Hey, where have you been?

Those words from my then-4-year-old melted the terror that had encased me and it puddled on the ground behind me as I stepped forward to embrace him. I haven’t heard those precious words spoken since the day he was lost in the 10-story former International Shoe Factory transformed into a gargantuan urban playground, but I’ve heard those same words whispered in the silence over the years.

He was lost that day. I lost him for a third of an hour and it was one of the most awful feelings. Helplessness. Fear. Phone Calls. Those were the four words that came to mind as I tried to repress the panic. Helplessness that I missed the window to save him. Fear that he left the premises or someone removed him. Phone calls that I would have to make to the police, John Walsh, and his grandparents.

If you’ve ever been to the St. Louis City Museum or someplace similar, you know that the fun is endlessly overwhelming and thrilling, especially if you are there with children or adults who play with carefree abandon. Crazy mazes that drive you opposite of the predicted, forever slides with surprising stops, and underground tunnels that lead to unexpected destinations greet you as you arrive, surround you as you stay, and beckon you to remain.

Life is like this—an endless journey of mazes, slides, and tunnels with unknown endpoints that we must learn to navigate.

During his elementary years, he misbehaved because he was bored and couldn’t see the value in memorizing spelling words or listening to a long division math lesson when he could easily do that in his head. His actions spoke loudly asking for creative opportunities for learning and growth. Hey, where have you been? (Well, taking care of you and your sister while managing a household and trying to restart my career.) Thankfully, his gifted classes built a maze and set him on a course to find the cheese. Some teachers recognized that researching and reporting on topics of his choice was a hook into his ingenious brain and allowed him the freedom to create his own mazes.

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Middle school presented a series of ladders and slides; a constant ascending and descending of self-discovery and confronting all of the parts he didn’t like. He decided on day one of sixth grade that middle school grades didn’t matter and from that day he planted his effort into the classes and assignments he determined worthy. Growth happened exactly where he planted the seed and weeds sprang forth where he didn’t. One particular day after school stands out as being a catalyst for his independence. I found him crying in his room because boys in the cafeteria blocked him from sitting with them. The mama bear in me wanted to fight for him and protect, but teaching him to stand up for himself and stand strong would last longer. Hey, where have you been? (Right here, supporting you as you climb the rusty ladder and find your way.) Gratefully, he found robotics, joined a team, and provided us all a bright spot during the middle years.

His natural aptitude toward computers and programming shined during high school and he had many moments of success. Pressure from school and society to be the best combined with his own unattainable goals of perfection defeated him when superiority wasn’t his reality. Devastation and rejection painted over his senior year and he settled on a university because of a degree and not what his heart was saying. Hey, where have you been? (Honestly, of all the times his heart silently whispered these words, this was the one time that I didn’t listen.) He was crawling around in a shadow tunnel and it took him a year to find the egress. When he finally dug his way to light and broke the surface, we were there waiting and ready to help him repair until he found his path. He’s walking his journey now in his own way and every now and then I catch a smile of my little boy crawling through the endless wiry maze before I lost him.

My heart is constantly tuned toward his wavelength and I will forever be evaluating whether or not he needs me to show up.

My four-year-old was not fearful that day because he didn’t know he was lost. He kept playing, thinking we were right there with him until he noticed that we weren’t. After praying and frantically searching for him everywhere, we were approaching the security desk to ask for help, when I glanced to the top of the two-story lobby slide and spotted him waving at us. I’ll never forget the peaceful feeling that enveloped me as I watched him laugh his way down the metal wave. He stood up, put his hands on his hips, and said, Hey, where have you been?

Jennifer Blanke

Jennifer Blanke has a BS in Elementary Education and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Lindenwood University where she is an editorial assistant for The Lindenwood Review. She is a mother, teacher, and writer in St. Louis, Missouri and has writing published in Mum Life Stories.