As the great Alan Moore proved in Watchmen, the best way to get started is to tell a sad story. Here is the story of the time my mother believed I was gone forever.
Half-days are the greatest gift anyone could ask for. On any given day, you wake up at the usual time, get dressed, eat breakfast, trudge to work or school, and bide your time until the closing bell rings and you get between five and seven hours before you have to go to sleep and do it all again. Half-days tease your mind with the same dull beginning and then surprise you with around three extra hours before the day is through. Today, those extra hours are usually put toward reading or drinking. Often both. In elementary school, they meant going to a friends house and eating grilled cheeses outside and playing games with the amazement that, had this been any other day, you would still be embarrassing yourself in front of the class for lacking the ability to do long division.
One Friday in the Spring of 1998, my mother dropped me off for school and gave me the usual reminder that she would pick me up at the back entrance to the campus right after school to avoid the traffic caused by our overcrowded California public school’s bus lane. Barely listening, I sprinted away from the car, down a long set of stairs and to the playground before the warning bell rang for us to get to homeroom.
Mrs. Sentell greeted us at a quarter after eight and we settled into our seats. I couldn’t sit still. Today was going to be great but not until around 3 o’ clock when my Little League team was going to an Anaheim Angels game with box seats provided by our team’s resident rich kid. It wasn’t until halfway through imagining my miraculous catch of a foul ball hit by Damien Easley or Jim Edmonds that I heard the murmurs about what we were doing with our half-day. I had completely forgotten. I never told my mom. What was I going to do? As the day moved forward, a lump planted itself in my throat and I fought back tears.
This has been a theme in my life. Between the ages of five and fifteen (when I received my first cell phone), the idea that I did not know how I was going to get home caused me uncontrollable amounts of stress.
At noon, Mrs. Franburger (unfortunate name for an elementary school teacher) dismissed us for the day and I sullenly trudged away toward the back entrance. There was three hours until my mother was going to show up and I started to nibble at the Celeste Pizza For One that I packed for lunch while reading an Animorphs book. Tobias was trapped as a bird with the yergs and his two hours were slowly counting down before he’d never be able to be human again. I felt my mind wander away from the sadness I was feeling when I heard my name.
Jake Miller (name changed) was a friend/enemy throughout most of my childhood. He was at once my most loyal friend and most ruthless bully depending on what mood he was in and wether his father had decided to hit him that day. His mother was a homely but warm woman who looked (even to a 10 year old) like she had kids just a little too late in life. Seeing me alone under a tree, looking a little lost, she called me over to their mini-van. I explained my situation to her and she offered to take me to their house where I could call my mom and get picked up. They had one stop to pick up Jake’s sister at the primary school. This sounded like a perfect plan to me. My mother wouldn’t even think to pick me up for two and a half hours by which time I’d call her from the Miller’s house while eating a grilled cheese.
This brings up a blind spot in every young child’s mind. Parents talk. A lot. On that Friday, my mom had gone for a walk with my classmate’s mom, chatted with a school administrator about a volunteering opportunity, and spoken to three other Crescent Intermediate mothers who had kids on my baseball team. Long story short, my mother knew that this was a half-day.
Ten minutes after I hopped into the Miller’s car, a white Toyota Land Cruiser – the car I would eventually be driving to high school – pulled up to the back entrance. My mom waited a few minutes but started to get worried as she glanced around the deserted campus. Illegally parked in a loading zone, my mother sprinted away from the car and down the long set of stairs to the playground to find her youngest son. I wasn’t there. While she searched around the playground, I was on the monkey bars three miles away waiting for Jake’s little sister. My mom ran to the main office where the administrator she had spoken to that morning was sitting at the front desk. Tears in her eyes, she stumbled through an explanation of what happened. The administrator – who had seen all three of the Wolfson boys come through the school – made an announcement over the intercom for me to come to the main office. The announcement echoed through the campus before making it back to the office unheard. I was gone. I was gone forever. My mom would never see me again. The skinny blonde one who looked so much like the man she married would never give her another hug.
Three months before this happened, two kids in our cul de sac narrowly avoided being kidnapped by a man in a brown Nissan. We weren’t allowed to play outside for weeks and the neighborhood watch had nightly meetings to get updates on how to protect your children from this very scenario.
At 1:30 we pulled into the Miller’s driveway. Jake and I threw a baseball around for a few minutes with our backpacks still on. Mrs. Miller brought me a phone and I dialed my home. No answer. I dialed my mom’s cell phone. My mom picked up on the first ring and sobbed “HAVE YOU SEEN NATHAN?”
Silence followed by ever more powerful tears. “THANK GOD! Oh my God, where have you been? I was so scared. Sweetie, where are you?”
I explained the story, scared to death about how much trouble I was going to be in when I got home. Her voice was a combination of fear, pain, and relief. The only time I’ve felt more physically unsettled by my mother’s voice was at my grandmother’s funeral as they shoveled the first bit of dirt onto the strongest, smartest woman any of us had ever met.
Fifteen minutes later, the white Land Cruiser screeched to a stop in the driveway and my mom came in. Her eyes were read, her hair was a mess, and she was still clutching a damp tissue covered in mascara. There has never been nor will there ever be a hug quite like that one. It started as a tight clump of relief, anger, and leftover pain and fear. All that melted away until all that was left was a mother and child. The most primal tie we will ever have. I felt closer to my mother in this 15-30 second hug than I ever have then or since. The fifteen minutes between the most upsetting phone call of my life and this hug were wretched. The lump in my throat from earlier that day returned with several friends. My stomach burned and the grilled cheese felt undeserved. I had hurt the woman who gave me life by making her think that life had been taken away.
The drive home was steeped in released tension. I opened the windows to let out the smell of tears both fresh and stale. My mom, a former teacher, jumped on the learning opportunity and discussed what to do in case this ever happened again. At the end of the lesson, I apologized for the 300th time and she said simply, “as long as I never lose you again.” Those are the last words we have spoken about this event.
One thought on “Start with something sad…”
Nate, this was a beautifully written story. The imagery was extremely powerful (yeah, I got choked up…) and I’m almost afraid of your mom reading it because of how easy you made it to relive. Can’t wait to read the next one.