Last weekend there was a festival at a local shrine in our neighborhood. We almost didn’t go—and afterward, I wished we hadn’t—but I gave in when my kids begged me to take them on Sunday evening, after dinner. My wife, though, was weary and wanted to stay home.
So Lulu, Roy, and I walked through the dark from our house to the shrine, about 15 minutes on foot. The small shrine sits on top of a hill, and it was crowded with people, eating treats from a row of food stands and watching performances on an outdoor stage.
After buying some colorful candies and popping them in our mouths, we wandered back behind the shrine, into a Japanese-style garden. The garden isn’t very big, but there are several paths and it was pretty dark.
I was striding ahead of them, and just moments later I turned to make sure they were following. There was Lulu, but…
Someone grabbed him
“Lulu,” I said, “where’s Roy?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” I brushed past her, peering through the gloom for my six-year-old son. I didn’t see him.
I turned back to Lulu. “Wasn’t he with you?”
“He was, but he said he was taking a different path.”
“All right, let’s look for him.”
And so we looked. And I began calling his name.
But as the minutes ticked by, and we found no trace of him, I called more loudly, more urgently. (I even spit my cherry candy out into a bush.)
“Roy!” I yelled to the darkness, over and over again. I must have looked like a crazy-man to the other festival-goers wandering through the garden.
Where could he be? Why doesn’t he answer me?
Lulu, a nine-year-old who tends toward tears, started to cry.
“Honey, crying won’t help. I need you to be strong, okay? Go back to the shrine and look for him there. I’ll keep looking here.”
She nodded and turned. And as Lulu disappeared, too, in search of her brother, I stood there on the garden path, unable to prevent this terrible thought:
He’s gone. Someone grabbed him.
Nearly 20 strangers
I know that’s an awful leap, particularly since Japan is generally a very safe country for kids, but I’m American and child abductions aren’t an uncommon concern in the United States. It’s unfortunately a dark part of my psyche as a parent.
So I strode to the edge of the garden, and gazed down a tall flight of stairs that led off into the twinkling city. “Roy!” I shouted. “Roy, can you hear me?”
A group of children now approached me timidly. “Who are you looking for?” they asked in Japanese. I described my son, his age, his clothing, and they volunteered to scour the garden, too.
“Roy!” they began calling. “Roy!”
Lulu then returned alone—she saw no sign of Roy at the shrine.
“Let’s get more help,” I said. We hurried to the shrine office and spoke to an elderly man. “It’s so strange,” I explained. “He just vanished.”
The man grabbed a flashlight and sprang into action. And as the sound of taiko drums boomed behind us, he rounded up several others and they trooped off into the garden.
“Roy! Roy!” By now, there were nearly 20 strangers combing the grounds and calling my son’s name.
At this point, Lulu spoke up: “Dad, maybe he went home.”
“Home? Why would he go home?” I suppose this thought should have crossed my mind already, but it hadn’t. I never imagined he might walk home by himself in the dark.
I asked one of the searchers if I could borrow her cell phone and I called Keiko at home. (I had conveniently left mine on the kitchen table.)
“Keiko, Roy disappeared from the festival about 15 minutes ago. If he comes home—”
“He just walked in the door,” she said.
Very important things
Honestly, the first thing I wanted to do was strangle him, so it’s fortunate there was a 15-minute walk between my hands and his neck. In fact, as I headed home through the darkness, Lulu by my side, the chance to consider this incident more calmly allowed me to realize some very important things…
- When Roy became separated from us at the shrine, he probably panicked. Later I learned that he had waited outside the garden for us—for how long I’m not sure—but when we didn’t emerge (because we were searching for him!), he took matters into his own small hands: he made a beeline for home. Although I would have preferred that he approach an adult there at the shrine for help, the fact that he kept his head and made his way home alone at night, despite the panic he must have felt, was a cause for praise, not blame.
- I was also proud of Lulu, because she kept her head, too, when she could have melted down in tears. (Now that I think about it, the only one who really lost his mind back there was me!)
- The thought of losing my son quickly stripped away everything except the deep, deep love I feel for him, for both my kids. It’s true, I’ve been very conscious of how brief our lives really are ever since a friend of mine died, but I know I can still do better at appreciating the people in my life while we have this fleeting chance to be together.
- The idea of appreciating my kids extends to my expectations for their language development. The fact is, I expect a lot from them and I don’t always appreciate how hard they continuously try and how much progress they’ve already made. Being a little kid isn’t easy, and being a little kid with two languages—as fortunate as that is—can be even tougher. It’s natural, I suppose, but I tend to focus too much on the shortcomings I see in their language development.
- This is true of my own efforts as well. If I died tomorrow, and the Angel of Bilingualism asked me how I did, I would probably end up dwelling on the things that I haven’t done well or that I should have done but didn’t. Because, again, I see the shortcomings more starkly. And this seems to be the case with a lot of parents raising bilingual kids: while it’s important to address our shortcomings, it’s just as important for us to appreciate the many good efforts we’re already making.
So when I finally arrived home from the festival that night, I went straight to Roy and I hugged him as hard as I could. And as he cried in my arms, I felt grateful for the walk home. There was still a lot to say, but for now, it all would wait. For now, hugging my son was the only thing that mattered in this whole crazy, beautiful world.