There are so many humiliating moments as a parent, moments when you do things that you wish so many times afterward you had done differently. That day last spring, when I sat on the phone thinking my son was playing on the baseball diamond in front of me and then someone asked me, “Where’s Oscar?” is one such moment.
That afternoon, I sent my independent 9-year-old the two blocks to the park on his bike with the field number I thought he was playing on, and told him I’d meet him there. It has taken some distance to see the lessons, to get over the guilt and panic when I realized my son was not where I thought he was and I’d been too preoccupied with my own work to realize it.
Luckily it was only a few moments of hand-wringing worry before my son walked up pushing his bike, the spokes of which were laced through with his baseball bag. He could barely breathe through the sobs, and his tear-stained face showed this had been true for a while. When had he left the house? How long ago? Where had he been? What happened?
The nagging questions were ignored as my little boy dropped the ailing bike and flopped to the blanket next to it to sit and try to catch his breath. It was a full-blown panic attack, brought on, I was to discover in time, by his inability to find his team because I had given him the wrong field and because he was early and they weren’t there yet.
Oh my God! I had been sitting there oblivious, imagining in my nearsightedness that one of the blue-shirted boys was my own! I had sent him off with no phone and no instructions on “What to do if…”
I said none of this, of course. I just tried to soothe and calm the sobs, to tell him he was fine and he had been fine all along, that there had been no need to panic.
“You’re in your own neighborhood, you knew the team would be on one of these fields,” I said. “You could have borrowed someone’s phone to call me. You’re only going to hurt yourself by freaking out.”
I apologized, of course, and thought to say I would never let it happen again, that he shouldn’t go on his own ever, not even in college or beyond, that I would prevent him from ever getting scared or feeling alone, or getting lost. But I realized this wasn’t about me. Yes, I was stupid to not look more closely to find my own son on the field. Sure, some people didn’t let 9-year-olds move about on their own, but this one begged and pleaded and took off without me all the time.
No. I realized in the moment that this was a hard but important lesson for Oscar to learn, the lesson of what to do when lost.
He listened as he sat there, chest heaving, refusing to go in and play the game. He tuned in to my advice to keep his wits about him and think, to look patiently for his coach, or to borrow a phone to call.
Panicking, mentally and physically, had only served to screw up the bike and make the situation worse, right? He nodded. And not taking the time to breathe could be really, really harmful, did he know that? He just stared at me, still red in the face from full-blown hyperventilating.
I know he tuned in because weeks later he used the advice when, again, he set out alone and didn’t quite know where he was going (this time not because of me.) I got a call from the girl at the corner deli as I set out to meet him. “Mom, hi. Um, where is that playground again?” he asked calmly.
I told him where to meet me and I waited there a bit before he came. When finally he arrived, he told me he’d misunderstood our meeting spot, but then he’d stopped to think and he had remembered.
“Great!” I said. “See? You can always find your way.”
I pointed the direction of the playground and he waved to me as he took off again on his own. I smiled.