Warning: this post contains disturbing content, especially for parents. If you’re not up for it, be good to yourself and skip it. And just to be clear, Aviva and Pearl are snug in bed. But for a frightening ten minutes today, maybe it was even less, we lost Pearl.
We had gone to a brunch nearby with several other families who are interested in what we’re calling “Homeshuling” our kids: creating meaningful alternatives to traditional Hebrew school, exploring ways of learning with our kids and integrating the experience into our actual lives rather than dropping them off somewhere once a week, which is exactly what we do Monday through Friday by sending our children to public school.
While all the kids, at least a dozen, played in the backyard with a sitter, the adults sat in a circle, each introducing ourselves and sharing a little about our backgrounds and visions for the future. I could write a whole book on this subject – wait – I may in fact be writing a book on this subject (I am deep in the very messy, creative, confusing, compelling process of trying to figure that out). But for the moment, suffice it to say that it feels like we’re in the middle of the middle of a gradual transformation of the Burlington Jewish community, at least a slice of it, the one with young children and parents who are seeking meaningful, rich, relevant, engaging ways of being Jewish and, in the words of the Hillel movement, “doing Jewish with other Jews.”
So we had this great couple of hours, followed by kids playing more inside while the parents schmoozed a little and noshed and drank more coffee. And at some point, Greg and I caught each other’s eye and did that little raised eyebrow, slight nod thing that implies, “Ready?”
Aviva was teaching one of the other girls to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano when I gave her a head’s up. Then I looked around for Pearl. I didn’t see her in the living room, so I went into the other room where some of the three-year olds were playing on the floor together. No Pearl there either. I instantly felt a shift in my entire being; suddenly I was looking for Pearl. I went into the bathroom and looked behind the shower curtain, only to find clothes drying on a rack. I went upstairs, where I had never been, and poked my head into each of the bedrooms and closets, even knowing that it wouldn’t be like Pearl to hide that way.
At this point, I was panicked. Moving more quickly, adrenaline coursing through me, telling every adult I moved past, “I can’t find Pearl.” One by one, the other moms and dads stopped chatting with each other. Everyone’s attention turned to finding Pearl, which of course made the whole fact of not knowing where she was even scarier. Suddenly, it felt real. She was missing. Greg went out in the deep backyard, covered in leaves. He heard the tenor in my voice and I knew I should try to stay calm. I looked blankly at the shed, then out to the street, unable to fathom where she could be. I imagined her hurt or stuck somewhere, somehow. My mind didn’t so much go to the Worst Case Scenarios as it just kept confronting this awful, terrifying absence of her. It didn’t make any sense. My whole body was seized up, not knowing where she was.
And then – I don’t even remember quite how it came up or who remembered – somebody remembered that one of our friends, a friend who is like a sister to me, had taken Pearl to pick up her son, who was at the actual Hebrew School at the synagogue just a few blocks away.
Not only that, but apparently, she had asked me if Pearl could go with her and, apparently, I had said yes. Weirdly, I had no recollection of this conversation. I called her cell phone and asked breathlessly, heart still pounding, “Do you have Pearl?” She immediately answered that yes, she did. We talked for a few minutes until they pulled up in front of the house. There was Pearlie, in her green coat – I had just minutes before been recalling what she was wearing, a red elephant t-shirt, which pants?? – in a booster seat next to the window, happy to be along for the ride.
Afterward, our friends were all understanding, kind, and empathetic. I remembered the time Aviva fell down the basement stairs when she was a toddler, just starting to walk. The door had been open. I thought Greg was watching her and he thought I was watching her, and neither of us was watching. He was looking for ice skates and I was taking the trash out. She was unhurt. God knows – we knew – it could have been otherwise. She nursed and nursed and nursed, and I was so shaken and ashamed it took me three days to tell anyone. When I finally did, I told everybody, and then the stories just poured out. Everybody had a story. This is the stuff of shared experience, not shame.
This morning, once we knew Pearl’s whereabouts, I also felt very aware of how I had been approaching hysterical, much as I hate that word and the way it is hurled at women. But any woman who cannot find her child is warranted such a claim, and I didn’t feel the need to apologize so much as I felt like I’d been through something I could now know I had been through, if that makes any sense.
It took a couple of hours for the fear, the shakiness to wear off. The drop-off of adrenaline left me feeling a bit tired, stunned. I still couldn’t remember that part of the exchange with my friend. There is no question in my mind that she asked me and heard me say it was fine. Why I don’t remember, I’m not sure. Maybe I heard her say only the second part, that she was going to get her son, and I acknowledged her announcement with a nod. Or in the midst of so many people and voices, maybe I simply had not been all there. It doesn’t really matter now.
The same friend took both of our girls back to her house; she had a birthday present for Aviva she’d been holding onto for weeks – a beautiful Star of David from Israel that Aviva wore so beautifully, so proudly, for the rest of the day and now has carefully tucked into its little box on her nightstand upstairs. Greg and I rode our bikes back home and I decompressed a little before driving over to get the girls. Then Aviva, Pearl and I wound up having lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon over there, which was calming and nourishing, as time in their house always is.
I thought about people who really do lose their children and wondered how I would so much as continue breathing in a world where I didn’t know where one of them was. But that is what we do, isn’t it? Continue breathing, sometimes with the help of whole search parties, friends, people who can do the breathing for us when we just can’t. And even then, we do. I thought of how the movie of “The Lovely Bones” is coming out – I did read the book – and I’m not sure I will go see it. I thought about how children disappear without a trace. Children die. Parents and siblings survive. I know this might seem over-wrought. But as Greg reflected later, losing Pearl for even those few minutes was enough to put everything in perspective.
Oh, my heart. My heart for every mother and father who has lost a child. My heart for every blessed reunion in the supermarket. My heart for every poster of the Missing. My heart for every war-ravaged town, burned-down school, school shooting, roadside bomb. My heart for every shelter, every warm bed, every meal offered and eaten. My heart wailing with every woman who has wailed. I turn to ash. I am your dead. For all the children, for all the children, for all the children who have been taken, who haunt me, who still sing in my dreams. For every soft cheek, my heart. For that impossible absence of what you would give your whole body for, my body.