I wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty, heart beating out of rhythm. It’s my most recurring nightmare, in which I’m lost and desperate to find my way back to my childhood home. It’s always, always that home. But this time the nightmare has added a new fright level–my kids are lost. Someone’s taken them away and I cannot run fast enough to rescue them.
I drink deeply from my water bottle and check on the kids. They’re asleep, they’re alright. But the apprehension, the unease lingers.
The tears come unannounced. I want to go back to bed, instead I walk all the way back to the zoo where six-year-old me is standing in front of the elephant enclosure, marveling at how a creature so gigantic could have such kind eyes. How would it feel to hug it? The metal chains are digging into her soft pillar-like legs. We need to take her home, Appa, she’s not safe here, I say, reaching for Appa’s hand. His thumb feels unfamiliar and when I look up, a stranger’s face smiles down at me. I had let go of Appa’s hand and rushed off by myself to see the elephants. My sister was taking too long looking at the other animal riff-raff. But, now I don’t know how to get back.
I try to swim upwards, out of this memory. I feel the same terror my six-year-old self felt. What if I don’t see my parents again? What happens if they catch Co-vid? How will I get to them? It’s a slippery slope of what-ifs.
My brain jogs back again.
It’s an old man with beady eyes in a green Chevy. “Are you lost, sweetheart?” I could be his granddaughter. I am lost, but I taste the creepy undercurrent in the “sweetheart.” We’ve just moved houses and this is the first time I’ve taken the bus from university to the new place. Maybe I missed a turn after I got off. The map says words like “northeast” and “southwest,” so I’m on the sidewalk, turning round and round with arrow on my phone map like I’m on a carousel.
I say no, but he doesn’t go away. “Honey, I just want help.” I pick a random direction and start walking. “I can take you wherever you want to go.” He presses on while driving creepily slow to match my pace. When he starts making kissing sounds, I stop, turn around and threaten to call 911, although my heart is quivering.
What if this happens to my daughter and I’m not around? What if she can’t get in touch with me?
Slip, slip, slip, slide…
The tears return. I’m spent.
Out of nowhere, comes a clear vision. My daughter’s confident face–the same one that comes on when I’m explaining a math problem she already knows how to solve. “I got this, Mama.”
And just like that, as I’m slipping, she puts out a safety net to catch me.
I promise myself I’ll put out every safety net I possibly can for her. I’ll always find her like my parents found me at the zoo.