Last week I forgot my 16-month-old daughter at the monkey exhibit.
It wasn’t even that crowded.
We met my friend and her little girl at the zoo for a morning outing. I figured we could catch up while the kids wandered. I figured they’d be distracted into subdued silence by the wonders of nature and all that. Turns out they were pretty silent– silent enough to be completely forgettable. Forgettable enough to leave at the monkey exhibit.
It was an accident, you guys.
I took my daughter out of the stroller so she could have a closer look. Her brother squeezed his wheelchair between a bundle of kids and leaned in close. The littlest monkey was swinging from thick knotted ropes while the grown ones groomed each other in that way that makes you wonder if maybe we should all move along and give them some privacy. You know what I mean– monkey business. *wink wink*
My son’s wheels swiveled beside rows of sandaled feet. All things considered, he’s quite attentive to other people’s toes but close quarters are hard to manage. It wouldn’t be the first time his chair had nicked an ankle or a toe, leaving some unsuspecting kid (or adult) struggling to stifle a yelp. I figured we should move on. The monkeys weren’t doing much anyway.
I motioned him away as my friend and I grabbed our strollers. We moved on around the corner. We took a break by the room full of bats. We lingered beside the lizard. My friend took some photos of her daughter beside an unspeakably large snake.
And the whole time we were talking about that kid– the one that fell into the gorilla enclosure just days earlier. It happened a few hours from here.
“Are we feeling brave enough to check out the gorillas today?” (Haha)
“Oh gosh. Can you even imagine? That was horrific.”
“And of course they blame the mother.”
“They always blame the mother.”
We were rocking our strollers back and forth, shaking our heads while my son pressed his face against the glass and watched the lizard’s eyes dart from side to side. Maybe we’d check out the elephants next.
“I can see how it would happen though. Kids are fast. You get distracted. It not like–“
My friend was looking from me to my stroller, a strange expression on her face. She gestured towards me, speaking quickly:
“Your stroller is empty.”
I looked down in horror at the vacant seat I’d been pushing for the past 5 (or good heavens, was it 10??) minutes. I would have laughed if my heart hadn’t been in my throat– and if I hadn’t been running. Past the lizard. Through the room full of bats. Around the corner…
The irony, you guys. I had been so distracted talking about the distracted mom whose kid wandered into the gorilla enclosure that I left my 16-month-old daughter at the monkey exhibit. I prayed she’d stay put. That she hadn’t wandered off. That some helpful stranger was looking after her. Actually, no– no strangers– just my kid in the exact place where I had (what is wrong with me??) left her all by herself at the zoo. A sick feeling washed over me.
And then, (thank you, Jesus) there she was. Standing stock-still watching the monkeys swing and groom and monkey their business around. Right where I’d left her.
The kid didn’t fall into the monkey cage or leap into a pit of alligators or wander away with a creepy stranger.
But I guess… she could have.
My daughter didn’t avoid disaster because I’m a better parent than that mom at the Cincinnati Zoo. My daughter avoided disaster because…
–actually, I don’t know why.
I don’t know whose fault it is that that boy fell into the gorilla enclosure and my daughter didn’t.
The thing about finding fault is that it gives us a sense of control. The thing about control is that you don’t have it— at least not as much as you’d like and definitely not if you’re a human who lives here on Earth with the rest of us jokers. Still, believing we’re in complete control feels good and that makes finding fault feel good too. We all saw it scrolling through our news feeds after that poor kid and that poor gorilla crossed paths.
The mom was probably on her phone.
I heard she was texting.
Maybe if she actually watched her kid this wouldn’t have happened.
We sniff out fault because if we have a cause, if we know who or what to blame, then we can tell ourselves that tragedy will never creep into our lives. If misfortune is caused by a misstep, then we can just make sure we step somewhere else. Because we’re different— better even.
The disdain expressed for that terrified mother is nothing more than the ugliness we’re all capable of when our desire for control outweighs our desire for empathy.
I see it when expectant mothers ask about my son. “Do they know what causes that?” they’ll say with the slightest hint of panic. “Did you take prenatals when you were trying?” It’s okay. I get it. I thought about the same things when I was pregnant– back when I thought control was something I could muster. Really, it’s all the same.
My child won’t have a disability because I stay healthy and take gobs of vitamins.
My kid won’t fall into a gorilla enclosure because I’m a good parent.
I don’t know about you but I’d rather find empathy than fault.
So yeah– try not to forget your kid in a room full of uncivilized primates. But if you do, know that I understand.
It really could happen to anyone.
Okay, now make me feel better. Anyone else out there lost track of their kid in a public place? Tell me your stories, pretty please? This is a normal thing, right?