Is parenting cool? What makes a cool parent? One of those I can’t wrap my head around. Young teens are at the cusp of adulthood and tend to stay there for many exasperating years to come. Not quite children anymore and a long way from adulthood. Lobbying for their rights, their freedom, their independence. Stepping back and realising that for them, the goal of this period is to become successful adults, feeling competent and independent on their own. Now that might never include getting out of bed on their own or making it to school on time, yet whatever is in the scope of that goal warrants support. These elongated humans, stretching past your own height, looking down on us at every argument still need reminding to brush their teeth.
At 13 kids start navigating the outside world on their own, literally. Independent mobility without a hand-holding parent is one little way of asserting their autonomy. Figuring out the city metro network, following a road map themselves to get to the many activities their busy days are packed with. There are parents who don’t have a heart attack every morning their kids mount their bicycles, snaking through traffic to school and back, or disappear into an underground tube and resurface from the bowels of the city, having simply commuted and returning intact. There are parents that are not hesitant to hand over taxiing around their children, appreciating the little space and time won back for themselves without turning into giant worrywarts through the exercise of trusting and letting go. There really are such cool parents.
My mum had this silly little thing she used to do. She’d stand under the porch light staring out into the road, eyes peeling for the child that wasn’t home yet. She’d park herself there 5 minutes past expected return of said child, gradually inching her way forward towards the road, praying harder as the delay progressed until said child returned home. With a total of 4 children that were constantly on the run and constantly delayed, she spent a lot of time on the front porch, praying. It was such a spectacularly ineffective tactic, I couldn’t understand for the love of God if waiting was the only plan, why she wouldn’t just wait in the comfort of the indoors. No amount of pointing this out would move her back in. I mean, worrying is one thing, and then there’s just plain ridiculous.
At another time, in another place. Turning the tables.
It’s so good to have mum with us and these fabulous meals she conjures up. With autumn giving way to winter, it’s pitch dark by 7 in the evening, barely anyone on the streets outside.Just the kind of soul food to cheer up this time of year.
I’m starving. Serving the food might take my mind off eating the food. My young lady should be home too, in a few minutes. Yes, let’s go ahead and serve dinner.
It’s just her second time at handball, a whole new sport and new mates. I bet she’s hanging out with the other girls. The food’s getting cold.
As usual she doesn’t answer her phone. Ok, let’s just start. The class is around the corner. Surely, she’ll be here any moment and I am positively starving. I check her location on the tracking app, which really confuses me. That’s not the street the handball class is at? Must be an inaccuracy. Why can’t she message me??? We settle down for dinner - my mum, my son and I. ‘How much longer do you think she will be’, asks my mum in the calmest voice she can fake. I know she’s going to freak out soon. She has probably already started praying. My mum will just never change! My son leans over to peer into the tracking app on my phone and startles a little. ‘It’s says there that she’s somewhere completely different. That's an office complex, isn't it?’ he asks with grandfatherly concern. He sure takes after his grandma!
A few weeks earlier the kids finally got equipped with fully functional smart phones with data packages et all. We set up the family tracking app, between our phones, which was quite fun at first. Following their tracks on their way to school while I was on the tube to work. Knowing when they cross the big junctions, where they hang out with friends. The marvel and wonders of technology! We even came to enjoy a phony sense of control. The novelty wore off soon enough, some vestige of trust taking its place, and we checked less and less frequently.
It’s so easy to lose your grip. With resolute calm I refresh the tracking app again. She’s a blue pulsating spot on the map, above it her smiling face in a speech bubble looking back to me. “This is where I am Mummy”. That is weird. It really is nowhere close to her class. Still not picking up her phone. I check what the app says about my son’s location - sitting right beside me at the dinner table and getting increasingly suspicious (he’s more 13 going on 80). His location is perfectly accurate, showing up on the map right where he actually is. ‘Why would she be in that building?’ my son keeps prodding. ‘Don’t you want to check that?’ unmistakably accusatorially. I’m starting to lose my appetite.
Manic app refreshing, alongside continuous re-dial is now full-on. 10 dozen WhatsApp messages later the little blue pulsating spot remains firmly nestled in what seems to be the depths of an industrial office complex block. Going a little cold, I realise this might be real and precious time has been lost pretending to be cool. She’s been gone for 1.5 hours. If she’s really in that building, how long has she been there? ‘This is where I am Mummy. Come get me’.
From here onwards things get completely out of hand.
08:25 – 09:00 PM
I’m running down the road in felt home slippers now, reeking of garlic and spices, chasing a blue pulsating spot on my phone, mad with worry and fear. The marvels and wonders of technology. Every horror was playing out in my mind. Flashes of scenes from movies, images construed by a fertile imagination. Captivity. A wide dark office space. Abductors. A young girl scrambling between tables. It’s so easy to lose your grip. “Hold it together!” I ordered myself. Almost there.
Panting and out of breath, the promised office block of glass concrete buildings appears, stretching out on either side. Dark and deserted, it’s day occupants probably happy at the family dinner by now. A round faced security guard sat manning the cabin at the entrance.
Barging through the cabin window, I yell ‘I need help!’. Simultaneously stuffing my head and arm through the small opening, I wave my phone in his face vigorously. ‘You see my daughter is in there. Take a look! She’s the blue spot. It’s showing she’s in that building over there and I have to get in”. Without waiting for an answer or giving him a chance to process what I said, I look around quickly for an opening to let my whole self into his stupid cabin. In my head a plan is forming to terrorise the round-faced guard with the might of my anxiety. ‘I’m going to call the police’, I said. ‘No, you! You call the police. I have to get in there. DO IT NOW!!’. It could have just as well been underwater, this moment with him. An arresting resistance surrounded him, every molecule of space around him preventing motion. Like the sloths in Zootopia, s-l-o-w to move, s-l-o-w to speak, agonisingly s-l-o-w..!
‘That building is not part of my responsibilities’, he says finally. I might have climbed in and shaken him up had I not spotted a team of cleaners leaving one of the buildings. Darting over to them I ask frantically from one to another, ‘Is there anyone in there? Have you seen a young girl inside?’. ‘Come tomorrow, today closed’ they reply in pigeon, shooing me off, ‘Everyone work finish, today go home’.
Now I was really losing it. I run back over to my friend the security guard sloth, resolving mentally to be a changed person. ‘You see’, I say with measured control, ‘my daughter has been gone for 1.5 hours. I can’t reach her, she’s not picking up her phone. She should have been home about 45 mins ago, but she’s not. She should be at sports class which is in a completely different place. Apparently, she’s in there, since the last 45 mins, probably longer. I’ve lost so much time. You really have to let me in there’. Not threatening this time, pleading. These must be the different stages of desperation.
Just then my WhatsApp buzzes. “Just landed”. My husband, Oh thank God, thank God!! I call him back instantly “You have to call the police” I’m hollering and sobbing into the phone. 'Our daughter hasn’t come home, she’s in this office building. I have to get in. GET THE POLICE!!'. 'Huh, what??' No time to catch him up. They’re all dragging me under water with them. Zootopia sloth #2. ‘Calm down’ he’s saying, ‘What’s going on?’
Meanwhile, the security guard is speaking to someone on the phone. Half suspecting he’s setting the police on me, I abruptly hang up mid-sentence on my ‘just landed’ husband.
‘You can go in there and look for your daughter’ the guard says to me, hanging up. ‘My boss says it’s ok to let you in’. I almost laughed in disbelief through my tear streaked face. I would have hugged him if I had the time, and then he would have really called the police! Instead I start running ahead of him to the building entrance, watching for the blue spot all the time. Suddenly the spot starts to move. Just a nudge at first, and then a slow steady motion away from the building, right out across the street. While the guard was still fumbling at the door, I’d already taken off in pursuit of the elusive blue spot, now moving faster away from me. ‘She’s somewhere else now. I have to go’, I call back mid-flight to the blank faced guard. Random running is the plan now, calling out her name. Louder and louder. No, there is no plan, there are no clues. My phone starts to ring. But it’s just my husband trying to call back, for the gazillion-th time. It’s not her.
I’ve spotted an abandoned park across the road, a hideous hangout even in the bright of day. Scoring it with the torch light on my phone I call her name till my throat goes horse. The stray pedestrian walks in a wide arch around me, in safe avoidance of the lunatic. Still within sight of the guard who’s come all the way out on the road, following my frenzied behaviour pitifully. Crazy lady and her blue spot.
Think! Think! I know the police only act on a missing person when enough time has elapsed, when too much time has elapsed! I hope my mother is praying. All the time I’m staring at my phone. There’s a bicycle approaching. A young girl with a sports bag. I jump at her from the darkness. She startles and stops. I’m holding her handle bar, not wondering how deranged and scary I must seem to her.
‘Where are you coming from, what sports were you at?’
‘Huh? Handball?’ she answers suspiciously.
Hallelujah!!! ‘Do you know my daughter? New to the team? Tall, slim, straight black hair?’ I want to say the most beautiful young girl I know. ‘Have you seen her?’
‘You mean (she mentions her name)?’ ‘..yes..she was in the changing room before me I think. I guess she has left by now.’
‘Now? Left now???’
That’s when my phone rings. My daughter’s calling.