I got left at a department store once. I was 3 or 4 years old, and my parents got in the car and took off, apparently unaware they had left me behind.
It might have been partially my fault. I remember that I found department stores terribly boring as a child, and I used to go under or inside the racks of clothing while my folks took what felt like forever to browse around, try stuff on, make me try stuff on and all that.
Anyway, it wasn’t intentional by either party. (At least I hope not.) My parents realized their mistake on the way home, came back and got me, unscathed and likely unaware that I had even been forgotten. In fact, despite a pretty good long-term memory, even of things that happened when I was that age, I don’t remember this experience at all. It’s been retold to me numerous times over the years, my mother emphasizing the absolute panic she felt upon realizing what had happened.
I got to experience that feeling for myself this week, when I got a call from my wife about half an hour after our son’s school day had finished. I wasn’t at the school to pick him up, because he had a regular extracurricular that day.
“You know they’re not doing that this week, right?” my wife asked.
I did not.
This might’ve been my fault.
The school sent home a newsletter mentioning that it wouldn’t be doing that activity this week, and my wife swears she told me about it, or at least said it out loud at some point while I was in her presence. You’d better believe that counts.
I grabbed my keys, leapt into the car, and began disobeying several local and state traffic laws to get to the school. There was a pit in my stomach the whole way.
Now, I knew that he wouldn’t just get left outside the school, and I knew there were probably other kids still there. I felt terrible all the same. The rational side of my mind knew he wasn’t in any danger. (It’s not like he’d been dropped off in a rail yard that morning.) However, I was worried he’d be sad, hurt or afraid while thinking I’d forgotten about him. I was also a little embarrassed by my poor parenting.
There were two teachers and two administrators outside the entrance when I pulled up. I rolled to a stop and lowered my window.
“Tell me I’m not the first parent who has ever done this,” I said.
“You’re not the first parent who has ever done this,” three of them said in near unison, with the fourth adding a dry, “Are you kidding?”
The little guy emerged and hopped into the car, chipper as ever at the end of a school day. There were still some other kids waiting to be picked up. Relief flooded through me like a soothing breeze.
“I. Am. So. Sorry.” I said to my son.
“Don’t blame yourself, dad,” he said. “It’s OK. It’s not your fault.”
I wish I had recorded those words, so I could play them to myself over and over once he’s a teenager.
I guess that knot in the gut is something every parent feels at one time or another. The answer from the teachers, my own experience from long ago and even the time or two when I was in elementary school and the car pool almost made it out of the lot before we remembered we were short a person (only to look back and see them chasing the car and bawling) tells me this is something that happens. In fact, when my wife told her co-workers about it, one of them asked, almost in disbelief, “He’s how old and this the first time you’ve done this?”
If there’s an upside, it’s that, in most cases, there isn’t any serious danger. Still, the imagination runs through several worst-case scenarios after the jolt of naked, primal fear that hits when you hear, “You know they’re not doing that this week, right?”
The experience is quite effective in making you realize your brain has been on autopilot a little too much, although if that’s a problem for you, I’d recommend some other, less risky method of obtaining hyper awareness (like attempting to dodge decommissioned Jarts hurled at you by a friend or family member).