Last weekend my wife Kate and I took the kids to Botanica, Wichita’s Botanical Gardens, for their annual event “Bootanica.” My mother got tickets for us and being the awesome grandmother she is, offered to come with us so she could help keep an eye on the kids. So we all piled into the car and headed downtown along with every other family in Wichita. Botanica does an amazing job creating family friendly events, recently opened a kids garden, and is a fantastic place to take the boys when they want to run and Kate and I want to talk. Max (3) is used to going to Botanica and running around while Dodge (1) is still pretty attached to Kate and I. Max had no idea how crowded the event would be and announced in the car that he wanted to play alone at the garden. We explained it was going to be crowded but I don’t think that meant much to him. Once we got there it quickly became obvious, the combination of amazing weather and this awesome event had turned out a record crowd. We chose to go at lunchtime to wear the kids out for a good afternoon nap. As we walked in kids were being carried out by parents as the kids screamed and wailed…I knew this would be my fate soon. Max doesn’t transition well between activities, especially events and most definitely at nap time. I smiled to each parent walking past me in the opposite direction with their kids flailing, the kind of smile that’s parent code for “I feel ya buddy, I’ll be in the same boat soon.” They smiled back. Parent code…we’re all in the same boat. Then Max saw the activities and went barreling in! Here we go.
At first he was always within arms reach…just playing alone. He didn’t want to be touched or talked to, he wanted to be alone. However, every few seconds he’d glance over to make sure I was near by…then he’d go back to whatever he was doing…alone. He got a temporary bug tattoo, saw an owl, pet a snake, made a mask, danced to music, bounced in the bouncy-house, ate snacks, got candy, and of course…ran. As the day went on Max started running ahead of us and then, as if by some magical force field, would stop about 50 feet away and wait for us to catch up before taking off running again. He took me through the kids garden where we played on drums, climbed forts, dug in the sand, and rendezvoused with Kate, Dodge and my mom. We ran into old friends, friends from school, and so on. They all asked, “Where’s Max” To which I would look around and then say, “Over there.” …and sure enough, there he was, playing near by. There was a moment when I followed him over to an activity and then couldn’t find him…for a second I thought I’d lost him but then there he was next to Kate. I dismissed my emotions as me being the classic nervous self that I am and thought back to when we took Max to the Arboretum.
At the Arboretum I had intentionally let Max run out of site because I wanted him to know he could play alone. I wanted him to know there are places where parents are not watching over you, and when kids know that, it inspires a whole different style of play. However, that was the Arboretum on a day when hardly anyone was there. This was Botanica and it was packed to the gills! Oddly enough, the night before Kate was telling Coach Marshall about how scared she got having Max and Dodge at the Final Four when the Shockers went two seasons ago. We put more tags on Max’s clothing than a checked suitcase and even wrote our phone number on his arm! Kate panicked at the Georgia Dome and shouted to me, “What were we thinking bringing them here?!” My answer of course was, “So they can always say they were here!” I panicked too. Everything worked out fine.
At Bootanica, it was time to get the little guys to bed so we scooped up Dodge and started ushering Max away from the kids garden. We were at one end of the gardens and had to make our way through the kids garden, through the mob where the activities were, past the dance area, past the main gardens, and back to the front gate. Max charged ahead. Then, for the second time that day…I thought I lost him. He’s tall for his age. He was wearing a bright blue KC Royals hat and a neon orange hoodie with Dusty Crophopper on the front. He was also wearing a bright white kato mask he’d made at one of the activity stations earlier. Then…I saw him. I’ll never forget it. He was standing right in the middle of the path where all the paths came together. He was staring at the rock climbing wall he had asked to try earlier but I had told him he was too little for. Next to him was the bouncy-house he had played in earlier and not wanted to leave. He was this little blue and orange dot in a sea of older kids and adults as traffic swelled around him. He was about 300 feet ahead of me and at 6’4″ I could clearly see him from above the crowd. Then…I couldn’t. I assumed he was making his way back towards us but for the first time that day, I couldn’t see that blue hat and orange sweatshirt. I hustled my pace and got down to the exact spot he’d been standing in when I saw him from the top of the hill. He was nowhere to be seen. Having been fooled twice that day the literal first thought I had was, “That little shit…I’m gonna give him an earful when I get my hands on him.” I waited and looked around. No Max. Kate and my mom caught up to me and asked if I could see him. I couldn’t. The crowd seemed to get louder and swirl more. “I’ll bet he’s in the bouncy-house again!” I said as I walked over. No Max. The crowd got louder again and swirled more. I looked to Kate…she looked to me…and the panic set in. I jumped up on a bench and looked through the crowd. “Max!” I shouted. No Max. Something wasn’t right.
After a few minutes passed we decided to split up. Kate stayed at the foot path intersection with Dodge while my mom went back to check the kids gardens. I traced our path back the way we’d come. I hustled over to the owl and snake display. No Max. I checked the only activity center we hadn’t visited yet. No Max. I jogged to the dance area and surveyed the sea of kids. No Max. Oh God…I’ve lost my child! Suddenly I thought of the movie “Minority Report” and that terrible scene where Tom Cruise loses his son in plain sight at the public pool…and never finds him again. “Maaaax!” I called out, scaring the kids around me. Then I thought the worst thought I’d ever had…I thought of all those crying kids at the front gate being carried out by their dads. What if one of those dads wasn’t the kid’s dad. What if that was some stranger kidnapping a kid and the kid was crying. Who’d know? Who could tell the difference between a kid crying because he didn’t want to leave and a kid crying because he’d been stolen. Stolen! A human being! My son! My Max! My heart leapt out of my throat as I sprinted to the front gate. No stranger was going to drag my son out the front gate screaming! I was going to put Botanica on lockdown! I reached the gate and surveyed the area, “You seen a little kid in a Royals hat come through here?” I asked the ticket-taker at the gate. She shot me a look as if to say, “Buddy, the Royals are in the post season for the first time in 29 years…what kid isn’t wearing a Royals hat?” Then, I caught a glimpse of something orange and blue out of the corner of my eye.
I found max alone by a fountain pretending to be a race car…doing laps. I must have had some crazy look on my face because when I grabbed him he took one look at me and started crying. My brain went back to that place where I was going to give him an earful when I found him. Well…I found him…and all I could do was hold him and try not to cry. I rocked him back and forth as I said over and over and over, “I thought I’d lost you, I thought I’d lost you, I thought I’d lost you…” Then I think Max was rocking me more than I was rocking him. Max had only been alone for about 10 minutes. He thought it was pretty cool. I wanted to vomit I was so scared. I called Kate’s cell and we all reunited. Max was overtired. I tried to explain why what he had done was wrong but he just started crying…so we tabled the conversation for later. I carried Max out the front gate, he cried because he didn’t want to go, other parents gave me the nod of understanding…parent code. I couldn’t stop thinking about those people I had nodded to on my way in…and the kids they were carrying…and how the kids were crying…and how it all seemed so normal just a few hours ago.
That night after dinner I told Max that not everyone is nice. I told him that not everywhere is safe. I told him that there are bad people in the world and sometimes bad things happen. It pained me to tell him this, especially during a time when he’s struggling with a deep fear of the dark at bedtime. We talked about why running away was so dangerous, why I was so scared, and why he shouldn’t do it again. We talked about strangers and agreed that if someone he doesn’t know tries to take him somewhere, he’s supposed to scream as loud as he can and run straight to someone he knows. “Stranger Danger.” Old school…but it works. I have no idea if it makes sense to him…but sadly we’ve reached the point in life where it needs to be part of the conversation, and it makes me miss living in Bolton Landing where everyone knows everyone. Wichita is a little big city. It isn’t big like when we lived in New York City and it isn’t small like the town of 5,000 Kate grew up in. Its about 400,000 people. Most people know people here and the strangers are pretty hospitable. Wichita has its rough spots, rougher than some may think. I was born here just after the BTK killings slowed in 1977, and then ramped up again in 1985. My house now is actually 1 block from BTK’s first victims in 1974. The Wichita Massacre was only 14 years ago…and still haunts me when I drive past that neighborhood. There are bad people out there and at some point the only thing between my children and them will be what I’ve taught my children.
This story had a happy ending. We found Max playing alone by a fountain. However, the mere possibility that it could have had a terrible ending has rattled me to the core and changed my view on parenting. I despised hover parents, and to ensure I never became one I gave my kids free reign to run free in the Kansas sun…to play without the watchful eyes of parents. Now? I think I’ll let them get a little older before they’re ever alone, till then they can have the illusion of being alone…and that’s fine by me.
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