I took the kids to Fossil Day at our local natural history museum on Saturday. T. was jumping up and down about this event because not long ago, she declared that she wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up. She's always been interested in dinosaurs and fossils, even at a very young age. She loved all the dinosaur books L. rejected when he was her age. He was all about trains and trucks; she wanted nothing to do with those.
The museum was packed, with lots of displays and exhibits featuring old bones and fossils and paleontologist people and fossil hobbyists everywhere. L. really didn't want to be there in the least. He was holding out for a visit to the museum across the street--the history museum--which has a permanent exhibit on weapons and North Carolina's involvement in various wars and weapon development. He was being extraordinarily and unusually patient, though, so I forgave him for trying to rush T. through all the craft tables. At one display booth we all stopped to look at some fossilized plants. An older woman was standing next to us, and when she saw the kids leaning over the table she said directly to L., "Oh young man, I bet you'll grow up to study these one day!" completely ignoring his sister's presence right there, bent over the fossils in solemn study of each detail. It didn't seem fair to me that there are still people out there who think, when they see a boy and a girl at some science-related event, that it's the boy whose interested in it all; the boy who will grow up to do work in that field when right there beside him, is a tiny, earnest, smart little girl who might very well take the world of paleontology by storm.
And look out when she does, that's all.
When we did make it over to the history museum, my legs were so tired from traipsing around after fossils, and T.'s legs were tired, too, that we decided to sit in the chairs at the entrance to the war & weapons exhibit and let L. explore it on his own. The exhibit, which I know by heart now, extends back in a sort of "U" shape from the entrance, so there was no way L. could walk through it without coming back out where we were sitting. I'd never done that sort of thing before: let him explore on his own somewhere while we waited. But all the conditions seemed right for trying this out.
We waited, and L. went off happily. We waited, T. and I. And waited. And waited. So much time went by that I couldn't believe he was still in that U-shaped exhibit. And that's when the doubts began to creep in. Had the exhibit changed? Was there some way he got out on his own? Had I missed him? The dilemma, of course, was that since it was just me and T., if we got up in search of L. we ran the risk of having him return to the seats to find us gone. In the end, I couldn't stand it anymore and we set off into the exhibit to find him. We called his name, we walked through it all twice, three times. I even went across the hall to another exhibit, but he wasn't there, either. Panic began to creep along the hairs on my arms, and grab at my throat. It wasn't quite the sort of panic you get when you lose sight of a very little child for a few horrible, nightmarish moments, but it was still a panic. L. can be unpredictable, and the panic fed off that fact.
Just when I had decided to head downstairs to the information booth to have L. paged T. and I turned the corner for the third time and found him bent over a placard describing the life and times of Carbine Williams. He looked up at me as if he'd only been out of sight for half a second, not for 15 agonizing minutes.
I have no idea how we missed him, or where he'd been. I tried to be even-keeled about it all, so L. could still feel proud about walking through the exhibit on his own. But inside, inside I felt shaky and uncertain, and I don't think that feeling will ever go away--as long as you're a parent, as long as your kids continue to take those steps out on their own, away from you.