As a parent, I can't help but worry about my kids. I worry that they'll be safe, that no one will harm them or lead them afoul. I worry that they will become hurt, injured, or worse, that some debilitating illness will befall them.
But one of the greatest fears a parent can face is losing a child.
In 2008, our family had a wonderful summer vacation. It was our third year visiting The Gentle Island, PEI. We had perfect weather, with plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures. Visits to Cavendish Beach, Summerside, and Charlottetown. Red sands, the great food of the PEI Preserve Company in New Glasgow, and the Indian River Festival.
PEI is one of our favourite vacation destinations.
In the summer of 2008, we took a full week, as we did the previous two years, to see Canada's smallest province, after which we ventured to do some whale watching in St. Andrew's by the Sea, New Brunswick. It was our first adventure for seeing whales, and we marvelled at the sight of Minke whales (we saw only their backs breaching: nothing like when we saw whales in Provincetown, MA).
To top off our vacation, we headed to Québec City to take in some of the 400th anniversary festivities. We saw the changing of the guard at the Citadel, dressed in 17th-century clothes, and took in some amazing food.
To top off the celebrations, in the hours leading to our departure, we stood along the Grande Allée, near the Concorde Hotel, to watch the Rally of the Giants parade, a procession of 12-foot or taller... um... giants. The parade started just around the corner from the Concorde and headed along the Grande Allée into the old, fortified part of the city.
Our family first stood along Place Montcalm, a boulevarded, dead-end street that ended at the Plains of Abraham (you know, the site of that famous battle between the English and the French, the one for which some Québeckers are still sore?), and watched the towering figures begin their march. It was a great location for the kids because most of the crowds were along the main road and so our girls were able to see the giants clearly.
It was a long procession, with many figures, and as the parade moved on, the bathrooms in the hotel called. First, my wife took our youngest with her while our eldest stayed with me. Upon her return, she suggested that we move to the main road, the Grande Allée, to join in the crowds. We found a place, right on the corner of Place Montcalm and the Grande Allée, where the kids could peek through the fences and we could see over the heads of those right at the barriers.
It was at this point, once we were settled, that I told the girls that I needed to use the bathroom in the Concorde. It was my first time in this hotel since I stayed there as a guest, in grade 12, as part of a music trip with my school band. Decades had elapsed since I had stepped inside, and as I used the facilities I was reminded of that wonderful trip.
I returned to the street, ready to tell my wife the story of my time in this hotel, when she asked me, "Where is DD1? She was with you."
"No, she wasn't," I said, "I left the three of you here."
"She followed after you," she said. It was possible. DD1 had stayed with me while my wife and DD2 went into the hotel to use the washroom. DD1 may have needed to go at the same time as I did and followed without calling to me.
I retraced my steps to the washrooms and waited outside the ladies' room, expecting her to come out at any moment. However, after about five minutes, I decided to ask the next woman exiting the washroom if she had seen a young girl, seven years old. The woman searched in the ladies' room, but came out empty-handed.
Sarah had finished and returned to Lori, somehow escaping my view, I told myself, and so I joined my wife, only to be met once again with, "Where's DD1?"
"Could she have returned to where we were previously watching the parade?" I asked. "I'll go back there; you search the sidewalk here."
Sarah was nowhere along Place Montcalm. I was starting to worry. I searched the lobby of the hotel, asking anyone if they had seen a young girl. I then went back to Lori, hoping that she was successful.
"We were standing along the barriers," Lori said, "when I noticed there was a ledge along the hotel, from which the girls could stand and get a clear view of the parade. I lifted DD2 and told DD1 to follow, just as you were heading into the washroom. When I placed DD2 on the ledge, I turned to lift DD1, but she was gone."
Gone, she said. Vanished. Taken, perhaps. All I knew was that my first-born child was nowhere to be found.
The last of the giants had passed, moved well down the street, and the crowd was beginning to dissipate. This is when I began to panic. In a tight crowd, it's hard to move with a young child who is unwilling to go. With the people thinning out, it would be easier.
Throughout our trip, we instructed the kids on what to do, should they get lost. They knew my cell-phone number and my wife's. They were to find a mother with children or a police officer, preferably a woman, in a car. The kids were not to go with anyone, but were to find a phone and call us.
As soon as I couldn't find DD1, my phone was in my hand, ready to receive a call.
"We have to find a police officer," I said, my voice wavering, my eyes searching for a small child and someone in a uniform. Many of the people in the crowd were making their way east, and so we followed the flow. Moving slowly and always looking back, on the chance we were moving in the wrong direction.
After a couple of blocks, I spied a police car. I was unsure whether I would be able to speak, afraid that my voice would falter as I explained that I lost a child. Walking up to the car, I could see that an elderly man was leaning into the passenger-side window, conversing with the officer. Having a chat after a lovely parade, no doubt. But I was going to interrupt that conversation, disrupt that chat.
I had to find my little girl.
The elderly gentleman saw me approach, saw the half-crazed look of urgency in my eyes, and began to speak. He was speaking in French, and though my ability to converse in the language isn't great, my senses were heightened and my comprehension was keen.
"Are you looking for a little girl?" he asked me.
"Oui," I almost cried.
"It's okay," he reassured me, "she's with my wife."
At almost the same time, my phone rang. Answering it as I followed the man, another male voice came on the phone; this time, speaking in English. "Hello, I am with your daughter. She is looking for you." As the words came through, people parted, and I saw a man, on his cell phone, with an elderly woman standing next to him, and next to her, DD1.
I hung up the phone and walked quickly toward DD1, who in turn broke from the adults and ran towards me, jumping into my arms. Both of us were shaking so violently that I thought we would come apart.
The elderly lady could not speak English, but explained to us that DD1 had spoken to them in perfect French and had explained the situation. They had no cell phone, so the wife tried to find someone who did while her husband looked for a police officer.
We had also told the kids that if they were lost and couldn't find a mother with kids that people who looked like grandparents would also do.
So, what happened to DD1? A bit of bad timing and coincidence.
When my wife moved to place DD2 on the ledge of the hotel for a better view, she called to DD1 to follow her. DD1 delayed for maybe a second or two to watch a particular giant, and when she turned she saw a blond woman in a blue sweater head down the sidewalk, and she followed.
The woman, though she was about the same size, the same hair colour, and wearing the same colour of sweater as my wife, was not her. As DD1 ran to try and catch up with the woman, she couldn't understand why the woman was moving so quickly and wasn't looking back to see if DD1 was following. By the time DD1 realized that this woman wasn't her mother, she was several blocks away from where she started, and didn't know how to get back.
In all, almost a half hour elapsed from the time I had left to use the hotel washroom and my wife had lost sight of DD1. When you lose a child in unfamiliar territory, you first convince yourself that everything is okay, that there is a perfect explanation for where the child has gone. When that explanation fails, you wonder what other possibilities have been missed.
By the time panic kicks in, you ask yourself how you can be such a horrible parent to let this happen to your child. You tell yourself that you will do anything to get your child back. At one point, when I thought that someone may have led DD1 off, I was ready to kill.
As a parent, you always worry about your child. But so far, the greatest fear came the day I lost my first-born.