Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Missing in the eye of the beholder

Our neighbor across the back alley had just come home to find that another neighbor's dog had gotten out of the yard. After quickly rounding up the dog and putting him back inside the fence and securely latching the gate, he was surprised to see a bicycle police officer coasting to a stop before him.

"Did you find him?"

"Yeah," said my neighbor, surprised that the police were aware that the dog was loose. His surprise then grew even greater when the officer held his hands out to take his son from his wife who was standing nearby.

It took a minute before they straightened out the fact that one of them was talking about a missing dog and the other about a missing boy. The missing boy that half the police in the city were looking for would be my Oliver. And he wasn't so much missing as, well, sitting quietly on the toilet upstairs in his very own home, quite unaware that his hysterical mother was, well, hysterical.


Let me backtrack a moment.

Tonight, the first Tuesday of August is also National Night Out. NNO is an annual event in which city officials visit "at risk" neighborhoods and meet with residents. Our neighborhood, which has a very active neighborhood watch group, is always a stop for the caravan of officials in our city. We combine it with our annual block party and find that it is the one time during the year when many of us can connect and spend a few minutes catching up on the news of each others lives. When the caravan arrives there is generally a good deal of commotion -- and a lot of people. Oh, and did I mention that a good many police officers are among the caravan, including about eight bicycle patrol men?

So anyway, I was talking with two of our city council members, congratulating them for approving a recent bicycle and pedestrian plan for our City and encouraging them to find the money to support the plan, while keeping one eye on Oliver who was keeping to the edge of the fray and hanging out a bit further down the block, closer to the busy intersection, than I normally allow. And then, suddenly, he was gone. When I didn't see him I stopped mid-sentence and sprinted to where I had last seen him, what, 30 seconds before? A minute? Not more than that but long enough. When I didn't see him I sprinted towards the intersection, shouting his name in that panicky voice that comes from a place of deep, deep fear. When I didn't see him at the intersection I sprinted back to the house, calling his name, panic rising.

As I got closer to my house and the party on the street in front, I was vaguely aware that the police were already on the move, someone asked what he was wearing and for his description but I just kept running, not wanting to lose one more second and sure that one of the neighbors could give that information.

Oliver, for his part, has become very aware of his surroundings over the past year or so. He seldom ventures out of our yard and when he does he knows how far he is allowed to go. He knows how to look both ways before he crosses the street. And he is not a wanderer. Anymore. But this wasn't always the case. It wasn't that long ago that a passing motorist found him playing on the railroad tracks that cross by a block or so from our house (I found him seconds after they did) or the Sunday evening in Switzerland when he took the scooter without our noticing and rode it all the way down to the playground by the Rhine, crossing train tracks and a major road in the process. It always happens in the blink of an eye. And when it happens you cannot believe how quickly it happened or how stupid you were for not paying more attention.

The back door to our house was propped open so I could more easily carry out everything I needed for the party. As I raced into the downstairs hallway, now very upset and calling Oliver's name, the whole house was quiet. There was no response. No movement, no sound from my little boy who would not just yell out, "What?" in response to my urgent calling but who would, always, come to me. I called again and waited, dreading the silence that followed, my mind racing: what do I do now?! And: This is an emergency!

And then? I heard a small sound from upstairs and after a moment saw my boy walking towards me with his hands clamped over his ears. My shouting had frightened him.

Close on my heels was the Captain of the city SWAT team -- did I mention that there were a LOT of police officers around? Through my tears I apologized more than once for causing such a commotion. He made some kind remark about it being a good time to lose a boy when there were so many police officers in my front yard and shifted his weight to the other foot as I continued to sob and hold Oliver in what must have felt like a death grip. I wondered how many hysterical mothers he had seen in his career.

When I finally made it outside again the caravan was pulling away, most of the guests were departing and there was a lot of cleaning up to do.

Another day in the life of a mom and a boy.


  1. It is never, EVER a good time to lose a child.

    So sorry for your scare, and so glad he was home all along.


  2. Sigh!

    I know that panic well. And Andrew would react the same as Oliver. He doesn't call out in response to me calling him, instead he quietly appears from another room.

    Sorry for this scare!!! Hope your nerves are settling some. I know it takes time and this being out on the street in a crowd, I can imagine your level of panic.

    On the beach this summer one day, sitting next to my brother, both of us with our eye on the boy with the bright orange shirt on the ocean, briefly (seconds) turned our attention the the girl with the pigtails playing in the sand in front of us, then my brother says to me, "where's Andrew?". Looking back to where he just was playing in the waves seconds earlier, I can't see him anywhere. I jumped up in a panic scanning the ocean and ready to call to the lifeguards, then I hear a woman saying something to me and see Andrew sitting in this woman's beach chair taking a little break. sigh!

  3. Eileen, I just felt so stupid -- I mean he was inside the whole time. But no matter how aware Oliver is/becomes, I never, ever, think he will lose that sense of vulnerability that sends me right into panic mode whenever I lose sight of him.

  4. What a terrifying experience. (((HUGS))) You were right -- parenting is not for the faint of heart.

  5. I'm so silly- this makes me cry! Just reading about YOU sobbing and holding on to Oliver...

    Do you remember the Halloween that we thought we lost Henry? And he was with his big sister the whole time? Ugh- this takes me right back to that spot.

    Why don't you give Oliver another squeeze right now?! Love you guys!

  6. My goodness. Your poor heart. Everything is ok. How horrible.

  7. This taps into every parent's worst, most primal fears. I don't think you should feel at all chagrined for fearing for the safety of your child with autism. It's VERY reasonable gien past history.

    Even though you already told us Oliver was home and ok, I sobbed as you told the story. Primal. Totally primal.

    So glad all is ok. And hey, now the bicycle cops know to keep an eye out for Oliver!

  8. Hi there. New to your blog, and new to ASD. What a nightmare situation for you- I'm so, so glad that Oliver was okay. I have 3 little ones, including a set of twins, and spend most of my time searching out their little faces, which is all that much harder with one who more or less ignores my calls. Hope you had a glass of wine after bedtime that night!

  9. That must have been so scary. I can't even imagine how frightened you must have been.
    I don't know much about autism but I have heard about something called theory of mind in connection with the disorder. Did Oliver fail to answer you because HE knew where he was and he thought that you must know his whereabouts, too?

  10. You should not feel at all stupid. This kind of thing is the hardest part of autism for me, by far. It's really good that his instinct was to go into your house.