Family Man®: Lost

by Gregory Keer

My chest tightens as I imagine the worst: someone took him, he's been hit by a car on the nearby boulevard, he's wandered too far away and is shouting out in fear, "Daddy, help me!"

In the waning daylight of an interminable day, I leave my oldest son to finish his homework while I check on my two younger boys in the back yard. Our babysitter, Angie, who helps me on days when my wife, Wendy, works the late shift, runs around with Ari (17 months) until I ask, "Where's Jacob?"

This is a question so often posed in reference to my middle child that it's become a family joke. "Where's Jacob?" frequently meets with answers that include: "He's feeding pet snails with gourmet cheese and grilled chicken in our best Tupperware," or "He's ripping towel racks from the wall in an effort to do chin-ups," or "He's finishing an industrial-sized vat of red licorice behind the bedroom door he's been told never to lock."

Then there are the moments when the answers take longer to arrive, like when he's vanished at a playground or scooted out of sight at an amusement park. Until I find him, these occasions induce the equivalent feeling of drowning on dry land.

This time, Angie says that he's in the playroom (a renovated garage), so I look in there. He's nowhere in sight. I check my adjacent office, but he's not there either. I call to him, "Jacob, it's time for dinner."

This usually works. Jacob likes food. So when he doesn't respond, I get a subtle sinking feeling. I go outside to ask Angie where he might be and she tells me, "He was just in the playroom. The yard gate is locked and everything."

I head into the house and search every room, staying as calm as possible as I call out his name in various tones, from an I'm-not-really-concerned "Hey, Jacob" to an in-on-the-joke "Are you hiding from me?"

I go back through the house, checking under tables, behind furniture and under bedcovers. He's nowhere to be found.

I return to the playroom to inspect the closets and the pop-up tent where he stores medieval knight parts. In my office, which doubles as our storage room, I look under my desk and around some boxes to shout, "Jacob! Where are you!"

Back outside, I ask Angie, "Are you sure he didn't get out of the yard?"

Angie, normally the picture of tranquility, goes pale. She doesn't answer. She just starts looking along with me. That's because Jacob has been known to climb the gate or unlatch the lock and scramble outside, often to the other side of the street - without looking out for traffic - to play with neighbors, pick flowers or collect insects.

I run to the gate, see that it hasn't been unlatched, but dash out to the front anyway. I hurry up and down the street, eyeing every house and path. I yell to the neighbors across the street, "Have you seen Jacob?"

They shake their heads, but, having seen my son careen around the neighborhood so many times, they offer, "We'll help you look for him."

My chest tightens as I imagine the worst: someone took him, he's been hit by a car on the nearby boulevard, he's wandered too far away and is shouting out in fear, "Daddy, help me!"

I spring back into the house, howling his name, "Jacob, where the hell are you!!!"

I run to the back yard once again and see Angie emerging from my office. Calmly, she says, "He's here."

The 50-piece orchestra of hysteria plays its last note as I go into my office and see what Angie points out. Jacob is under an old coffee table, between overflowing boxes. His little leg is barely visible because his pants blend in with the browns of the carpet and boxes. He's under that table … asleep.

Jacob had fallen into slumber, petting one of our cats. I nudge him to a mild state of consciousness and ask, "Haven't you heard me calling for you?" He shakes his head and smiles serenely, then falls back into his dreams. And all I can do is stare at him, my lost angel who was here all the time.

With a kid like Jacob, the fear of losing him seems closer to the surface than with my other sons. When incidents like these happen, Wendy and I often feel like the ones who are "lost."

What can we do to keep Jacob safe from himself, let alone the dangerous world around him? We try everything, from simple directives and shouting to play acting and constant vigilance. I think the reason we always muster the strength to help Jacob is that we never lose the sense that he really is an angel - a child who flies out of sight at times but always manages to return to us, bugs in hand, dirt on his face and wearing a heavenly grin.