Lost at sea: Trip leads to manhunt
It was a vacation moment that had it been made into a Lifetime original movie could have been billed as part Without a Trace, part Baywatch.
We were enjoying a relaxing afternoon on Cocoa Beach. It was a typical June day on the Florida Coast: hot, humid and sunny. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and both the sky and water were so blue that as I gazed out to sea, it was hard to gauge where the sea stopped and the sky began. In short, conditions were idyllic.
My husband, Roger; my dad; and our children, Sage, Blake, and Zane, bobbed in the surf. Even by Florida standards, it was rough. Rip current warnings had been issued for most of the East Coast from New Jersey to southern Florida, and a boy had drowned at Smyrna Beach the day before. As my kids’ aquatic experiences had previously been limited, in large part, to forays to Lake Darling, the dangers presented by the currents weren’t lost on me. I did lecture the kids on riptides and what to do if they were caught in one, but conditions were not dangerous enough to keep the kids out of the water. After all, we’d driven more than 1,200 miles for this.
My mom and I were on the shore keeping careful watch over everyone. Zane’s vanishing act seemed instantaneous. One minute he was there; the next, he wasn’t. I looked to the right and left of where he’d been just moments before. No Hawaiian white and blue floral surf shorts. No blue boogie board.
As any mother who’s lost a child knows, the first step in finding him is to suppress the fear, the all-encompassing wave of panic that starts in your toes and like mercury in a thermometer, rises, quickly progressing into your stomach. Moving upward, it creates heaviness in your chest, and finally, amasses in the back of your throat. I tried to swallow that lump.
Prior to losing Zane in the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve lost children twice. The first was when my son Jasper, 20, was about 5. I was looking through a rack of clothes at a shopping center. Jasper was playing at my feet as I shopped, and I don’t know how long he was gone before I realized he wasn’t there. I rifled through the rack, confident that he was just hiding. When I didn’t find him, I jetted across the store to the toy section where I was sure I’d find him drooling in front of the Power Rangers display. When he wasn’t there, I immediately went to the service desk and reported him missing. They initiated a code Adam, locked the store down, and launched a full-scale manhunt for my son.
I stood by the service desk, eyes teary, imagining life without my little boy. I was positive that that the storewide search would turn up nothing more than the clothes he’d been wearing at the time of the abduction and an empty box of hair dye. Surely, my precious son was already half-way to Missouri, and I was destined to a life spent searching crowds for his face, a tattered age-enhanced photo of him in my wallet where his most recent school picture would have been had it not been for my inadequacies as a mother.
I was trying to figure out how I would tell his father when a store employee walked him out of the men’s restroom. I was sobbing and feverishly smothering him with hugs and kisses when a visibly embarrassed and annoyed Jasper said, “Geez, Mom. I had to take a dump.”
To this day, he does not understand what all the hoopla was about; I comfort myself with the knowledge that someday, he’ll have a child of his own and inevitably, he, too, will lose the kid somewhere. The resulting epiphany will prompt a phone call to his poor, aged mother to apologize for this and all of his other childhood stunts that reduced me to tears over the years. (There are days when I live exclusively for this impending call.)
Another time, I lost Zane at the Coralville Mall. At 8, he was just starting to flex the muscles of independence, and he begged me to let him walk to Old Navy alone because “the pink underwear store ain’t no place for a man, Mom.” I ignored my gut instinct and agreed, instructing him that once he got to Old Navy, he was not to leave that store until I came to get him.
Later blaming boredom and concern that “you were not ever gonna come,” Zane decided to set out into the mall to find me. After returning to the pink underwear store without success, he searched the “smelly perfume store,” as well. Discouraged and scared, he approached a security guard who helped him locate me.
When he saw me, Zane wrapped his arms around my neck and told me he was so happy to see me and that he would never, ever leave me again. As a result of this brief separation, he vowed to live with me “forever – even after I’m 40.”
“Normally these kids don’t give me a very good description of their moms, but you should be proud of Zane because his was dead-on,” the security officer said, basking in the afterglow of this mother and child reunion. “He said you were wearing a black vest with fake fur on the hood and you have blonde hair, and that’s fake, too.”
In spite of this praiseworthy acute attention to detail, I quickly regretted finding him; but now, at 15, Zane was lost to me once more. This time, the sea had swallowed him whole, and with emotion overriding reason, I committed myself to bringing him back.
My mom and I scanned the shoreline for any sight of him; there was none. Roger, Dad, and the other kids formed a search party, but they didn’t find him, either. Finally, I went to the lifeguard station and reported him missing.
“I’m sure he’s fine, but I just thought, you know, better safe than sorry,” I told the guard, cavalierly, in attempt to reassure myself more than anyone.
“Well, the surf is pretty rough today,” he responded.
Well, thank you for that reminder, David Hasslehoff. Do you have children? No, I don’t suppose you do; it looks to me like the only thing you’ve ever cared for is your tan.
Speedo took down a missing person’s report, and then dispatched a BOLO to the other guard towers.
“We’ll find him,” the Suntan Kid said, flashing a set of chompers that was clearly no stranger to Crest white strips.
Twenty-four minutes passed between reporting Zane lost at sea and the lifeguard’s announcement that they’d found him farther north on the beach.
Once more, I was sobbing as he approached.
“Um, yeah, Mom … didn’t you get the memo? Big girls don’t cry,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Mom, why are you crying?” he said irritably when I didn’t stop immediately. “I knew where I was the whole time!”
Within seconds, I couldn’t remember why I’d been worried. Zane was right; there was no cause for tears. His callous, coldhearted responses were evidence that the boy wasn’t worth even the salt in my teardrops, let alone the unconditional love and devotion they reflected.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” I told him, pulling myself together as we walked back to our beach blanket.
“That’s because I’m your favorite child, and you wouldn’t last a day without me,” Zane said.
“No,” I replied, smiling slyly. “I’m glad you’re alive because this way, I get to kill you myself.”
Staci Ann Wilson Wright teaches special education at the Fairfield High School; she is a summer staff writer at the Ledger.