Once, when Chelsea was two, she wandered off. We lived in Long Beach at the time and were hanging out at a lazy afternoon barbecue in a mid-upscale neighborhood a couple blocks from the beach. Bougainvillea cascaded down beachy bungalows, more statuesque houses boasted manicured lawns bordered by well-kept flowers of all sorts. So at least we lost her in a nice place.
The guys stood around on the driveway, making jokes about one thing or another, while we wives and girlfriends laughed with each other about how silly the guys were and Chelsea giggled at the adults. I’d stepped into the house to collect our things. Scooping up my purse and the diaper bag took only a minute. When I walked back outside, Chelsea was gone. Nobody had noticed. We all panicked, teamed up and set off in different directions. My heart had stopped. My baby. Alone! Someone would grab her, pull her into a car, speed away. I would never see her again. I’d lost my child.
We called for her, looked between houses, asked people on porches. Hours passed – no, not hours, but each second extended an eternity. I had fallen off a cliff. The salty air crushed my lungs. My stomach twisted. What sort of awful mother loses her child like this?
I put one foot in front of the other, eyes searching. And then we saw her. On a porch with a couple adults whose concern manifested in scolding me as I arrived in front of them, out of breath from racing to my daughter. I burst into tears as I hugged Chelsea to me. These people were right. I was the worst.
When your children are small, you are supposed to know where they are. And you usually do. At the end of your arm. Singing in a circle at school. Warming up with catch at baseball practice. Staying over at a friend’s house. Sleeping, teddy bears tucked under an arm.
Then the teddy bears give way to boyfriends and girlfriends at some point, and you know they’re “out,” but not always where. Field trips to Ashland are replaced by exchange programs in Germany. You know the name of the town she’s in, the names of the people she’s staying with, but you have little idea of where the day takes her.
They move out, move back, move out again. Sometimes you only know they’re in town because they call to say they need to do laundry, to shower. Your son rolls his eyes at you, tells you to stop sending texts asking if he’s alive. “Why don’t you just wait for a phone call saying I’m dead?” he lobs, walking out the door, as if it’s a joke, this naming of your worst fear out loud for God and all to hear.
Not that you believe in God, because why would you? You weren’t raised in church and you’re fine with that because although you love stories – you read out loud to your children until they were teenagers – you prefer science and the kind of magic you can see, touch, breathe. The wonder of the redwoods. The undulation of the ocean. A particularly stirring sunrise.
But you understand when one girlfriend tells you she prays nightly for her children’s safety and another describes how she envisions her children wrapped in cloaks of golden, angelic protection. For if man had not already invented God as a way to explain the world, mothers would have done so in hopes of safeguarding their children within it.