My body won’t go fast enough and I’m angry at myself for being so weak. As I crest each dune, I have to stop and catch my breath.
“Please let him be OK. Please.”
Dark thoughts circle and I try to push them away, but they scream out at me.
“What kind of mother are you to let this happen? What is wrong with you?”
My eyes scan constantly looking for him. I call his name occasionally, but that causes the panic to rise too much.
“He is fine. He is fine. He is fine.”
When I finally climb over the last dune, the entire beach stretches out before me.
My eyes search for signs of him, but he isn’t there.
My heart drops.
I was sure he would be right here.
Certain of it.
The tears that I’ve been holding back begin to flow and I walk as quickly as I can to the first two people I see. It’s an older couple cuddling on a blanket.
“Have you seen a little boy? He has brown hair, orange and black glasses and was wearing his pajamas?”
The words rush out and I fight back a sob in my throat. I search their faces as they look back and forth between each other.
“No englash,” one finally says.
In frustration, I march away from them and pull myself together. There is no reason to panic. Nothing to be gained by that.
As I walk down the beach, stopping to ask everyone I see, it becomes clear to me that he isn’t here and hasn’t been here.
Where could he be?
I spot two lifeguards at the top of the pier and start walking that direction. It is time for reinforcements and that realization frightens me. As I walk, I replay the entire morning in my head.
I spent about an hour after breakfast writing some poetry and a short story in the tent while the children explored. I did not know exactly where they were, but I knew they were fine. We have been to the Bodega Dunes campground about a dozen times now and I feel very comfortable there. Each time we go, I extend the boundaries a bit more.
Camping is one of the few times I feel my kids get to experience that true feeling of adventure and freedom. But it is a tricky balancing act between trusting they will be fine and knowing that it is my duty to protect them from harm. I might always seem very calm on the outside, but I’m often waging a war in my head.
“He is getting really high in that tree. A fall now might be fatal, but he is a good climber. I should trust that, but I’m scared. I can’t watch.”
“The kids have been gone too long. I know they are having fun and they are together. I’m certain they are fine, but what if they are not? How would I know when to look for them? Maybe I’m trusting them too much.”
“She is swimming pretty far out in the water, if she starts to drown now I won’t be able to make it in time. I should call her back…but I want her to be confident. She is doing really good.”
That morning, they came back on their own to check in and I felt very good about the day. We decided to spend the afternoon at the beach, so I needed to pack up some food, sunscreen and towels. I tell my boy to stay nearby and to get dressed for the beach.
“I don’t want to go to the beach right now,” he says.
“Well, that’s not an option. We are all going together, so don’t go too far.”
I busy myself with packing and then realize he is gone. We wait about 30 minutes for him to return and he does not. That’s when I start circling the campground looking for him.
That was nearly three hours ago, and the calm is fading away. The darkness is taking over.
I reach the pier and walk up to the life guards.
“My son is missing,” I tell them without tears. All business.
One man asks me a series of questions and I answer them. He writes details about my boy on his hand.
9 years old
missing 3 hours
It’s all so casual, as if I’m ordering up tacos or making a grocery list.
It’s all so slow and calm.
I want to scream.
I want to cry.
I want my boy.
The other man is scanning the beach as we talk.
“Is that him?” he asks.
“Where?” I say.
“Over there, by the water. Looks to be a nine-year-old boy.”
“I can’t tell this far away, looks like an adult to me.”
“Nope. Definitely a kid.”
He jumps off the pier and runs in the direction of the shadowy figure walking with a stick. When he reaches him, he waves at me. It’s my boy.
Thank you God. Thank you.
We walk toward each other. When I reach him, he has been crying, he is covered in sweat and we both hug each other.
“Don’t you EVER do that again! What where you thinking?” I begin.
He stops crying and explains. While our friends planned to drive all the stuff to the beach, the kids and I were going to make the long hike there. He made the decision to just go on his own, so he could explore and continue the game he was playing. He made it there, but couldn’t find us and tried to hike back. That’s when he got lost. He wandered the dunes for a long time and had just made it back to the beach. His plan was now to get help.
“Did you learn a lesson?” I ask him.
“I’m sorry mommy. I love you.”
I want to be mad and scream, but I can’t. I’m so grateful he is safe that I just want to love on him. While we wait for friends to arrive with food and water for us both, I playfully bury him in the sand with only his head and feet sticking out.
“You’re never leaving my side again,” I tell him.
We play at the beach for a short time, but we are getting sunburned. All our beach supplies are back at the campground. Our friends are driving back, but my boy wants to take the trail and see where he made the wrong turns. I think it could be good closure, so I agree.
I hold both my children’s hands as we head up the first dune. Right away I know this is a mistake. I almost cry when I get to the top as my lungs scream out in protest. My daughter decides to take this moment to fight with her brother about who is going to be second in line. My son then complains that he is hot. They both then start a barrage of whining that makes me vibrate with anger.
I grab the walking stick my boy has been using and bang it against a rock as hard as I can until it breaks into tiny pieces.
“This day is complete and utter bullshit.”
“Mom you just said…” my boy begins.
“I know what I said. It’s true. Today has been a bullshit day. I hate today. This is not how I wanted things to go. It’s BULLSHIT!”
I scream it loud and the kids giggle and look nervously at each other.
“Say it,” I tell them. “Scream it!”
“Really?” they both ask.
“Yes, scream bullshit. I think you will feel better.”
We all yell together.
We start hiking in silence and occasionally the kids mutter bullshit under their breath. I start to feel bad about this outburst and realize I need to change it. We have lived with that feeling enough.
I stop and turn to them both.
“You know what?” I say. “Today was bullshit, but let’s change it. We are strong. Do you know how much we hiked today? What we have overcome? We are strong. Let’s say that.”
They have skeptical looks, but we do it.
“I AM STRONG!”
It takes some time to hike back and we get turned around. It really is an impossibly complicated maze of trails. But we laugh, have fun and feel strong together.
We turn bullshit into strength.
It’s not perfect and it might seem insane to some, but I’m feeling proud of myself for how I handled things.
Life is filled with so many moments that will just bury you if you let them. You have to dig deep and find it within yourself to focus on the strength.
I could have chosen to spend that hike yelling at my boy and punishing him. I could have made him feel terrible or filled him with shame and fear. I could have allowed my pain to envelope all of us and cloud everything after that.
But I made another choice and for that I am truly proud.