The routine is the same each day. Nik precedes me to the front door by mere steps and waits while I pick up his backpack. He carries his speech device, which weighs just under ten percent of his entire body weight, so I take the backpack. He prances with unfettered joy as he waits for me to unlock the door; he loves going to school. I allow him to walk to the car ahead of me where he waits by the passenger door in the back. It’s a routine so deeply ingrained that we don’t even think about it.
Chalk it up to the sensory aftermath of Irene, or the seizure medications which are playing tricks with his brain and body. Blame it on the moon and stars, the planetary alignment. For whatever reason, our routine is off today. Nik darts past me as I grab his device off the dining room table. He is eager to go to school; the new year has started and he already adores his teacher. Today is gym day —his favorite activity. Not surprising for my boy of perpetual motion and boundless energy.
I reach the door at the same time he does. As I reach for my keys, I realize I don’t have the backpack. In the instant it takes to turn and pick it up, the door is opened and Nik darts out. “Wait for Mama, Baby; I’ve got to lock the door. I’ll be right there; go stand by the car.” The same script we run every single day. I’m moving as fast as I can so I can help Nik get into his car seat; if I dawdle, he will climb into the front seat and start playing with the radio and the gear shift. Not such a big deal, but today we are running a smidge late and I don’t relish the added hassle.
Quickly, I pull the door closed behind me and look to where Nik is standing by the back door of the car. The emptiness of the space takes a moment to sink in. I scan the car to see if he’s already inside; it’s empty and the doors are still closed. “Nikolas? Where are you, baby?” I call in a voice I think I recognize; it’ is slightly shriller than normal. I turn and scan down the street; Nik knows his Nanny and Granddaddy live just six doors down.
There is no sign of him.
Instantaneously, I am engulfed —mind, body and soul— by a blinding, breath-stealing panic. I begin to scream in earnest, “NIKOLAS! NIKOLAS ERIK!! Where are you, Baby?”
I throw everything I am holding on the ground. The contents of my purse tumble out; the water bottle from Nik’s backpack goes rolling to the end of the driveway. I don’t spare a thought for the speech device as it crashes to the ground; it costs more than my car is worth, but I don’t think twice.
Gasping, screaming, my heart racing and my stomach clenching. “NIKOLAS!!! Baby, come here, baby!” NIKOLAS!!!!!”
The neighbors are not home so I know he didn’t run to their house; they would know to bring him to me anyway. In a sickening instant, I think about the hurricane-swollen creek behind our house. Nik is obsessed with water and he is fast enough to have gotten around the quad of townhouses we live in. Sobbing hysterically, I am still screaming his name as I take off running to the side of the house. My throat is tight and raw and I can’t see.
A loud crash behind me captures my attention, stopping me in my tracks. I turn to see that our garage door is open about a foot. Oh my God, the motorcycle! I race toward the garage, screaming his name. I don’t expect him to answer, but I cannot stop myself just the same. I hit my knees on the black top and look under the door.
I can’t see him.
The sudden flood of possible permutations of lethal dangers in the garage fills my lungs, displacing all air. I cannot breathe. Time simultaneously stands still —allowing all those possibilities to cross my mind—and accelerates; each moment he is missing feels like it’s been ten minutes long.
Jumping to my feet, I punch in the code for the door opener. My hands are shaking so badly I can’t get it right. I am too large to squeeze under the small opening under the door. I fly to my car and open the door just enough to reach the remote opener on the visor. As I hit the button, I pray Nik is not near the door when it starts moving. He is not.
As the door lifts enough for me to get under, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the light. I can see my husband’s motorcycle still standing where it should be. My son is not pinned beneath it as I feared. I look toward the plethora of lethal garden chemicals and dangerously sharp implements he sees his daddy use outside on a regular basis. He is nowhere near them, nowhere in sight.
Panic and fear are rising with the bile in my throat.
The water! If he’s gone there I may be too late. As I turn to leave the garage, I bargain with God to allow my too-large body to move quickly enough to keep my baby safe. If I run through the house I might reach the back yard before Nik can get into serious danger.
Another crash, not as loud as the first, draws my attention further back inside the garage—toward the fire door leading into the house. It is locked with two deadbolts so I know he cannot get into the house. I hear a giggle from around a corner. I look beyond the metal storage shelving, afraid of what I might find.
There, on the concrete, sits my boy.
Oblivious to both the dangers around him and my abject panic, he is happily playing with one of the few things in the garage which can do him no serious harm if he were able to get it open…a can of cooking spray. I suppose he likes the feel of the cool can in his hands, the sound of the contents shaking inside. The bright red cap. Thankfully, he doesn’t have the grip strength to remove the cap—the color of which must be what caught his attention.
I didn’t think it was possible to shake any more than I am or to lose my already-absent ability to breathe; it is unavoidable. I hit my knees and scoop him into my arms, sobbing and kissing his little face, his soft brown hair. “Baby, don’t ever scare Mama like that again!”
I know he doesn’t fully understand; to him, it was just an adventure. He was going about his routine just like normal when —Ooh! Shiny!— there it was, a space just begging him to slip through into the darkness to explore.
I carry him to the car and strap him into his seat, thankful for the familiarity of the routine which doesn’t require thought or sight; I have neither as I am now sobbing and gasping. Shaking uncontrollably from the adrenaline surging through my body. I collapse against the car door as I close it, closing him safely inside. Minutes later, I gather the items strewn about the driveway and we head to school.
As I drive, on autopilot, Nik chatters happily in the back seat about “gym, ABC, Ms. Margaret, school.”
I hand Nik off to his para and tell her simply that we are late because Nik ran off this morning. I give Nik extra hugs and kisses and send him off.
I sit in my car in the school parking lot and breakdown.
It could have been worse. So.Much.Worse. The knowledge of which has changed my world. Irrevocably.