|2008.11.20 twitter background, a photo by guiltyx on Flickr.|
I forgot she was with me.
That's how I lost my daughter. I forgot where she was.
Recently I was at the mall with my best friend, mother-in-law, and all four of my children. It was the baby's birthday, and his godmother and grandmother wanted to buy his first pair of shoes and a new winter coat. Small children on a birthday, any birthday, are naturally maniacal. Plus grandma was in town, upping their enthusiasm and bickering tenfold. Then there was a stop by the Lego store. Hermit crabs painted like Superman. A little more freedom than usual while everyone fussed over the baby.
Two hours later, my kids were scattering like marbles on tile. I was feeling frazzled.
The toy store was our last stop of the day. My friend needed to pick something up elsewhere, and she took the baby with her. Like any mother, no matter what else I am doing, some deep part of my mind is always oriented toward my children’s presence. When a room frenzies with little ones' energy, I count by twos. The big boys were playing on the next aisle, my friend has the babies, I thought to myself. As my mother-in-law and I weighed the merits of particular Christmas gifts, I reviewed it again. Boys are on the next aisle, my friend has the babies …
Except she didn't. She only had one baby.
The blood drained from my face. Where was my little girl?
In my gut I knew she had left the store. I walk away from the group, calling her name. Nothing. I glance out of the entrance and realize we are in the middle of a cluster of places intended to attract children. She could be anywhere. I sing her name this time, a familiar game between us, straining to hear her echo.
I stop a lady in the candy store. "Have you seen a little girl? Pink jacket? Two years old?" She shakes her head. People are beginning to stare. I check the children's train. She's not there. When I yell her name this time, I don't recognize my voice. The clerk from the toy store calls out, "Should I call the mall manager? Do we need to shut down the mall?"
I hope not.
I don't look up, I don't answer. My eyes are trained three feet from the floor. I walk to the edge of the children's corridor. Ahead, past the shoe store and electronics kiosk, I see a little pink jacket talking to another mother with her young son.
I stop and take the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. When I sing her name this time, she looks up toward me. "But," she says first, answering a question I haven't asked, "I had to go potty." I’m not surprised. At home she never makes the usual toddler announcement, she just wanders away to do her business. I scoop her up, and she rests her head on my shoulder. She's not scared, only tired. I was the only one who panicked.
She relaxes, her weight leaning into mine. We stand still, and I catch my breath while she rests against me. After a minute we walk back to rejoin our group.
I think of myself as a responsible mother.
A good mother, even. Nurturing, loving, focused. Most days I focus on my strengths, and I imagine my strength is enough. If I am focused enough, I can teach them all they will need to know. If I’m nurturing enough, I can protect them from the wide wide world. If I am loving enough, I can keep them forever safe, happy, whole.
When I lost my daughter, I realized how delusional this idea really is.
If I’m depending on my strength alone to protect my children, what happens when I fail?
What about the times when I turn the tv on without any thought to the hours already watched, when I dole out candy because I just don’t have the energy to say no? Or when I yell at one child because another has been pushing against me all day? If my strength is enough, what happens when I forget where my child is, and she wanders away in public? Who is protecting her in that moment?
I am responsible to my children, but ultimately God is responsible for them. As a mother, God never promised me my children would always be okay. And it was never my job to guarantee they would be. God alone holds our lives in His hands. While my role is important in their lives, they are not counting on me alone to keep them safe. In the end, we are relying together on God.
I desperately want to always parent well, but sometimes I fail spectacularly at it. And that’s okay. Whether I am at my best, or whether I forget my child in the mall, God alone nurtures and protects us both.