We lost Zachary, my four-year-old grandson, on the day after Thanksgiving.
Until then it had been a perfect vacation – two of my sons and their families, my daughter’s gang for Thanksgiving dinner, and now, in view of the 20-degree weather, a movie. Six of the eight kids and their parents headed to the Wreck-It Ralph film, the rest of us either to Harry Potter or the new comedy down the hall.
Zach’s mom, Melissa, texted us almost as soon as we sat down. “Zach isn’t with us. Is he with you?”
Most of our kids were sitting in the third row of the stadium theater, which was fairly full. Nine-year-old Caroline thought she’d seen Zachary a few rows up, but he didn’t seem to be. It had been dark when the gang trooped in, and the movie was already started, so it was hard to see.
The dark theater seemed odd since we’d opted for a show that didn’t start for a while, but no one realized until later that we’d been given tickets for the earlier show rather than the one we’d wanted, where the theater would still be lit. Even so, as the youngest of five, Zach was used to following his brothers and sisters and taking his place among them. For the first few minutes after he disappeared, we were frightened but secretly convinced nothing really bad could have happened so quickly.
But then time passed. We adults went into every one of the 24 theaters in the multiplex, a less-than-fruitful effort because all of them were dark, with movies playing on the screen. Daughter-in-law Shelley searched outside in the bitter weather, even peeking into the windows of cars. The theater’s security cam showed Zach close to his dad, who was getting straws for the drinks he’d bought. Then Zack rushed out of the shot. No one had seen him since.
Mostly, without ever thinking about it, we live in the center of ordinary, comfortable lives. Then there is the moment when they stop being ordinary and we sense nothing will ever be the same. At four, had Zach learned not to talk to strangers? Unflappable as he was, would he protest if someone said, “Come on, Mommy’s over here!” and took his hand? Darker scenes filled me, and a smoldering, black rage at the idea of harm being done to this good-natured, much-loved, trusting child.
Melissa was in tears, close to collapse. The rest of us were trying to hold it together. It was time to call the police.
The manager objected, saying police would only be disruptive if we didn’t need them. “And certainly not good for business,” we countered. We agreed to wait a few minutes if they would stop the kids’ movie and turn on the lights.
The movie was stopped. The lights went up. The manager apologized to the audience for the disruption but said a child was missing and he was sure everyone would understand. “We’re looking for someone named Zach.”
There was a moment of absolute silence.
Then Caroline spoke up. “There he is.” She pointed to a row almost at the top of the stadium seats (a few rows up from where she’d pointed before, in the dark). And there was Zach, unperturbed, enjoying the film. Why he ended up in that particular row, all alone, we’ll never know. His Uncle Matt brought him down into Melissa’s arms. A collective sigh of relief rose from the audience, mostly parents with young children. Since Zach was pretty happy – especially after the lights went down and the movie came on again – Melissa had to wipe away her tears and be happy, too.
For me, from now on, Thanksgiving will always recall the gratitude and joy of having Zach restored to us exactly as he had always been, not harmed, not much affected at all – and my own return to that precious sense of “ordinariness” I had never realized was among the greatest of gifts.
Zach will probably never know what all the fuss was about. The rest of us will never forget.