I didn't want to detract from the story of Tueday night's search for a lost boy in my post yesterday, but am back to pointing the similarities in all child rearing, including that of Special Needs individuals.
Perhaps because I had so many children, (Okay, four might not be a lot by some people's standards, but it was a lot for me.) I was a somewhat lax parent at times. It was also a simpler time, before we all thought about the fact that an eight year old could be snatched from a ball pit at a pizza joint. We lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood, within walking distance of a drug store. From the time the older girls were seven or eight, they were allowed to walk up to the store from time to time, and by the time the oldest was eleven or so, Walker sometimes accompanied them.
I'm not sure how we determined when the older girls were ready for these little outings, but I suspect it came from a request to go to the store for some small want or desire that I had neglected to provide. Perhaps that's how they spent their allowance back then. I think my gut must have whistpered to me when a request was going to be okay. If you demonstrated a capacity to follow the guidelines of crossing streets carefully and with the light, and if you were brave enough to ask permission to go to the store, I generally gave it. My general rule for most things was to say yes unless there was an important reason for saying no. The increasingly dangerous city we live in has meant that all of us would be more cautious today than we were in the late '70s, I'm sure. My daughters don't let their children go to a public restroom alone, ever, I don't think.
The first time Walker disappeared was on his sixth birthday. There were lots of neighborhood kids lingering after the party, intrigued by the pony that we had provided for rides. Delivery of the pony was free, but you had to pay the guy to take it back. As we waited and I cleaned up a bit, I realized that Walker wasn't out front with the other children. Everyone thought someone else was watching him, and he was gone. We fanned out in the neighborhood, never thinking that he might have crossed the somewhat busy street in front of the house. Just as I was beginning to panic, a neighbor I had never seen before crossed the street with Walker in tow. He was wearing nothing but his new Superman Underoos, and was carring his Pink Panther and a five dollar bill he had gotten for his birthday.
I know Walker looked about half his age, and that neighbor must have thought I was the worst mother in the world. It wasn't the kind of neighborhood where you let your child run around in his underwear, even if it was a superhero motif. Walker had not run away, though, he had just gone to the drugstore to spend his birthday money. I suspect that he knew where he was going and how to get home, but the adventure frightened all of us.
A while after that, Walker wandered off into the construction of The Peabody Hotel while the rest of us waited for a table on Mother's Day. Again, each of us thought the other was watching out for him. This time he got on an elevator and got off on an unfinished floor. A friendly security guard was holding him, and he was returned to us in time for lunch.
Those two incidents should have been enough to turn me into a much more conscientous parent, and I did keep a tighter rein on Walker for quite some time, but I probably didn't fuss at him severely enough because I was so relieved to get him back.
Walker's adventures continued, probably because I didn't realize that although he still looked like a little kid, he was beginning to feel confident out in the world. I wasn't observant enough of his increasing maturity, which also meant increasing his bravado about striking off on his own.
The most terrifying disappearance happened at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, where Sarah was attending college. Walker had been accompanying us to football games for years. Sarah was a cheerleader in high school, and while we watched the game, and the cheerleaders, Walker and other younger children generally ran around under the bleachers or on a nearby soccer field. It was a safe enough environment to allow him some freedom, and we did.
When we arrived at the Southern Methodist University football game, Walker immediately asked permission to sit down closer to the band, alone, but within sight of us and all our friends. After a bit, he asked permission to go to the restroom, which was just behind our seats. Again, it seemed like a safe bet to let him go alone. He was about eighteen or nineteen, the somewhat sparse crowd was mostly parents. But after a reasonable length of time, I sensed that Walker should have returned, and sent his dad to check on him, assuming that he had gotten distracted by a souvenir stand or gone in search of a coke machine. When my husband returned with the news that Walker was no where to be found, my heart lurched.
This was before the days of everyone carrying cell phones. Walker knew how to call home, but not how to use a public phone booth, and he had no idea how to call Sarah who lived in a dorm, and probably had no phone listed. Again, our friends fanned out, and I stayed put, in hopes that he would return to our seats. And, he did, just as the word had gone out to security that he was missing. He had gone to the Texas State Fair through a gate where his Cotton Bowl ticket provided free admission. He came back when he ran out of money. What was probably only about thirty minutes had passed, but when your heart is pounding because you've lost your child, it seems like ten times that amount of time.
The last time Walker disappeared was just after he started his job at the supermarket. I was running a few minutes late picking him up. This time, I knew he knew better, or at least I thought he did, and I really feared for his safety. I had my grandson in tow, in full clown make-up from a Halloween party. With him on my hip, I searched the Target store nearby, and began cruising the neighborhood. The realization that Walker could be anywhere terrified me. He was, and still is, small for his age. It wouldn't take a low life bully very long to beat him to a pulp. Maybe I had allowed him out into the community too much before he was truly "grown up". After a sickening search, I returned home to see whether he might have left a message on our machine. He hadn't. A friend called and when I told her what had happened, she immediately came to my house to wait and watch my grandchild while I continued my search. As I re-traced my route to the store, there was Walker, headed home. Somehow I had failed to see him initially. This time, I totally lost it. I laid all the guilt I had within me on his young shoulders. My tears and anger accomplished one of the final steps in teaching him responsibility. Getting him a cell phone was what I hope was the final step.
I believe I've done the right thing allowing my children freedom to grow. I hope I'll be brave enough to trust that all of them, including Walker, will send a signal when they are ready for more.