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.
8 Meditations on Time and the Art of Raising a Bilingual Child
Can You See How Quickly Time Is Passing?
Are You Making the Moments with Your Kids Count?
What a story! There are so many emotions you go through when you lose a child! So much is happening in such a short period of time! You did everything right to find him.
Thanks, Olena. Because of this incident, I hope next time (actually, I hope there isn’t a next time!) I’ll be even better prepared.
I have been in your shoes and know the fear that you felt. When we were traveling in Norway we were watching the Syttende Mai parade—huge national procession (on the scale of the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC) from the balcony of a hotel where we had had breakfast. When it was over, we proceeded downstairs and outside as throngs of people who’d been in the parade came in. It was literally wall to wall people. I felt like a sardine. As I walked down the stairs, I could see my husband ahead of me a short distance and assumed our son was with him. I held my daughter’s hand and continued walking. In hindsight I should have called out to him to inquire. When we got outside and met up, we both immediately realized our son was not with us. Fortunately, we were with extended family and my cousin stayed with me while his brother (who was taller and more robust) pushed through the crowd with my husband just behind him. Yelling out in Norwegian what had occurred. It took them nearly 20 minutes to make it inside and back out to us. I was a nervous wreck. My daughter said that Arvid (the cousin who’d stayed with us was squeezing her hand very tight).
All ended well… My son (just 6 yrs old at the time) realized what must have happened and he sat down to wait for us in the spot we had been sitting when he last saw us. He had been playing—he is a very active boy with a large imagination—and he had been walking back and forth making train noises pretending he was a train. He didn’t see we were departing and both my husband and I thought he was with the other.
An older lady, recognizing what had happened, sat down with him and waited for our return and kept him company. She spoke English and was able to comfort him.
Anyway—it’s amazing how fast our brain starts to move…yes I, too, immediately began to think someone must have taken him. As Americans the media bombards us with this message. I am thankful we were all able to keep a level head though and that it ended well—as did your harrowing tale.
Eva, thank you for sharing your story. I can empathize completely, and I’m so glad everything turned out just fine for your family. In hindsight, the smallest things—like strolling a few steps ahead of a child, as in my example—can quickly lead to serious consequences. I guess the important thing is to be as vigilant as possible in these kinds of situations…a lesson I think we all learn the hard way!
Indeed! We give more thought to our actions now everyday. We recently enjoyed a holiday in China w/o incident having learned our lesson.
I just wanted to say thank you for an inspiring blog in general (this one made me teary eyed). I run a growing Facebook group for Swedish people abroad, who try to teach their kids Swedish. Your blog has frequently inspired me, and affected not only the debate/discussion I run on Facebook, but also my own habits at home. Your advice that you can read at other times than bed time, has made me read quite some books when we have “fika” (snack in Swedish) directly after school.
Thank you. I will keep reading your blogs!
Lena, thank you for your kind feedback. I’m so glad to hear that my site is helpful to your efforts. I send my warm wishes to you and your family, and to everyone in your Facebook group!
teary eyes… i feel so close to you and you family… as soon as i can come to japan we will meet up so my kids and yours can play together.
Kiara, I look forward to seeing you and your family in Japan one day!
Roy!!!! I can not imagine your situation, my skin was freezing when I was reading your article. The great thing is Roy is safe…
Thanks for share your histories with all, is a really good experience and congrats for your daughter! She is very smart!
Claudia, yes, I felt overwhelming relief when I heard that he was home, safe and sound.