I can’t find my son. There’s a moment of panic. He’s a four-year-old autistic boy. He’s cute as a button with blue eyes and hair that is slowly changing from blonde to brown. Isn’t this exactly the kind of child a stranger in a nondescript white van might snatch up and disappear with forever? I’m standing in a clothing store in Florence, Alabama where we have just moved. He was here a moment ago. Now he is gone. Completely and totally gone.
I run into the parking lot. I run back into the store. I take a breath. Remain calm. That’s important in cases like this. “Did you see the small child I came in with leave the store?” I ask the shopkeeper. “No sir,” she says. We both start looking around the store. I am a little breathless. I am wondering what I will tell my wife. Should I call her? Maybe not. She is not very understanding when it comes to losing children, and he must be somewhere.
Avery pops out of the center of a circular rack of clothes like a Hobbit emerging from a hole in the ground. I hug him up quick. “Could you maybe never do that again, please?” I ask. He nods.
But of course, he does it again. Who can resist sitting in the center of a rack of clothes in a store filled with many such racks and driving your father insane looking for you? But once I am on to the trick, I know to search all the circular clothes racks in Roses or Belk’s or wherever we are until I find him. He’s not going to answer to me calling his name. That would be too easy. He just likes disappearing and waiting until I find him. There must be something soothing about it that I don’t understand.
I try to imagine the appeal. The lights are too bright in the store. The blinding white light threatens to drown him. At the same time, there are too many colors coming at him from every direction and too much chatter and music that is just noise created to make you shop harder. Too many people milling around excitedly. In the cocoon of the circular rack of clothes, the space is quiet and divine. Ordered and calm. Maybe that’s it.
We are at Disney World in Florida about a year later. Avery disappears again. You have not properly lost a child until you have lost one in Disney World. The theme park stretches on for acres and acres. So many different worlds to explore. If he knew how to ride the monorail by himself, I could be here a week before I found him endlessly riding the Small World ride by himself. Any parent worth his salt learns to loathe that ride because it’s like potato chips to a small child. You can’t ride just once.
About ten minutes pass. I am just about to enlist Goofy to help with the search. Only, I don’t think Avery likes large costumed characters. Something about them intimidates him. I get that. But this is an emergency. I am starting to describe Avery to Goofy when I spot him standing in a line to ride the log flume. I take Goofy off high alert and go pick up Avery.
“What are you doing here? Where did you go? Why did you leave?” I ask. He points to the ride. “I wanted to ride this.” I nod. I had told him we would ride the log flume ride later. It’s not smart to ride the log flume ride early in your visit to Disney World. You go around with soaked underwear and tennis shoes sloshing while everyone else is having the time of their lives. Best to save it for last.
My wife walks up. We are sitting there. I am catching my breath. “What are we doing?” she says, unaware of the emergency that just ended. “Just waiting in line for the log flume ride,” I answer. Avery nods. We are going to get really wet. There will be sloshing tennis shoes and flooded underwear. Dry is not an option, and I just don’t give a damn.
Since we moved to New York a year ago, Avery hasn’t been lost once. He’s 15 years old and has his own cell phone. He’s learned to go back and forth to school on the subway and walk the four blocks to his school and back from the subway stop every day on his own. He’s independent to a point. He walks a few feet behind me when we’re tromping around Downtown Manhattan to and from the comic book store where we go every Wednesday.
A few days ago we were walking. He always walks a few feet behind me because we’ve learned the sidewalks are really too crowded to walk side by side all the time. He has his face buried in his I-Phone with ear phones on, but he uses some form of echolocation so that he always knows where I am without having to look up.
He’s bigger than I am. About two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier. One day I’ll look up, and he’ll be gone. Have his own place. Do his own thing. I’ll call every day. Maybe he’ll feel like talking to his old man that day, and maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just let the phone ring. I hope not.
But on this day, Avery looks up and suddenly notices I am not in front of him. I am a few feet behind him. I had stopped for a moment to tie my shoe, and he had walked on past. “Daddy. You need to get back in front,” he says. “Why?” I ask. “Because I would be lost without you.”
I start pointing out landmarks. It’s important that he knows his own way around. “That’s Zuccotti Park over there,” I tell him. “See the weird red arch that passes for public art. It’s pretty tall. Look for that if you get disoriented. You know how to get back from there, right?” He nods. But I get back in front anyway.
We are a little ragtag team like Abbot and Costello. We have our routines. We get frustrated with each other. But we love each other. We’re always together somewhere on some small adventure or large. It’s hard to picture life with him not in it.
I would be lost without him, too.