At times I think about those families that have nine or ten kids – or that television family with nineteen –and I wonder about the mothers. Some people would surmise that they would worry less, because you just can’t worry that much, but worry, like love, multiplies, it doesn’t max out. There are mornings when I wake up and take the tally of my four. I’ll settle my mind on each of them and decide where they are on my crazy worry meter.
I think mothers of ten kids do a similar tally – it just keeps them in bed longer in the morning or awake further into the night. Our second child, Cole, has been on my worry list often enough, but moved up to the numero uno spot when he decided to travel alone, circling half way around the globe to New Zealand.
When Cole first left home at age eighteen, to have his bohemian snowboarder experience working as a lift operator in Whistler, B.C., he told us that staff meetings were held during which the kids were, according to my son, reminded to eat fruit or take vitamin C. It was a true comfort that his employers were being mommy substitutes and taking some responsibility for the hundreds of young people, like Cole, working for the hill. The resort also had a web site that I discovered that listed rules and regulations for the resort staff as well as upcoming staff meetings. When Cole first proposed his six month trip to New Zealand I wanted just such a web site. Not quite twenty-year-olds traveling alone in New Zealand, it would say, must abide by these safety rules, and while on the job (of being a young traveler) should remember to eat their kiwi. Of course, in this fantasy of mine staff housing would be provided and someone would be in charge of my son’s experience.
Late one rainy afternoon, just as dusk was settling, Cole called home all the way from Down Under amazed that he had cell service because, he said, he was in the middle of nowhere trying to hitch a ride. I could hear the echo of his heavy footsteps along the road. Feeling the great distance between us with a heavy heart, I begged him to please stop hitching, telling him I’d lend him money to cover the bus fare. He told me again that EVERYONE hitch hikes there. It wasn’t like at home, he said. There just weren’t buses. He was chatty, which was unusual because despite his talkative nature in person, like so many guys, he just isn’t a phone talker, so I felt he was lonely for me, or family, or just company the way I was that dreary day. I could hear the wind in his cell phone as he told me about the ridiculous distance he was trying to cover in an attempt to get to a job interview at a resort miles and miles and miles away. I don’t know if it was dark where he was, but I imagined a gray sky as he asked, in a voice rising above the wind, how everyone was? He started to tell me about the group of travelers he’d lived with and how New Zealanders eat pie, every type of pie; meat pie, fruit pie, vegetable pie, and right then we lost the connection. Cole, I called into the phone, Cole… and I imagined him doing the same, Mom? Mom?
I quickly called two friends to go for a therapeutic walk, but neither was home. I called my husband and our daughter, Lily, but got both of their voicemail. I tried hard to think of all the amazing things Cole had told me about New Zealand, how beautiful it was, how the people are as friendly as everyone has always said they were, how the place was full of Canadians like him traveling and boarding and eating pie. I tried to imagine one of those pie eating, stupendously friendly people picking him up and fulfilling his need to chat. But all I could think of, of course, was Cole standing on the highway having lost the connection to home.
That made me think of the time we lost him when he was just a little boy. It had been a spring night, and not dreary at all, but rather clear and full of the promise of summer. When I told six-year-old Cole that he could go meet his friends a few houses up the street on his bike, I was under the impression that it was far earlier then it actually was.
Suddenly the light coming into the house shifted from a reflection of dusk to nightfall, and I was alarmed to realize it was past eight and Cole hadn’t come in. After shouting his name from the stoop and calling our neighbor’s homes, I became frantic screaming at my other three to help me, and then racing to the car and circling the nearest blocks, before phoning my sister and asking her if she thought I should call the police.
I dialed 911. The operator wanted me to describe his clothing. Panic was changing to hysteria and the 911 operator began to treat me like a woman on the edge. She told me to stay in the house until the police arrived and in a strained voice I refused. “I have to find my kid,” I said. “I have to go find him.” Rushing outside to meet the patrol cars I was shocked to see the street filled with people and cars and bicycles. Without being asked the neighbors had organized a search. People were knocking on doors, motorists and bicyclists were being sent to further points. The description of a six-year-old blond boy in a jean jacket was being given to all who passed by.
The officers turned on their flashlights and sent me back into the house, “Look everywhere, places you’d think he’d never go, in every nook and cranny.” The streets were ringing with Cole’s name. I never stopped yelling it inside the house.
I don’t know what world he was in. Why he was oblivious to all this? Obeying directions I took one more look in his room and found him, curled up tight, hidden under a pillow and a blanket, in a far, dark corner beneath his bed. My insides stopped rattling, tears flowed down my cheeks, I reached for his sleeping body and tried to imagine how many people were now outside hunting for him.
Aside from deep gratitude I felt incredibly embarrassed for several days, sticking close to home and assuming that despite people’s assurances otherwise, they really were all talking about that woman with four kids, and her husband always gone, and how she couldn’t even keep track of them. Cole and I had a few important talks and more rules were laid down.
I vowed to keep better track of them, to pay more attention to what was going on around me. I believe I decided that for my own mental health what I needed to do was take them all into bed with me, eight-year old Zoë could bring her books and Hudson, just four then, could amuse us with his belly laugh giggles. At two-years-old Lily’s favourite place was our bed anyway. The important idea was to keep my kids close for as long as I possibly could. Their dad could bring us food and drink, like a protective bird bringing food to the nest. So how did it happen, not so much later that I was in Calgary, same house, newer bed, and my second kid, the one who had caused me to want to keep them within hands reach, had left the bed, room, house, city, country and gone all the way down under to call me and lose our connection from a stretch of highway in New Zealand? Where, oh where, did that put him on my worry meter?