My daughter’s hand was gone. It took me only moments to slide coins across a counter on Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. When I dropped my hand back, hers was missing. In my left hand, I found the familiar grip of her five-year-old brother, Austin. As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand. I felt bony arms and sticky chins, but my hand came back empty. I pressed my back against the crowd to open the space where Faith had been standing. Gone.
A mile a minute: the speed at which an abducted child can be distanced from her place of origin. This statistic raced through my head as I shoved aside strollers and teenagers and beer bellies, frantic to find my daughter’s face.
“Faith!” I called out once, maybe twice, in a voice too weak to be my own. A tiny voice afraid of letting strangers know that I had lost my child.
I held tight to Austin’s wrist. He sobbed at my side.
“I’m going to miss her so much,” he cried.
* * *
I never wanted to be a mom. My friends feared the loss of their figures, freedom, or finances. But I feared failure as a mom.
“From the minute your child takes their first breath,” a mother once told me, “your life is no longer your own.”
As I used my chin to snap my wallet, I groped around to my right, searching for three-year-old Faith’s plump, soft fingers, certain they were seeking mine through the crush of people near the ice cream stand. She said this the same way other moms did, not as a warning, but more as a source of pride for surviving the challenge. As if motherhood was a badge you earn when you’re thrown into the middle of a lake and manage to swim to shore. This was not a badge I wanted. As I listened to their tales of motherhood survival, I felt certain I would drown.
I never hid this from my then-fiancé, and I reiterated as our wedding drew near.
“I’m fine without kids,” Tom told me, eyes avoiding mine.
* * *
“Lady! Lady!” the carnie barked at me with an urgency that could only mean he found the child no one knew I lost. When I spun to face him, he offered only a consolation prize.
“Win this for your little boy.” He shook a green and black tiger plushie at me. “He’ll stop crying.”
Five minutes. Five miles.
* * *
My husband was the middle child in a brood of nine, a young helper with nighttime bottle feedings and morning diaper changes. Still, I was surprised in my thirties when he brought up children. I had checked off items on my youthful bucket list—trekked through New Zealand, promoted to management, bought a house—when he asked, “Then how about kids?”
He knew my list of reasons.
“Children are too unpredictable.”
He knew to listen when I recited them.
“There’s no guarantee they’ll be healthy.”
He even knew to agree with me.
“Parenthood is irreversible.”
But he also knew the story I told at neighborhood barbeques, about a clutch of his old girlfriends cornering me at his brother’s wedding. Our neighbors laughed as I feigned the role of victim in the story, acting as if these women had me pinned against a wall.
“You know Tom has always wanted kids, right?”
“Yeah, sure. I know.” I had no intention of letting his former girlfriends think they knew my husband better than I did. Their faces blurred together as doubt clouded the image I had of Tom and I as a happy twosome.
* * *
Tom knew I knew. And now he was asking.
I surveyed parent friends. Marriage had been a smoother transition than friends had warned, perhaps motherhood would be, too. I was surprised that the thought of being a mom no longer entirely panicked me. I poured the same energy into learning about childhood vaccinations and mommy meditation as I had for other decisions I deemed of equal importance: moving solo across the country, working my way through college, accepting a high-stress job offer. When fear swelled in my chest, I reminded myself of those successes. Convinced of my abilities and encouraged by Tom’s baby-tending experience, I decided I wouldn’t drown.
* * *
Eight minutes—eight miles—had passed since I lost Faith. A mustached man with red-veined eyes pressed too close against me as he passed, the oily scent of fries mingling with his Budweiser breath. Children screamed out to me above the clanging metal of rides that jerked them left and right, back and forth. I was light-headed and sick, on my own private ride, jostled by sweat-slicked adults, their children safe at their sides. The boardwalk’s mob of strangers, most disguised as parents, crisscrossed in front of me, north and south, east and west, all potential predators. I struggled to breathe as I looked over the sea of heads. The erratic flow spilled onto the beach on one side and down to the busy city street on the other. My heart pounded in my ears.
Minutes and miles ticked away. Austin continued to sob.
* * *
Our son came into the world tawny, towheaded, and calm—already possessing traits of the lifeguard he would become. When we eased him into his crib his first night at home, he fell fast asleep, seamlessly transitioning into our lives. Buoyed by the ease with which he joined us, Tom and I decided to have a second child. Surely our next baby would be just as easy.
I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children.
We chose the name Faith as a testament to Tom’s confidence that I would master this full immersion into motherhood.
“Have faith,” he told me. A year later I did.
Our baby girl arrived screaming and hairy all over. Faith was what my dad called a handful, her months of colicky crying a sharp contrast to Austin’s contented calm. I wore smooth the hardwood floor in her nursery as I tried to soothe both her and me. Too new to motherhood, I didn’t know that Faith’s colic would pass; instead it reinforced my fears of life with children. Our first baby was an easy float on the lake. With my new inconsolable baby, I was losing sight of the shore.
* * *
The reverberation of the rollercoaster rattled the boardwalk beneath our feet. Ten minutes—ten miles—had passed since Faith’s hand slipped from mine. I pulled Austin along, retracing our steps back to the ice cream stand, wanting to convince myself I could turn back the clock, erase my error. I tried to focus at a three-year old’s level. Cotton-candied hands, plushie prizes, and tails of tickets passed by in a blur. When our backtracking resulted in only the passage of precious minutes, my chest squeezed tighter. A high-pitched cry of “Mommy!” whirled me around. Three feet away I saw a pig-tailed kernel of a girl with her arms outstretched towards a beleaguered, but competent, mom.
Twelve minutes. Twelve miles.
* * *
On one of our kids’ first trips to the beach, I kept Faith corralled as she scurried about in the sand while Tom dipped Austin’s toes in the water at the ocean’s edge. They hit like people say they do, those rogue waves. I heard the crash behind me and turned to see Tom chasing after Austin into the surf. Austin disappeared into a wave as fast and easily as Faith disappeared into the crowd on the boardwalk. But Tom’s reaction was quick and spot-on. He lunged over the next wave and plunged his arm into the sea. When he lifted it, he held a handful of Austin’s white hair, Austin gasping. Another wave tumbled them out of the water and onto the sand. Tom sputtering, Austin wailing.
* * *
Austin slowed my search, stumbling along beside me. I scanned the crowd for an information booth, a person of authority, but found none. I pushed through the back door of the ice cream stand, startling the two teenagers inside.
“Please, please watch my son.” My voice shook. “I’ve lost my daughter and have to find her.”
“We can’t do that ma’am.”
“Is there someone I can call? Is there a security person, a phone number, anything?”
They answered with shrugs.
Even if they had answers, I couldn’t describe my daughter’s appearance with any clarity. I squeezed my eyes shut but my jumbled brain couldn’t recall the clothes she wore, the length of her hair, or even the color of her eyes. I was failing as a mom. With the teenagers’ attention turned back to customers, I planted Austin inside the doorway of their booth—their protests be damned—and took a step toward the boardwalk crowd. Austin stumbled a step or two as he tried to follow me.
“Don’t you move!” I shook a finger at him. “You stay there!”
He backed up into the doorway, sobbing and rocking. He was not my adventurer. I pressed back into the crowd.
* * *
Faith was barely three when she developed a penchant for talking. At the library, the pool, the grocery store, her round face bubbled up to anyone who would listen.
My mom warned me about this. “You have to stop her. Faith should feel frightened by strangers.”
I had a tough time teaching fear. Faith had no problem ignoring it.
During our group walks home from Austin’s kindergarten, Faith often led the conversations, walking backwards, sideways, whichever way ensured that everyone could hear her. One day, as she animated a story, she stepped off the curb right into the path of an oncoming school bus. I grabbed for her but caught only air. My core went cold. A quick-acting crossing guard plucked her from the street.
* * *
Fifteen minutes. Fifteen miles.
At the boardwalk, thoughts of these near misses—the beach, the bus, and others—slowed my steps. I dug my fingernails into my palms as I tried to coax these memories into calming me. These near-misses turned out fine. Instead my breathing shallowed. What if we had used up our mistakes? What if this one was fatal? I had neither Tom nor that crossing guard there to rescue my child.
I pictured Austin alone at the ice-cream stand and pushed through the crowd to get back to him. One of the teenagers stood beside Austin, not comforting him, but keeping a watchful eye. When Austin saw me, he bolted from the booth and wrapped himself around my legs. The relief I felt dissolved as I pictured his life without his sister.
* * *
I had them fooled, my family and friends. No one knew how I fretted and floundered. Just as I had feared, there were so many opportunities—from food to discipline to boardwalks—to fail my children. And there was more. I hadn’t foreseen how my own resilience would be tested and retested as I saw my children fall and recover and fall again. Cradling my shivering baby in an emergency room made me stronger and more vulnerable; pausing to watch snails crawl with Austin made me more relaxed and more alert; hearing Faith sing made me full-hearted and soul-stretched. The soft pastel intensity of my life with children melded together fear and fulfillment in such a way that I had to remind myself to breathe. Motherhood shaped me into a person that I could not have come to be by any other means. And I liked that person, however flawed.
* * *
Twenty minutes after I lost Faith on the boardwalk, my teary-eyed daughter was returned to me. She had crossed the busy street alone to look for our car, following instructions I had given on a different outing. Kind strangers found my three-year-old wandering two city-blocks away. Once Faith told them what happened, they brought her back to the boardwalk.
When I spotted her threading towards me through the crowd, I took my first full breath. I sank to my knees and scooped her into the circle of Austin and me. There, on the sun-soaked boardwalk, the three of us clung to each other, rocking and crying and laughing as the rollercoaster roared on by.
MJ Lemire is a Northern California writer whose work has appeared in Literary Mama, Cosumnes River Journal and elsewhere. She’s been a regular columnist for UC Davis’ In the Know and fiction editor of American River Review. Currently working on a collection of essays, MJ divides her time between her writing, her family, and teaching local first graders how to read.
Photo credit: Faith Lemire-Baeten.