They all looked the same. Like a penguin colony of black wetsuits bobbing amongst the waves. She was a tinier version of the rest, which made it more difficult to pick her out.
Nick mimed from the shore. “Is Amelia with you?”
I stood, unsuccessfully brushing sand from my sunscreened limbs. What did he mean, with me? She was with him!
My tiptoe across the burning sand became a dash. Our three-year-old was missing!
“She was just there!” He pointed to the hole they’d dug in the sand. The residue from crashed waves eroded the edges. Her abandoned bucket sucked back into the surf.
“I turned to check on the boys and she was gone!” His face strained, his voice sharpened.
Fear punctured my lungs. A wave of vomit rose, stopped only by my heart taking up too much space in my throat. The pounding in my ears from its racing tempo was deafening.
I turned. Left. Right. Swung around in a circle. Dazzled by the rainbow of beach tents and umbrellas five-deep on the sand, I fought the urge to scream.
Nick yelled to our older boys to come out of the water. He harried them, half-dragged them out as they dripped, heavy with boogie boards. They were under strict instructions to stay at our beach umbrella while we searched for their sister.
“Go! Look!” I shrieked. Nick’s usual olive-complexion suddenly whitened.
I paced with no idea where to head. My stomach heaved as I tracked the water’s edge, terrified her miniature body may be found floating, face down. Cold sweat bathed me despite the heat. Newspaper headlines cluttered my thinking: Three-year-old drowns at Smiths Beach. We had become those parents: the ones who took their eyes off their child for a second. Now she was missing. The inescapable truth would be the lifelong punishment. This was our fault. NO!I screamed, defying the ominous clouds in my mind. I willed my chest to loosen and allow me to breathe.
Dizzied by wetsuits that ran past, I eliminated beach goers that were not Amelia. I combed the beach for golden plaits peeping out from under a pink sunhat. I flicked my head between surf and sand as though watching a tennis match without a winner. With each violent crash of waves I pictured her fighting for the surface, limp and breathless.
As time spiralled I knew our chances of finding her fit and healthy, perhaps just a little teary, were fading. Lifeguards were alerted. Despite colossal efforts to hide their dread on our behalf, I registered their anxious faces.
My legs jerked underneath me as I sprinted up and down the beach. I called her name, at first calm, then rapidly escalating to a shrill alarm, “Amelia! Amelia! AMELIA!”
Onlookers watched my desperate hunt, some standing from their towels, feeling my anguish, wanting to help. I couldn’t describe her without breaking down. There was no time to stop and explain. Like a crab, I scuttled sideways, darting in and out, willing her to miraculously appear. I was a skydiver without a parachute. A mother without her child.
Another layer fought for a place in my already scattered brain: What if someone’s taken her? A stranger leaving with an upset child – most would just assume she was having a tantrum about leaving the beach, rather than trapped in the clutches of a vile paedophile. Tears spilt out and dried salt scars on my cheeks.
The haze of noise muddied my senses. The rumbling surf slamming on the shore played a background song to squeals of laughter from other children.
Could it be? At first it was faint then gradually louder.
Familiar sobs of our tiny beach dancer. I spun around to see her in the distance, puffy-eyed and snotty-nosed in the arms of a man. He’d watched her wander the beach, disoriented and crying. Realising she was lost, he scooped her up and searched for her parents.
The swell of nausea collided with the heartbeats in my throat. My limbs were jelly. Arms outstretched, I wailed, ear-splitting howls of a tormented woman. I embraced the sodden mass of blonde plaits and too-big-wetsuit. I inhaled the salt and the sand, with a hug that nearly forced the air out of her. I stroked her hair, traced her tear-stained face and patted her entire body to check she was really there. Whole. Safe.
Nick ran to us. We embraced with Amelia our sandwich filling. He thanked the stranger, explaining how Amelia was at his feet, then a moment later, gone. Silently vanished.
The three of us walked interlocked, back to the where our sons were anxiously waiting. Their barrage of questions drowned in the sea of a lingering family hug.
The lifeguards returned to their post. Another day, another child lost and found.
It wasn’t another day for us.
The terror of what could have been and the relief at what was not would forever change us. The sunlight dimmed as we packed our belongings and walked to the car. I gripped my daughter’s hand, a little too tightly, all the way home.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem