I often joke to my mom friends that, like the United States Department of Education, I too have a “No Child Left Behind” initiative, which involves me mentally taking inventory every time we leave a place.
By birth order, I check to make sure all my offspring are duly noted and accounted for, in addition to any accessories we have dragged along. If we don’t stay vigilant, we leave a trail, much like Hansel and Gretel, consisting of cracker crumbs, LEGOs and, in the case of my youngest child, glitter.
But until recently, I’d only joked about leaving a kid behind. I once left my purse on top of the car and drove nearly a mile before a fellow driver flagged me down and pointed out my mistake.
But as embarrassing as that was, leaving a child behind is something I’ll never live down.
I can’t even offer an excuse-it was a devastatingly gorgeous day and I had walked to our elementary school to pick up two of my boys from school. Eva, my 4-year-old, glittered and sparkled next to me as she skipped along. Once we reached the school yard, she broke out into a run to join the other kids at the playground while I waited for the bell to ring.
By the time I’d found my boys, asked them about their day, looked at a permission slip I needed to sign and high-fived my second-grader for his great spelling test, we were walking back home along the tree-lined streets with some neighbors. Starved for adult interaction, I was mid-sentence in the midst of an animated conversation about a shoe sale when my cell phone vibrated in my pocket.
“Where are you?” said the exasperated voice on the other line.
“Oh hi, Chris,” I answered, recognizing my neighbor’s voice. “Are you OK?”
But as soon as the words left my lips, my mind’s eye took off, like a helicopter, up over the leafy treetops and back to the schoolyard, where it zoomed in on the terrified image of my daughter, who I suddenly realized was not with us.
Like a shot, we ran back as quickly as we could, my heart beating through my chest. What kind of a mother leaves her child behind?
Now I’m one of those kinds of mothers.
There she was, understandably terrified, with tears streaming down her face. But I sighed with relief when I saw another mother, who had stayed with her until I returned. I grabbed my daughter in my arms and breathed in the sweet smell of her hair, and squeezed her a little too tightly.
“Mommy’s sorry,” I uttered over and over. “Mommy’s so sorry.”
I look at her, and try not to let my mind go there: something awful could’ve happened. This could’ve been the “oops” moment that turned into an “uh-oh” moment that spiraled into a pivotal moment that changed everything.
But it didn’t.
I hung my head at the schoolyard the day after it happened. I was sure the other mothers would be whispering behind my back, shaking their head in disbelief at my stupidity.
Instead, I got hugs and sympathetic smiles.
A few moms, in hushed tones, told me stories of when they lost their kid, or left them behind.
“It happens to all of us,” said one mom, as she patted my arm. I searched her face to see if she was patronizing me. I felt certain she was lying, but I could find no evidence of it on her face.
By now, the memory of being left behind is something that’s become part of Eva’s chirpy repertoire. In true 4-year-old fashion, she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge. Instead, she recalls it with the kind of attention to detail as if she’s retelling an episode of her favorite show, with an emotional detachment usually assigned to an anecdote about someone else.
For me, I suffer a fresh stab through my heart each time she brings it up.
“Mommy!” she shouts, her eyes sparkling as she points her finger towards the slides. “Remember that park? That’s the park where you forgot me!”
I will remember. Always. I just hope she doesn’t.