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The Gift of Six Minutes in Hell
As mothers, we have a thousand fears for our children. Some speak to us louder than others and they are different for everyone. I’ve got two specific ‘mother fears’ that bully themselves into my brain when I’m preoccupied by how fleeting and fragile this life can be. They are my loudest fears because they render me helpless. I have a hard time feeling helpless.
The first of these fears is witnessing my child get hit by a car. The second fear is my daughter being abducted by a pedophile. It’s horrible to write and horrible to think, and in my most frightened moments, I imagine these two scenarios coming true and with just the thought of it, I am ripped down the middle like the pain of never-ending childbirth.
Yesterday, I took both my kids to the mall. There is a play area on the third floor dedicated to families. The businesses that surround it include a (well-situated) cupcake stand, a Gymboree Gym, a children’s hair salon and a hallway leading back to restrooms, a service elevator and emergency exit stairs.
Most of the space is an open play area with various things for young kids to climb on, all encircled by a half wall. Standing at any place on this floor, you can see everything except down the back hallway. There is only one way in and out-a nice, safe place to watch kids play. We’ve been here dozens of times.
When I got off the elevator, my 3-year-old ran immediately to climb on her favorite things and make friends. My 1-year-old son just learned to walk, so my primary focus was to follow him while he toddled from thing to thing, making sure other children didn’t plow him over.
Every few minutes, I looked up to make sure my daughter was playing nicely and was safe. After ten or fifteen minutes of this, I looked at my phone and realized that I missed a call from one of my friends. I called her back at exactly 1:28pm.
During this call, my son walked out of the encircled play place toward the cupcake stand, around the half wall, and toward the elevators. I followed behind him with my phone to my ear.
I was on the phone with my friend for seven minutes, and continually watched out for my daughter during that time. Wearing a bright teal dress with a matching teal bow in her hair, she was easy to spot in the sea of children.
On the seventh minute of my call, I looked up to spot her again, only this time I did not find her. I picked up my son and walked back into the encircled play area with him on my hip. I quickly hung up with my friend to focus on my search.
First, I looked behind every climbing apparatus and inside every cubbyhole. I moved on to the half walls, then outside the walls to the cupcake stand, the hair place and inside the Gymboree Gym. I asked the ladies at the desk if a little girl in a teal dress walked in, and they said ‘no.’ I asked them what I should do, and they immediately dialed security.
I spent the next five minutes looking for her; panic rising in me. A fuse inside me was lit; sparking and burning brighter with each passing second. By the end of the fifth minute, I had checked the restroom, over the ledges to the atrium, and the elevators. Two security guards in black and white uniforms arrive and ask me questions. How tall? How old? What color this? What color that? Name? I can barely think of the answers, but I get them out.
I know I need to call my husband, but I can’t remember how to use the phone. I start to yell her name louder and louder. Brooke! Brooke! People are staring, but I do not care.
As I turn to face the security guards again, a man walks up behind them. It is minute six. He reaches out his hand and in them are my daughter’s silver and pink sandals. He says, “Ma’am, are these hers?” I think I say yes, but I can’t remember. The look on my face conveys that they are her sandals; the look on his face conveys something worse. His brows are furrowed in fear and concern. The next thing he says quakes my world and a bomb explodes inside me, gutting me completely.
“I found them in a stall in the men’s restroom.”
I think I screamed. I’m pretty sure I screamed. Everything melted around me. Faces contorted into shock, and I couldn’t tell if it was because I screamed or because they are processing what I am processing.
My heart was beating from every cell in my body before this minute, but now the whole world pulsed. My body tingled like a limb that’s gone numb. I was holding my one year-old son, but I could not feel him on my hip because I was feeling the weight of the world caving in on my head. It was both more real than any reality I’ve ever known and a complete out-of-body experience.
I felt nothing and everything at the same time.
Details were flung at me and seared into my brain. I remember wanting so badly for the world to just stop for a minute-just STOP TURNING SO I CAN FIND MY DAUGHTER! Please, God, freeze time until I can figure out what’s real and where my baby girl has gone.
I headed to the men’s room. Before that, I figured out how to dial my phone and my husband was on the line. I couldn’t communicate to him exactly what was happening. All I could scream was, “Someone’s taken Brooke!” A security guard reminded me that she’s not taken, she’s just ‘missing.’ I repeat those words to my husband, hoping that the guard’s version is the right one.
I am suddenly surrounded by a million people. They are all in the back hallway as I try to make my way to the men’s bathroom. Now there are not just two security guards, but what feels like a hundred.
My husband is on the phone listening to my screams, when all the sudden… there she is.
She bounds through a back door of the Gymboree Gym with a woman I do not know. At the sight of that teal dress and her round, smiling face, my body collapses against the wall and I fall to my knees with my son still in my arms.
I’m scream-sobbing. I don’t want to touch her, I’m too scared. She comes to me, and she hugs me, not the other way around. My daughter wipes my face of tears, saying, “Stop crying Mommy. It’s okay Mommy. You don’t need to be sad. I went potty by myself and then I got trapped in that room!” She says the word ‘trapped’ in an exaggerated, joyful way, like it’s a fun game she just played.
The woman at Gymboree that called the security guards is trying to hand me a glass of water. My daughter says, “Here Mommy, you need some fluids,” as she pushes the glass toward my face. Isn’t that ridiculous?! In that moment, my 3-year-old tells me that I need fluids? I want to laugh at the absurdity, but I still can’t stop the tears and sobs. I just say, “Yes, baby, yes, you’re right. Mommy needs some fluids.”
It took me an hour to stop shaking, and a day to wrap my head around this event and what God was not-so-subtly trying to tell me. Because if you’re like me, that is the question that runs like an undercurrent through everything that happens in life.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the moment I was handed her shoes. I became obsessed with trying to articulate that moment and what my body went through. I wanted to label that pain, define it, put words to it and understand the power it had over my world. You would think a normal instinct would be to run from that horror, to numb it. In fact, that is exactly what I did when I got home with a glass of wine and a pill or two.
In the wee hours of the next morning, something whispered from the space between things and told me what happened was a gift… a blessing. Huh?
When I calmed myself again and began to drift off, the quietness returned. With it came an understanding of what I had just been told. The amazing experience of knowing this level of Hell and then coming back from it-unharmed–is truly nothing short of a blessing.
Yesterday, a fuse to the fate of the rest of my life was lit, and it burned for five helpless minutes. In the sixty seconds that followed, it reached its target and detonated my heart. Now, I will never not know what that feels like.
Today, my lesson is to truly experience joy. Real. Simple. Abundant. Joy… if only I choose it. That is what I will learn today. Today. Today.
And fluids. I will remember to drink my fluids.
Shannon Lell is a fallen corporate ladder climber turned writer and stay-at-home mother living near Seattle. She writes introspective pieces on personal and social issues at Shannon Lell.
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