(Originally posted at The Mess That Is Me 10/10)
Some things just aren’t funny. An Amber Alert is one of those things. My gut clenches every time I hear one and my heart fills my throat as that droll monotone voice breaks into the music and describes the child. It always starts the same, “Last seen wearing…” – hair, weight, eye color, clothing. For way too many, those words, “Last seen”, are sadly prophetic. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare - the thought of a child missing.
It happened to me one Sunday after the evening service. At the time I was the church’s custodian and usually the last to leave as it was my job to lock up. My three boys would play on the playground or soccer field until it was time to take our exhausted bodies home. The grounds were always swarmed with children as parents were absorbed in their own conversations. No one really thought twice about the children running around. It was church, after all, a safe place.
As the news so frequently shows us, however, there are no safe places.
This particular night, my wife, Charleen, and I were tired, hungry and more than ready to go home. So, with much relief, we watched the last family leave. Other than us, the only ones left in the building were a youth patiently waiting for his mother to pick him up and three members of our church’s quartet. Since the trio were capable of letting themselves out, my family could now go home.
With relief born from exhaustion, I finished locking down the sanctuary while Char went to gather up the children. With weary arms, I collected jackets, Bibles and coloring books. Don’t worry. Char doesn’t allow me to color during the whole service, just the preacher’s message. As I walked our belongings to the car, I saw my family careen around the corner.
Nathaniel - our oldest.
Zachariah - our youngest.
And a very worried looking Charleen.
"Is Christopher with you?” She asked, the stress already building in her voice. Panic was already pushing tears to her eyes.
He wasn’t. I told the other two boys to get in the car while I searched out our missing child. My first thought was that I had accidentally locked him in the other building. Chris has always been a self-entertained child. When I was his age, I used Star Wars action figures to act out dramas my mind concocted. Chris did the same with stuffed animals. He could always be found alone in a corner working on his own stories of the imagination. I could have very easily walked by a room that he had ensconced himself in and locked the door.
He wasn’t there.
All right, I thought, check the bathrooms. Char’s face grew more troubled. I could see panic about to overwhelm her.
The bathrooms were empty also.
Now, I’m at the panic stage right along with Char. “Christopher!” No reply. I’m no longer walking, my feet keeping pace with my heart, which was on its own race course.
I enlisted the help of the trio rehearsing. One of them drafted the youth and now we’re all searching like the widow who lost her coin. I grab my other two boys and order them to stay with their mother. Not a good idea. My youngest son is a pessimist and kept saying things like, “I think he got into someone’s car.” My wife’s panic level went to red.
“Christopher!” No reply.
Back in the sanctuary, I double checked the bathrooms and the prayer room. One of the trio was right behind me. “Call the cops,” I tell him. At first, he hesitated. “Call the cops, now.” He got on the phone while I moved on to search the offices.
While in the first office, I remembered the verse that says, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). So, I sit at the desk, take a deep breath and say a prayer to calm my racing heart and frantic mind.
With hands still shaking, I pick up the phone and call my parents, hoping they will come and get my other two boys. My mom answers the phone in her usual chipper voice, but I burst out with, “I need you. I’m at the church. A child is missing.” And then I hang up without waiting for a reply or questions knowing that not only will my parents be there but also my sister and the uncle who lives with them.
I then start calling other families. First, the pastor since his children and mine play together. I am hoping they saw him last. No such luck, but now the pastor is on his way back to the church.
I call another family. Still no luck, but they are also on their way.
Another deep breath finds me praying, “Lord, you promised never to give us more than we can bear. I’m telling you I can’t bear this.”
I try another family. Finally, someone saw him. He was last seen by the basketball courts - no, wait a minute, a child says he saw Christopher heading toward “Rock Mountain”, a small pile of rocks next to the woods at the back of the church parking lot.
My heart practically stopped. The back half of our church’s property is a small wooded area with overgrown weeds. In the past, homeless men camped out there, drinking the night away because they had nothing else to do. The worst possible scenario rushed into my head.
I needed a flashlight. The closest one was in the sound booth toward the rear of the sanctuary. I sprinted through the offices and down the side aisle of the church, my stomach feeling like a Boy Scout knot tying competition.
The sound booth sits at the rear of our church towards the middle. On one side is the center aisle and on the other is a short pew for the family members of those in wheel chairs who were placed behind them in an open area.
As I slung myself around the corner of the pews and the side aisle, in that very last pew, head resting against the wall of the sound booth, I noticed a pink shirt.
“Christopher!” I bent over the back of the pew and picked up the sleeping form of my middle boy. He had been sleeping there the entire time, right beside the member who had called the police!
Adrenaline turned fear into joyful relief as I began shouting, “I found him! I found him!” at the top of my lungs. I squeezed him tightly to my chest and ran to find his mother. “I found him!”
Poor Christopher still had no clue as to what was going on. He had been abruptly awakened by his screaming father and was being rapidly carried to the other end of the church.
We finally found Char. The tears poured from her eyes, the look in her face a gamut of emotions. We were hugging each other as well as Christopher as we thanked everyone for their help and cars were filing into the parking lot with people ready to join the search that was now over. Everyone was laughing and crying, everyone except Chris who thought we had all gone nuts.
Christopher, of course, was forbidden to take a nap ever again unless it was on the front pew like everyone else. Outside of that, things slowly began to calm down. Naturally, it took hours for Char and me to relax enough to go to bed, but our baby was found and he was all right. I must have checked on his sleeping form a dozen times that night.
A blink of an eye. A turn of the head. Pick your cliché and it’s true. They can be gone that fast. This little event I believe was karma for what my dad went through when my sister and I were little. We lived in a duplex across from a church. ( I’m sensing a pattern here.) We had never stepped foot inside the buildings, but we loved the playground they had and used it as often as allowed. Sometimes, we even told our parents where we were going. This one time, we didn’t. Dinner was over and it was time to play. Swing sets beckoned and slides tempted. We surrendered to the siren call.
We didn’t know at the time that there was a man going around stealing kids. My father did, however. It’s all that went through his mind as he kept calling us to come home and received no answer. I now know that fear that ripped through his gut.
Eventually, he found us. He didn’t cry at our reunion. He spanked us, instead. It’s the only time my father ever spanked us. Usually, he left that task to my mom who seemed to have a professional skill to punishing children. He was scared, more than scared. He was petrified and I don’t blame him. He let the tension out in the only way that he could and I don’t blame him for that, either. I wanted to shake Chris to pieces for scaring my hair gray.
“I’ve found him!” That makes some of the things parents do - leashes, monitors, cell phones, GPS tracking devices imbedded in their bodies - to keep an eye on their children make a little bit of sense,. As much as parents joke about putting their children up for sale when their at their limited wits end, that’s a feeling that eats away at you no matter what age they are.
“I’ve found him!” I wish every parent were as lucky.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Until next time, keep chasing your fantasies!