By Rebecca Martin
“Excuse me, I’ve lost my daughter. She is wearing a purple dress with white polka-dots and white leggings. Her name is Maeve, M-A-E-V-E and she is 4 years old,” I said it in a rush, but I was so clear and precise in the midst of my panic, the security guard in the Jet Blue terminal in LAX looked surprised that I had left him with nothing to ask—as if I was following a script. And I sort of was, because the scene where I lose my daughter in a vast place where she could slip away forever, was well-rehearsed.
After four years of being Maeve’s mother, I know the lost child procedures everywhere from Disneyland to our YMCA. I know to expect that the rest of the staff is instantly alerted, in the larger places via earpiece, and that all exits are secured. At home, I have my own protocol when she doesn’t respond to my call: A survey of our fenced-in backyard from the kitchen window; a run to the garage, including a scan of the rafters I have found her trying to reach in the past, and then a full throttle run out the front door, crying her name until I reach our street’s intersection with a larger one. Sometimes, I race back to our house breathless and find her in the corner of the playroom, a tiara on her head and a dinosaur in her hand, her full brown brows barely crumpled in confusion at my relief to see her.
One might think I am a negligent mother, and one might be right if they were talking about bed times or table manners. But I am not that bad about losing my children. Maeve gives me the slip. The LAX episode began with me locking her, my son, James, 2, and myself in the bathroom stall. Just as I was in a position from which I could not quickly recover, she put a soft pink hand on the door latch, turned her head to look up at me from under a falling lock of chestnut hair and smiled a challenge. Then she turned the latch and used her still toddler-solid legs to shoot out of the stall and then the bathroom, her fuzzy pink wheelie bag bouncing after her while I struggled to recover. I looked first where I had found her 5 minutes earlier, chatting away on a pay phone. Then I circled the restaurants, before I approached the first uniformed person I saw.
After I briefed the guard, someone from behind me said, “I think your daughter is over there.” I saw nothing of the stranger but the tip of his finger that ended at Maeve, sitting next to a couple she did not know in the mid-century black vinyl airport lounge chairs, balancing her bag on her feet and looking up at the flight information on the screen overhead, as if she were a seasoned traveler in a Doris Day movie, where travel was just a delightful adventure. I yelled, “Maeve!” She looked at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re here too?”
I wanted to hug and kiss and scold and shake her, and say everything I have said before that made no difference, like, “you scared me!” and “I don’t want to lose you!” But she is unbothered by those things. She is not afraid of being lost. Her mother always manages to show up and spoil her fun, and besides, this is who she is.
The first time we unloaded the fuzzy pink bag from our car was at JFK a year earlier, when Maeve was three. I told her to stay in the car until I had the stroller arranged, but as soon as I turned, she launched herself from seat to sidewalk without a coat. She seized the wheelie bag and, without looking back, began to stride toward the terminal, dimpled elbows exposed to the February New York chill. “Maeve! Stop!” I yelled. She looked at me over her shoulder. Then Maeve, who still at three usually spoke in toddler phrases and gibberish, said, “Don’t worry. I won’t get lost.” Part of me was pleased at that moment. I had always wanted to give my children the world, and Maeve, for one, was ready to accept it. I love to watch her jump off the couch and run for the car yelling, “I do!” when I have only asked, “who wants to go to the store?” That she is game for any kind of going is a joy. However, the larger part of me was terrified that she would run off right then at JFK and figure out how to board a plane to parts unknown, because, unlike Maeve, I know what can go wrong.
Before I found her scanning the departures board in LAX, that is all I could think of—the risk: that she would find herself someplace where I could not help her. When I saw her, I was relieved of the fear that someone had taken her, but the fear that she would roam still gripped my heart and made me want to frighten her—to look her right in her calm-as-a-summer-sky blue eyes and lay it all out for her tough-love style, “You like to roam?! You know where roaming leads?! I’ll tell you … it leads to being 17-years-old and crying your eyes out in the bathroom of the Brussels airport because the people who were supposed to meet you did not show up after you waited for them for eight hours and a strange older man would not stop offering you a taste of his chocolate bar!” But I didn’t. She has never heard of Brussels and she is too young to realize that I lived a life before her, so I just said, “Come on!” and grabbed her wrist so tightly she cried, “Ow!”
As I walked the linoleum corridor to the baggage claim with Maeve’s hand clamped between mine and the handle of James’ stroller, I thought how routine this had become: Maeve running, me searching, our remorseless reunions. I was becoming used to it. Maybe she was breaking me in, preparing me for the calls from Brussels, or Damascus, or Timbuktu. Maybe the already dingy pink wheelie bag would end up covered in stickers and releasing clouds of dust from following her favorite band for a year. Maybe by the time she was ready to really see how far she could get, I would be ready to let her go.
Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Babble.com, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.
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