I never want to be that scared again.
Decades ago. My first time in London, on vacation with my then wife, Pauline, and our two young sons: Justin, 8, Zachary, 4. Our last day before flying back to L.A. Pauline is in the hotel, packing, and I have the boys in London’s old (1538) and immense (350 acres) Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
I’m snapping photos of the ducks on the Serpentine, breathing in the history and talking to the boys, probably about Kipling, and surely about Dickens because not long ago in L.A. we had seen the musical play “Oliver!” The boys loved it.
We reach the Elfin Oak, a large hallowed-out trunk imbedded with small statues of animals, elves and fairies. Nearby is a children’s playground. Zack wants to stay at the tree. Justin chooses the playground. There is an entrance nearby. “When you come out, we’ll be right near this tree,” I tell him. He nods and runs off.
Zack and I talk about the tree, probably making up stories about the statues while Justin plays on the slide and other playground equipment.
Maybe 45 minutes later I feel a small thought squirming to the surface. Hasn’t Justin been gone a long time? I watch what I can see of the playground, and I can no longer pick him out.
“Zack, I have to walk to the left and to the right to see all the playground. I’ll keep you in sight, Okay?”
Zack nods, but I see he’s a little worried.
I hurry to search each side of the large playground, glancing often at Zack’s small form by the tree, giving him a smile so he doesn’t catch the urgency that is growing inside of me. I study every boy, every glimpse of thick brown hair. Justin is not in the playground. He’s not there.
When I come back to the tree, I’m sending my eyes everywhere, trying to push the fear down, back into the hole it came out of. He has to be nearby. I will see him in this next second, in this one, in….
“Where is he,” Zack asks with tears beginning to seep into his voice. The sound of my little boy and his frightened face cuts me inside.
“He has to be right around here,” I say, and we both look. I hate to leave the tree, our only home ground, but Justin is not in sight, and I have to widen the search.
Zack and I move to higher ground. I send my eyes thrusting into every boy’s face, every mop of hair. The fear is filling my chest like an expanding balloon. He’s gone. No. No! I’ll see him. I’ll see him now. Now.
I have to cover more ground. I bring Zack to where two wide walking lanes intersect and ask him to please stand there. “Please, Zack. I’ll keep looking back at you but I have to run around, all around. You’ll see me and I’ll see you. Here, I’ll leave my camera here, so I can run better.” I hang the camera on my little boy and it reaches down to his knees. He stands there, upset, but holding it together. I begin to run.
Now, as I run, I begin to shout Justin’s name as loud as I can, and each shout makes the fear grow and the fact more real. “Justin!” I can’t see him. I can’t find him. I keep running and glancing at Zack and running on. People are staring at me, concerned. I keep shouting, tearing my voice. I don’t see him anywhere. How far could he have gone? Gone. He’s gone.
When I come back to the intersection of lanes, my little soldier is sniffing at tears. He tells me that a big dog came up to him and scared him, but he stood there.
He stood there.
I pick him up and hold him. I can barely talk because the fear is now like a second body inside me, and it’s so heavy and so dark. I look around one more time, but I have to face it. I cannot find my son. We’re in a large park in a foreign city, and I cannot find my son.
I hold Zack and walk to the nearest street that borders the park. I see a red phone booth and hurry there, and we enter.
I put Zack down and somehow, with the English coins and the unfamiliar phone system, I’m able to call the police. I tell my story quickly. They will send an officer.
Then I make the call you never want to make, the call that seems impossible, the worst call I have ever made. I call the hotel. I am switched to our room, and Pauline answers. There is a space of a second or so before I can speak when I realize how what I say will shake her to her soul, the pain and terror and wild impossibility of it.
I tell her that our son is missing, and she takes it in. I know it cores her, but she takes it in, asks questions, wants to come to the park. I ask her to stay in the room, by the phone, in case he’s found by somebody, in case he remembers the name of the hotel. Please. Please.
Zack and I wait for the officer, and he comes in a few minutes, driving a small size police car. He’s a tall man in shirt-sleeves and the Bobby helmet. He’s relaxed as he gets out of the car. He’s smiling a bit. He’s older than I am – and he’s certain.
“We’ll find the little one,” he says, and I feed on his smile, on his voice, on his certainty. I stuff it all into me.
The car is made small so it can drive on the walking lanes of the giant park. He drives slowly, Zack and I staring everywhere, everywhere, for minutes, for more minutes. More.
I see, ahead of us, far ahead, a woman walking our way, a child is holding her hand. It’s him. It’s him. It’s my Justin. It’s him.
An ecstasy of gratefulness replaces the fear. Zack and I hurry to meet him.
He ran out of the playground and didn’t see us, he says, so he started to search. He is sniffling a little, but is fine. My son. Fine. Here. In my arms. I’m a statue, holding him, eyes closed now, holding him and holding Zack.
Later, in the hotel, his mother asks him what he was going to do.
“I didn’t remember the hotel,” he says, and I knew you were leaving in the morning, so…”
“You actually thought we’d go home without you,” Pauline says, laughing, eyes still full.
Justin shrugs and takes some things out of his pocket that he found in the park when he was alone, a sharp stone, a coin…? “I thought I’d just be…”
“Like a London street boy. Like in ‘Oliver’