The Day at the Museum I Lost my Son Who Has Special Needs|The Holy MessField trips are not fun for the grown-ups.

This is a well-kept secret among parents and teachers everywhere, but I’ll go ahead and blast it out there for all the world. Field trips are Stressville.

Maybe there are parents and teachers who are exceptions to this rule. God bless you fine people. You are not me, and from the whispered true-confession-time I’ve had with other parents and teachers I’ve talked to, I’m not friends with you either.

I like being there with my kids and I want to participate in their experiences, but being with children in a group situation is tough enough. (Teachers are such rock stars. We love you forever.)

Being out in open space with large groups of little people is scary.

For weeks my 6 year old son, Zack, had been beyond excited about his class field trip to the Nature and Science Museum.

We try not to share certain information with my son until right before it’s about to happen because he perseverates.

By that I mean he asks 100 times per day, “Am I go to the museum today?” Is it time to go to the museum now?” “When are we going to the museum?” to the point that our family will ban certain topics of conversation from him entirely for set periods of time.

Not that the ban works for longer than 5 minutes.

The long anticipated day of the field trip arrives, and I meet Zack’s class at the museum. I am charged with watching Zack and two sweet girls from his class. We are given freedom to explore the museum on our own for the morning, meet for lunch, and then explore again for the afternoon.

It seems like such a doable task, doesn’t it, watching 3 children? After all, I’ve watched many more children than this in my home. I’ve been in charge of classrooms. Three should be a piece of cake.

Eye-yie-yie, as my grandmother would say.

I cannot tell you how many times I count 3 heads.

Until I only count 2.

I stand in the center of the Space section of the Denver Nature and Science museum, blackness and stars swirling around me. The place is jammed with a ridiculous amount of people. I corner each of my little girls. I stare intently into their faces.

“When did you see Zack? Where was he?” I ask them in turn, trying to keep the sharpness out of my voice. Their eyes are wide with concern. They don’t know where Zack is.

I feel the ground tilt beneath me, and I step a foot to the side to catch my balance. Dear God, please let him be close by, I breathe a whispered prayer.

I will not allow myself to panic. I– will– not– panic.

A part of me knows Zack is probably playing close by and safe. Surely, he is playing. He has no idea I am even looking for him.

But, what if. Zack would get distracted and wander away. He would take the hand of anyone and walk away with him trustingly. He doesn’t understand boundaries or strangers.

I grab a hand of each girl, and we hunt. These precious girls. “Maybe he went to the bathroom.” “Maybe he went out that door over there.” They are trying to help.

But oh, please be quiet so I can think! Please, walk faster! We have to find him!

We look at the water table. He must be at the water table. Zack could spend hours playing in the water.

Zack’s not at the water table.

We look at the dress up space station. Is he hiding in the corners? Zack loves to hide.

He is not hiding in the dress up space station.

We check the imax movie theater. Surely he wouldn’t have come this far alone?

Zack is not at the movie theater.

I discover a volunteer slumped at the help desk. Oh, thank you, God.

I tell him my son with special needs is missing. He is an older gentleman, helping out in his retirement years. An oxygen tube rests across his cheeks. I want to wind him up like an old toy. This isn’t promising, but maybe a grandfatherly sense of concern will kick him into action.

“Please, I need some help right now. My son with special needs is missing.” He chuckles.

He actually laughed at me.

He waves a dismissive hand at the crowds of people around me. “Do you see all these people? He could be anywhere,” the volunteer tells me. “I’m a volunteer. You need to find an employee.”

“Forget you, old man,” I think in my mind. I turn away without saying a word, and we are off again. I’ve got to find my boy.

By now the girls jog to keep up with my pace. Their palms are sweaty in my hand. Tears sting my eyes. I feel terrible that I’m putting them through this. What kind of mother am I? I lose my own baby plus freak out a couple others?

I manage the off-hand thought that at least if someone had to lose my kid, it is his own mom. Any of the teachers would have been a total basket case by now, bless them.

I tell myself we will make one more round through the room, and then I will call someone — someone real — for help. Or perhaps I will stand in the middle of the room and start screaming.

And then — there he is.

Standing with two boys looking intently into a mechanical rock display, is Zack.

Years ago I read in a parenting book that if your child does something truly dangerous, like run out into the street, instead of yelling in an angry way, you should show them your fear so your child feels it along with you. This is a much more effective deterrent for him not to do the dangerous behavior again.

I will have no problem with this.

I drop to my knees and crush Zack against me. Then I push him back and look intently into his eyes.

Words pour out of me as fast as my tears. “I couldn’t find you! I didn’t know where you were. Do you understand how afraid I was? I was really afraid when I couldn’t find you. You have to stay with your grown-up! Do you understand what I’m telling you? You have to stay with your grown up. You know that rule. That is the rule!”

Zack, who until this moment had been perfectly content, begins to cry.

“I sorry, Mommy. I will stay with my grown up. I will.” He pulls me into another hug. His small hands are tight on my shoulders. “I will be a good boy.”

I brush back his hair, “You are a good boy, Zack. You are good. You have to stay with me, though.”

I gather my crew and we exit the space section of the museum. Fine with me if I never come back to this black hole.

We head over to look at some bugs.

Zack hops from table to table. “Eww! This one creepy!” he says. He seems unaffected by the encounter just a few moments ago.

Through the rest of the afternoon, after just a few minutes the girls look up from each exhibit they explore. “Where is Zack?” one asks. They remember. I am equally touched and awash with guilt each time they do.

I don’t let Zack out of my sight for one moment.

My heart is fractured. As the adrenaline of fear slowly works its way out of my system, other feelings replace it. This moment stretches into a week and a month and years into a lifetime of caring for my son and his needs. What if I am not up to the task?

He needs so much.

During the drive home in our mini-van, as Zack sits in his car seat munching on cereal, I call my husband and tell him what happened. At points in my story I can’t get the words out because I’m sobbing.

“Zack is safe now,” Mike tells me, “that’s what matters. He is safe.”

“Yes, but what could have happened if…” I begin.

“True, but it didn’t,” Mike reminds me, “God kept Zack safe today. He will give us what we need to take care of Zack in the future, too.”

I hang up and am lost in thought as I drive.

“Mom?” I hear Zack ask from the back seat, “Was I good boy at the museum today?”

“Yes, Zack. You are good. Please, from now on stay with a grown up, promise me?” I look at him in the rear view mirror.

I know he cannot promise me this. It just makes me feel better to say it.

“I will, Mommy. I promise.”The Day at the Museum I Lost my Son Who Has Special Needs|The Holy Mess