I lost my son today.
For five whole, AGONIZING minutes, at the mall.
At first confused, then annoyed and then alarmed, I began dragging a strangely compliant Luke around and around the staircase where Matthew had just been.
Several people glanced up, no doubt sensing my blooming panic. No one said anything though, and I fought the urge to scream Matthew's name.
And then, from a bench a woman called out, "Are you looking for a red head?"
I whirled, "Yes!"
"I saw him. He was walking with a man."
He was walking with a man.
He. was. walking. with. a. man.
I now know the truly awful feeling of having one's heart drop to the floor and feeling icy dread crawl up one's spine. I felt gut-punching, staggering, heart-stopping fear.
Momentarily frozen, I clung to Luke's hand, trying to stem the flow of mental images from the past few days here in Belleville: stolen children, stolen innocence, stolen lives.
And then, a muffled announcement over the PA system, asking me to please come to Information Services.
Choking back tears of relief, I practically flew to the desk where I caught sight of Matthew, looking pale and dazed, holding hands with a security guard. When he spied me, he ran and in that long moment before my arms wrapped around him, I felt, inexplicably, as though I'd been granted a second chance. A gift.
My tearful son explained: shortly after he lost sight of Luke and I (because he'd run ahead, being silly) a kindly stranger spotted Matthew's stricken face and kneeled down to ask if he was lost.
At Matthew's nod the stranger stood up and - careful not to touch him - guided my lost boy to the security guard at the Information Desk, where Matthew promptly offered his whole name and mine, as he'd been taught.
Now, both the security guard and the Kindly Stranger were at my side, offering praise for Matthew's bravery and for knowing what to do. The guard patted Matthew's head and reminded him to seek out a uniformed person should he ever get lost again.
Kindly Stranger stood quietly for a minute before asking Matthew if he was ok. Matthew nodded gravely and then Kindly Stranger turned to me:
"He looked so scared. I have two of my own....I hope you're ok with what I did."
I reached out and squeezed his arm, whispered only two words:
Thank you, Kindly Stranger for recognizing my son's innocence and fear and for guiding him to safety. For doing the right thing, even if it made you uncomfortable, even if others might warn you to mind your own business, for your own good.
For being a decent, trustworthy man and not the monster who's been visiting my dreams - all of our dreams - this week, here in the Friendly City.
Thank you, Kindly Stranger for letting me see your face and for assuring me that all losses are not forever, there is more good than bad in the world and that this city is indeed a good place.
Today especially, I thank you.