bottles. The confusion hit before panic. Emma had to be close, it was literally one second before when she was next to me.
After scanning the sections around me with no sign of our little redhead, I officially upgraded to panic. “Where’s Emma?” my wife asked accusingly after reading my face. “I thought she was with you!” I seethed through clenched teeth. I very much did not think that, but like a true hero, my first action was to try and blame her somehow. That moment you have to tell your wife you don’t know where your child went is excruciating, and it just gets worse from there.
I quickly snapped to attention and we came up with a gameplan. She made a beeline with our other daughter to the front door, guarding the exit like an aggressive Costco employee checking receipts, only making sure no one was leaving with our three-year-old instead.
I started stalking the surrounding sections, confidently at first, so as to not startle other shoppers. I said her name, maybe a little louder than normal but not enough to draw attention. The problem is, when you yell “Emma!” at a Buy, Buy Baby, eight kids come running.
There’s also a special humiliation of losing one of your kids at a baby store. Nothing says “I’m ready for this baby” like losing one of your other babies at the baby store. I became the frantic dad I was never able to see on my high horse.
By the third time I was cycling through the sections in the back of the store, all pretense of normalcy was dropped. That’s when the terror takes hold. It had been maybe 30 seconds, which feels insignificant to write but was a lifetime to live through. I’m pacing aisles maniacally, my head running through what comes next. The defeated front lawn press conference where you beg the community to help in the search. Hanging ‘missing’ posters on light poles like she’s a lost cat. Christmas. It was three months away, but I’d never have a normal holiday again.
On my fourth pass, I saw the tiny pair of shoes embedded deep in a rack of clothes. And I found our scared three-year-old, perfectly hidden in a forest of sassy maternity pajamas. I hugged her with a ferocity that replaced the dread I’d felt seconds before.
I pretended to be mad at her for running off, but it was just a show for the other parents who I assume were watching our every move at that point. Really, all I felt was intense relief and joy. She was teary-eyed, scared by the brief ordeal, and apologetic in the unspoken way a three-year-old can be. Rattled, I carried her to the front of the store to let my wife know we wouldn’t be on the news that night. She went through some the same range of relief and mock-anger, and we quickly paid for the baby stuff and left the store as fast as we could.
We gave her some sort of bullshit talk about running off, but we drove away feeling like we won the lottery. Out of a mix of shame and guilt, I went back to the store later in the day to buy the toy horse she wanted so desperately. A perfect birthday surprise, I thought, and a step on the path back to being the best dad ever.
She played with it for one day and then forgot about it for years.