I have the most amazing Tuesday afternoon playgroup for my 3-year-old daughter. It is the perfect size of 4 families, the moms are simpatico with interests, conversations, and parenting styles, and the 4 girls are destined to be girlfriends for life. We’ve been meeting weekly for the past few months, and reached a turning point a few weeks ago where the side-by-side play transformed into running in giant circles, screaming at the top of their lungs. We moms commemorated it with a moment of silence—shrieking, piercing silence.

The group also has 3 baby siblings and my 5 year old son Wally. (I intentionally put the group together this way—5 year old Wally is more easily tamed without kids his age, when he can play the big brother/babysitter role.) The first playgroup, we moms were chatting and each of the girls emerged from dress-up corner wearing a different dress-up outfit Wally had helped them put on over their clothes.

This sort of behavior has led to pint-sized obsessions with Wally from the little girls. Their moms report lots of talk about Wally in their homes during the week. Once, we were late to arrive and Wally ran down while I was getting Vivvi’s shoes off at the door. I heard him run past the moms and yell, “Hi!” And then I heard the moms all burst into laughter and note that the entire energy of the room had changed—Wally was here! (Fast-forwarding 12 years, Wally will be a senior when these girls are freshmen. God help us all.)

PlaygroupWe hosted playgroup yesterday, which means I give Wally the option to play the iPad by himself. It’s my one in four weeks break from having to monitor him while I more thoroughly enjoy my adult-distracted-by-only-one-child conversation. I imagine avoiding my occasional necessary glances over my shoulder to catch him whacking Vivvi with a wand, or riding a 1-year old ride-on toy, or holding a toddler-sized armchair in the air like a mini gladiator and hurling it across the room. I give myself this break.

Wally was happily playing iPad, so the rest of us headed out to the backyard to enjoy the beautiful day. Our neighbors have a playset, and the plan all day had been to let the girls do their running and screaming in the glorious fresh air. “We’ll be at the playground if you want to join us out here,” I told Wally, confirming the plan that I was sure he already knew. We played with bubbles in the back and then headed out to swing and slide the afternoon away. After a while, Wally showed up and joined us in our frolicking for a bit. My best mom friends and I continued our satisfying discussion of toe rings and appendicitis and parenting and karma—because, let’s be real, this playdate was really and mostly for us. The playdate ended, and another good one was in the books.

Later, my family sat down for dinner. When everyone was seated, with a little smirk, Wally said, “Mom, guess what? I thought when you said playground that you meant the school playground, so I went there first.” Husband Wally and I simultaneously choked, “Wa-wa-What?” and “Really?”

I wondered if the smirk was because he was joking. I did a double-take, and read it for what it was—an “am I going to get in trouble for this?” smirk. A this-totally-strange-thing-happened-so-I-am-bringing-it-up-hours-later smirk. An I’m-five-so-I’m-wondering-how-to-deliver-this-strange-news-to-you smirk.

My thoughts were a whirling swirling tornado. The school playground is 2 blocks away. He had to cross two streets—the moderately busy street we live on and the busy neighborhood through-street to get there. He had to cross them twice. If I had a birds’ eye view as it happened—the gasps and screams! (For some reason, I don’t think I’ll ever shake this imagined birds’ eye view.) Oh, and everything that could have happened! The getting lost and having to be tracked down by the police! The shake-your-fist-to-slow-down cars that could have hit him! The blank white van that could have pulled up and offered candy!

Somehow I broke through the what-could-have-been. “What did you do when you got there?”

“I looked around, and I saw you weren’t there, so I went home.”

I knew the rest. This impossible story ends in an impossible way: Then, he crossed two streets (again!), came home, found us in the back, and joined the girls playing on the playset. And he said nothing. Until now—dinner, hours later.

I let this new information sink in. For around 10 minutes today, I had no clue where my child was. I was a mom who lost her children, and then found out about it later.

“Were you scared?” I asked. For some reason, this was important to me.

“No,” he replied, matter-of-fact.

I wasn’t mad at him, of course. I replayed what I had said to him—”We’ll be at the playground.” Of course he thought I meant the “playground.” That’s what I had said. And I wasn’t mad at me either. This wasn’t neglect—just miscommunication. This was just a classic demonstration of the power of words, and I hadn’t chosen the right one. (Playset next time, play set. The less generous part of myself facepalms as I think it.)

And I love and admire his little mind. I love that he thought I would suddenly decide it was okay for him to stay home alone while I went a few blocks away. I love that he thought I would decide he was ready to cross streets on his own, and that I would mark the momentous occasion by just casually saying we’ll be there if he wants to meet up with us. I love that he was confident that he could do these things—he could stay home alone, he could walk to meet us. And I love that when he realized he was wrong, he just turned around and came home. No panicking. No drama. Even the way he revealed it to us—the “oh, by the way” attitude—even that was logical and drama-free. Good Lord, I love this child.

If you are going to lose your child, this is the best possible way. To lose them, to have them return safely, to be unaware of losing them until hours later. To be blissfully unaware, enjoying your beautiful day in beautiful company. To be made aware only after the child’s little soul has made a trek to a park and back, and then traversed around the yard and house for a few hours, allowing time and space to transform the adventure into more distant, dreamlike memory—that is the way to find out. That is the way to lose your child.

As we were brushing his teeth that night, I thought of my bird’s eye view. I thought of Wally’s great grandma, Donno, who passed away a few years ago, who loved her great-grandchildren deeply, who might have been watching from above. I said, “I think Donno was watching over you.”

“No,” Wally said. “Donno’s in heaven! She’s not here!” Then he thought about it a minute. “But she’s with Jesus, and he’s in my heart, so she’s in there, too.”

Amen, I thought. Thank you, Donno and Jesus, for being with him in his heart. Thank you drivers, who drive cautiously in school zones and neighborhoods. Thank you 5 years of look both ways training, for sinking in. And just, God, thank you. Thank you.

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