Apparently there are certain rules you are supposed to follow in order to be a fairly successful parent. For instance, did you know that children get hungry approximately 1.7 hours after finishing a perfectly extraordinary feast? You have to feed them again if you want to keep them alive. Smallish children require all manner of intervention in grooming matters. And, as I learned in one of the scariest lessons of my life, some slightly older children do not understand the use of sarcasm. They take what you say literally, regardless of the preposterous situation it might put them in.
My oldest son, Caleb, is a bit of an adventurer. Well, that's an understatement. He must have overdosed on adrenaline when he was still a baby, because his willingness to try the new and see the different knows no bounds. Jumping on the trampoline is fun, but jumping off the roof onto the trampoline looks better. Check. Swinging on the swing set is fun, but swinging off the set using a rope you hold between your teeth looks better. Check. Riding a bike is fun, but riding a bike up a ramp and over a sawhorse looks better. Yep, check that one, too.
Of course hindsight is always 20/20, but another of those Parenting 101 lessons is that I should have taken better note of Caleb's overall penchant for fearlessness before exercising that age-old, fool proof method of creating perspective through the invitation to participate in the scary. Especially when the invitation is issued using sarcasm.
So, let me be clear before I actually share my story: Do not try this at home.
Through '09 and '10 Christopher travelled a great deal to and from the East Coast. I know that for many families traveling is a normal part of life. But those families are not mine. We struggled with the absences, and stress that accumulated as a result of daddy's work. I was tired, frazzled and not doing a very good job of learning to balance all the hats I had to wear. During the middle of a typical 2-week trip to Crystal City I "had just about had enough." It was 9 o'clock at night and everyone was still wide awake, acting as though I had just given them giant bowls of Sweet Simple Carbohydrate and Honey Flakes with a dusting of sugar for good measure. To say they were bouncing off the walls would be an understatement. I issued the command for everyone to clean up and get to bed! I was frantically running a load of laundry, finishing the dishes and feeling grit under my feet with every step I took. I hate a dirty floor.
Bah! I dried the last pot, hung up the towel and grabbed for the vacuum. As I ran it through the kitchen I noticed the debris stretching into the schoolroom... the living room... down the hall... and soon I found myself terrorizing the floor in the back bedrooms sucking up anything that got in my way. This also afforded me the wonderful opportunity to notice that my definition of "clean up" and my children's definition of the same phrase were not entirely equal. Leaving the vacuum cleaner running (because my on/off switch only works when you say the magic phrase but I have yet to discover that phrase) I began pulling toys, wadded up clothes and last week's "art" projects from under dressers and out of the closet.
"Clean. This. Up!"
I made my way from the girls' room into the boys' room. Caleb was already perched on his top bunk, staring down at me. I could hear the sand and grit from a thousand pockets filled from treasure hunting rattle its way up the vacuum hose. As the nozzle continued to eat its way through the filth under his bed I heard a strange crumpling sound, like paper being wadded into a ball. I lifted the comforter and ducked my head under the bed. My cool left me entirely as I discovered the remains of one of our family's favorite books torn to pieces by Josiah and a large backpack stuffed with all of Caleb's missing clean clothes.
"Caleb, what is this?" I demanded as I held up the backpack, staring in disbelief at the clothes I had only that afternoon been searching for in vain.
"Oh, that's the backpack I made to run away with." His answer was nonchalant and even. He wasn't upset that I happened upon his scheme. He didn't show any remorse over his desire to leave our home. He remained in his bed, smiling down upon me.
"You were going to run away? Why?!" My voice squeaked over the vacuum that continued to roar.
"Oh, I watched a movie where they ran away and I thought it'd be fun."
Here was another Parenting 101 lesson that should have triggered my brain. He wanted to run away because of a movie he watched. Not because I was a horrible mother. Not because I was failing at my job of caring for his needs. Nope. None of those reasons stood out in his mind. The movie (Ramona and Beezus) is a cute adaptation of Beverly Cleary's series on the pesky Ramona. At one point she runs away. The movie uses clever cinematography to picture Ramona's imagination of all the places she will visit during her flight from home. Adventure. It called to my son. At this point I should have calmly asked him to get down, put the clothes in their rightful homes, and gone back to my vacuum vendetta.
That's what I should have done.
"Caleb, if you want to run away then go!"
"Now?" Caleb's voice changed ever-so-slightly to the incredulous.
"Sure. Why not?"
Caleb fumbled out of bed, unclear on what exactly to do. He heard me tell him to run away from home. I took his movement as the ultimate insult, seeing it as proof that he really did want to leave. He grabbed the backpack from the floor and headed out the door. I continued vacuuming, working to get every last speck of dirt, when I suddenly stopped in a panic. Something was wrong.
Hannah and Bethany glared at me as I walked into the living room. I expected to see a chastised son sitting on the couch fully aware that running away at nearly 10 o'clock at night was nowhere near the realm of possible. He was supposed to be realizing the error of his ways for even wanting to leave. He was supposed to be recognizing how I was emotionally fragile, and that his altogether innocent attempt at adventure could be interpreted as rejection in my altered state. Obviously I had not reached the point of Parenting 101 where realistic emotional expectations from 7-year old sons was discussed.
"You told him to leave!" Bethany blurted at me.
You know those camera shots in movies where the character stays fixed but the background suddenly zooms in, giving you the eerie feeling of extreme focus? It happens in real life, too.
I ran out the door, yelling Caleb's name. My heart pounded in my chest as each passing moment failed to bring an answer from my son. I was afraid that he could hear me but simply wasn't responding. And in the back corner of my mind I was sick at the possibility that something much worse was happening. I ran back into the house to grab the car keys.
"Bethany, did he do anything before he left?"
"No, he was just holding the backpack and said you told him to leave. He ran out the door in his pajamas. Mama, I'm scared!"
"I know, sweetie. I am, too." I grabbed both the older girls and gave them a hug. I quickly explained that I had not specifically ordered him to go. I didn't want him to leave, and I was going to do whatever it took to make sure we got him back home. Then I desperately started praying, repeating over and over my pleas for help.
Please God, keep him safe. Please God, bring him home. Please God, let me find him. Please God, protect him. Please God, let him be okay. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. I'm so scared.
I saw Hannah run out of the house calling for her brother as I pulled out of the driveway in our car. I drove out of our cul-de-sac division while she began searching up and down the few short streets in our small neighborhood. My mind tried to calculate the number of possible variables placed before Caleb's decision making process. Would he seek shelter? Our home is very close to an elementary school but he was nowhere amidst its covered halls. Would he run for help? I drove down to Wal-Mart but didn't see him anywhere in the parking lot or along the streets. It seemed like he had simply vanished. I couldn't imagine how much further one 7-year old boy traveling on foot could get in such a short amount of time. I raced home.
The weather was unseasonably warm for a mid-October night. It had been sunny during the day but we were expecting rain, and the cloud cover was keeping the day's heat trapped. I was grateful for this small piece of grace knowing that Caleb was running around in a thin set of pajama shorts and t-shirt. However, as I drove into my driveway at 10:15pm the skies opened, and rain began splattering against my windshield.
"Did you find him?" Bethany was beside herself, crying with worry and fright. Hannah slumped next to her, dejected from the failure to find him. They were both aware of the obvious answer as I shut the door behind me.
Simultaneous to my Parenting 101 lessons, Christopher was learning a few of his own. We had grown so accustomed to using his cell phone for easy, reliable and direct contact that he had failed to give me any information on the exact hotel where he was staying. This didn't seem like such a big deal until he muted his phone during the night so he wouldn't have his sleep disturbed by any inadvertent Pacific Standard Time calls... including my call to tell him he needed to pray for his lost son. Not able to get a hold of my husband for moral support, and trying to stay calm for my children's sake, I knew the next step was to call the police.
The phone conversation that ensued was one of the strangest experiences of my life. Beyond the normal description and location of my son there were several questions which sought to understand the motivating factors in my 7-year old's decision to leave his home at such a late hour. Trying to effectively remain truthful without implicating myself in a CPA investigation (Why, yes officer, I did tell my son to leave in his pajamas) was beyond nerve racking. The dispatcher, after taking all my information, placed me on hold to transfer me to my local police station. I was on hold for an eternity. When I was finally patched through these were the first words I heard:
"Ma'am, we have your son."
Incredulously, and with tears running down my face, I listened as the operator explained that my son was found outside a local fast food restaurant trying to stay out of the rain. Police were already in the area due to another call, and immediately noticed his age, clothing and... get this... lack of shoes. He hadn't even stopped to put on any shoes! We ended our conversation with me asking where I could go to pick up my son. I just wanted him in my arms.
I quickly drove to the restaurant, dumbfounded by the nearly mile long trek it took him to arrive at the same destination. He was sitting at a table by himself, wrapped in a police jacket and slightly dazed. He had a nearly untouched pouch of french fries sitting on a tray in front of him. He's allergic to potatoes. I ran up to him and threw my arms around his small little body, telling him over and over how sorry I was and how much I loved him. I had to answer a few more questions from the police, and verify that I was not, in fact, trying to throw my son out of our home. Apparently upon their initial questioning of Caleb he explained that he ran away because his mother told him to. Nice. The police were extremely gracious and recognized my lack of Parenting 101 credentials. They allowed us to go home without further ado.
As we quietly drove home I asked Caleb how on earth he had reached the restaurant.
"You told me to run away. So I ran. The whole way."
We didn't speak any more about the episode that night. But the next day I asked him to trace his exact path for me. We drove a rather circuitous route around parking lots and even along a dirt footpath beside a pond before he finally came to the rather major intersection of our town and the fast food restaurant. He admitted to being scared as he ran through tall sea grasses by the pond's edge. At one point a car passed him and yelled out the window for him to go home. I asked him what he thought he would do once he reached the restaurant, realizing by then that it must have started raining on him. He shrugged his shoulders and said:
"I was going to ask them if I could just sleep inside while it rained."
I again told him how sorry I was for the inappropriate use of sarcasm. I reiterated how I did not want him to leave, and did not ever want him to leave. He smiled at me and gave me a hug.
By the following week Caleb's newfound adventure was already reaching Tom Sawyer proportions.
I am still awaiting my certificate of completion for Parenting 101.