The Lost Child
by Phyllis Melhado
She came toward me, auburn curls bobbing, a precious little Orphan Annie with no Sandy in tow. This sweet child, no more than four, forged ahead on the path much too resolutely for someone so young. No mother followed - no father or nanny. She was either lost or abandoned on this beautiful day in the park. Surely if must be the former because who could possibly forfeit such an angel?
Or could they? I hadn’t consciously thought about it in years. Something had been removed from my body, but not from the deepest recesses of my being. The loss was buried in some inexplicable place, but always simmering under the surface. It was never verbalized. How could it be? It was beyond words.
I had been a young woman with big plans - exciting places to go, long-held goals to be met, a big career to be had. Nothing would derail me from that longed-for and carefully planned future. Nothing. And surely something sprouting in my belly for a mere twelve weeks had not yet become a child - not a real living, breathing child like this darling girl who was looking around so sadly, her brown eyes welling up.
Suddenly I heard her cry out. “Mommy,” in the tiniest voice.
The sound was sweet and sad and my heart swelled in a way I had never felt before. “It’s all right, sweetheart,” I found myself saying as I hurried over to her. She looked up at me and I was overwhelmed with the need to comfort her. I picked her up and pressed her to my chest.
“We’ll find your mommy,” I said as I held her close and rocked her gently. “I promise we will.” But even as I said those words, my fears for her well-being rose.
Tears cascaded from her sad brown eyes and moved down her flushed little face. I grabbed a tissue from my pocket and wiped the tears away. She clung closely to me as I held her in my arms, and I found myself rocking back and forth in a new and unpracticed motion, all the while with more tears falling – including my own.
“It will be all right,” I whispered. I was not at all sure, but I promised, nonetheless.
Her small body was warm, and even though the late spring day was bordering on hot, I welcomed the feeling. The sun beat down on us as I continued to soothe her, while all around us the park bloomed with life. Couples walked hand in hand, some stopping to steal a kiss. A dog walker chased his charge – a massive creature who was threatening to drag him to the ground, as his walking partner ambled along with a tiny dog dressed in a frilly pink skirt in tow.
My charge calmed down as well-fed squirrels scampered by us, but just as her tears stopped, a cyclist nearly clipped us as he navigated the path. Tears stared anew and I held her more closely in my arms. I could have stayed there forever, soothing the fears of this darling little girl.
“Oh, there you are!” a clearly frazzled young woman called out as she came rushing towards us, head shaking back and forth.
Our eyes locked for a very long moment and then I slowly put the child down. She clung to my legs, making no effort to move. She stood firmly in her spot looking at the newcomer.
“Mommy told you that you must never run away like that.”
The woman’s tone was harsh, unloving. Where was the thank God you are OK… or I am so relieved?
The child didn’t budge.
“I’m so glad you found her,” the woman said. “I’ve been beyond frantic.”
The way she said “beyond frantic” annoyed me, and perhaps my expression showed it because for a moment, I thought I read suspicion on her face. Who was this woman holding her child? Kidnappers come in all guises, after all, maybe even dressed in Armani.
“Well, actually she found me,” I said with a smile. “I’m glad I happened to be here at the right moment.”
“Yes, thank you,” she replied as she grabbed the child’s hand. “She’s quite willful. A handful, actually”
“I can only imagine,” I responded. That handful had felt delicious in my arms.
I smiled at the little girl and she smiled back. “You be a good girl,” I called to her as mother and child walked away.
“Be a good girl,” I repeated, to myself. I thought back at the decision I had made some years before. Had what had been growing inside me been on its way to being a girl or a boy? I never did know. I was told it would be better that way.
I stood frozen for a moment, watching them walk away. Mother and child…the world as it’s supposed to be…perhaps my very own world as it was supposed to be. Had a skate boarder not whizzed by, I most likely would have stood there endlessly tracking the figures as they grew smaller and smaller, the larger one holding the hand of the smaller one as they finally vanished in the mist and glare of the late afternoon sun.
I took a few deep breaths then glanced at my phone. The board, no doubt, was growing impatient. I rushed down the path, dodged traffic crossing the street and hurried into my office building. I was grateful to find the elevator empty. Having to smile, make meaningless chit-chat or let others see the tears that continued to escape from my eyes was not on my agenda. Only the business of corporate America was.
The elevator door opened, and I forged ahead down my own chosen path.
“We are our choices,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, and while I had embraced that philosophy for as long as I could remember, at last I fully understood the wisdom in those four brief words.