Friday, November 22, 2013

Father Knows Nothing: Panic Attack

I had one of those days yesterday that took a few years off my life.

My middle son Johnny had a doctor's appointment after school. I had made arrangements for my youngest son Sean to go to his friend's house, but I had forgotten to mention it to my oldest son Tommy.

So, when Johnny got home from school, I said we couldn't go until I told Tommy what was up. (He and Johnny both go to the same school, but Johnny won't walk home with him because he considers Tommy too slow).

We waited.

And we waited.

And pretty soon it was time for the appointment, so we had no choice but to leave. I left Tommy a note on the dining room table.

But as we drove to the doctor's office, I had that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Tommy may be slow, but he's almost never late, and he always calls to tell us if he is. I called his cellphone from the doctor's office, and it went right to voicemail. I called home to see if he was there yet. No one answered.

Each time I called, I got more and more nervous.

By the time we got home from the doctor's office it was nearly 5:00, and Tommy still wasn't home.

I drove over to the school and looked around for him, hoping that maybe he was studying in the library or the school commons, but he wasn't there either. The offices, classrooms, and study areas were closed. There was no-one there but the basketball team and the drama club.

That's when I started to panic. I called Bridget and told her what was up, and she began to panic too.

We couldn't call Tommy's friends to ask if they knew where to find him, because his friends are older and don't go to school with him anymore. We couldn't call the school because nobody was there. So, I did what any normal parent would do.

I drove up and down every street between home and school looking for a body on the side of the road. When I didn't see anything in the dark, I began filing the "missing persons" report in my mind, picturing myself trying to convince a police officer that the long-haired kid in the picture is not on drugs, nor is he irresponsible in the slightest. ("Sure, dad," I could hear the cop reply, "that's what all parents think.")

I called Bridget again and asked her to e-mail the principal while I went home to check on his brothers. Sean had since returned from his friend's house.

"Is Tommy here?" I asked.


"Do you know where he is?"

"Nope. Do you?"

"No," I admitted. "I don't."

"So technically, you don't know if he's alive or dead," Sean added helpfully.

Thanks kid.

I immediately walked right back out of the house to do another search of the school. This time, I ran into the drama coach. He had just dismissed his students from rehearsal. He could see I was nervous.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"My son didn't come home from school," I said.

He tried his best to hide his "they're teenagers--that's what teenagers do" expression, but he pulled out his computer to help me anyway.

"What's his name?" he asked.

"Tommy Kaempfer," I replied.

When he saw Tommy's picture in his computer, a look of recognition crossed his face. "Oh Tommy! Yeah, I know him." Then he looked at me, and I could see the concern on his face immediately. "You're right to worry. Tommy isn't like that at all."

At that moment, I was truly on the cusp of losing it.

The teacher clicked onto Tommy's attendance page and saw that Tommy had indeed attended every class. "That's weird," he said. "He was here all day. Wait a minute--it says that the honors Spanish class is going on a field trip. Does that sound familiar?"

Not really. It didn't at all.

"Thanks," I said, to calm down the teacher. "I'm sure that's where he is."

It wasn't until I put the key in the ignition that it hit me. Tommy had asked me to sign a permission slip the night before. He had gotten me at a moment when I was working, and I was clearly only partially paying attention to him. For the life of me, I couldn't recall the conversation at all. Did he mention a field trip? He might have.

You know, there's a reason why I've called this column "Father Knows Nothing" all these years. These kids are turning out well in spite of me, not because of me.

On the other hand, I will say this. There's nothing like thinking your son is gone to make you appreciate him. I almost crushed him with a hug when he walked in the door, home from his field trip at 7pm.

"You OK Dad?" he asked.

"Nope," I said. "But you are, and that's all that matters."