The One Time I Saved a Three Year Old’s Life & Never Got a Thank You
My daughter’s first choice college was in Brooklyn, New York. After attending the school for a full year, she decided it wasn’t quite for her, so in May I flew to JFK and helped her pack her stuff in order to move to a new school in August.
Since I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be back to New York for a very long time (if at all), the trip to pack up my daughter also became a whirlwind tour of the city. We had already been to all the big attractions over the course of various visits, so I wanted less Empire State Building and more hidden gems.
On one of the last days in New York, my daughter and I got on a subway and headed to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. She prepped me by saying it’s a lot like Central Park but way less crowded.
Boy in the Woods
It was a beautiful May day with the sun shining, a perfect temperature, and people itching to get off sidewalks and onto the grass. Numerous nature seekers flooded Prospect Park but my daughter was right — it was a big enough space that it easily handled the influx of people. Obviously, this visit was pre-COVID19.
We wandered aimlessly and without a plan. Eventually, though, we hatched a partial goal. Because of my insane (and probably unnatural) love of trees, my daughter wanted to show me the Ravine, an area of forest that is 150 acres of woods and water. To this tree thirsty woman, it was an ideal reprieve from the endless blue sky of Southern California. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be complaining about the blue skies where I live but sometimes I need to see real trees with real leaves that provide real shade — palm trees just ain’t my thang.
On the heavily wooded path, we cautiously walked by a man sitting on a rotting log in a sweatshirt with his hoodie tightly closed around his head, attempting to keep one eye on him for any unexpected movements as he smoked something illegal. Our attention was momentarily diverted by a little boy running downhill toward us. He ran on by and I waited for his mother to appear on the horizon, sweaty and chasing her progeny, but not a single person came into view.
I didn’t dwell too much about the little boy’s safety because from where we were in the park, I could see a pond with a man fishing and reasoned that he was probably running to his dad. The boy appeared to have a specific destination in mind, knew how to get there, and seemed sure of himself; he gave no indication of distress.
My kids have a great sense of direction and, when they were little, they used to run far ahead of my husband and me while we hiked through the mountains of Utah. One of my girls even managed to earn the nickname of ‘goat’ on one of these family trips from her trail mastery. We always caught up to them so I figured this was probably a similar situation.
Half-way up the hilly path through the trees, though, something made me turn around to verify the boy was standing near his dad, awaiting his turn to fish. However, at the T at the bottom of the hill, the boy did something strange. Initially he made a left turn and ran for about twenty feet, then stopped. He looked up at me, sensing he was being watched, and then ran full speed in the opposite direction. The boy never went near the fisherman. Instead, he passed the illegal activity man on the log and was heading toward a homeless man who had passed us with his sleeping bag.
The homeless man stopped on the trail after he realized he was being followed. He looked down at the little boy, listened attentively to whatever he said, and then pointed back at me. He thought the little boy was my son or my grandson. The little boy’s eyes followed where the man’s finger pointed but his body didn’t move. He stayed put even after the homeless man continued on his solo journey.
With mounting concern I remarked to my daughter, “I think that boy is lost. His mother should have come down the path looking for him by now,” my eyes looking worriedly through the trees for any other humans.
“You go look further up the trail to see if you see a mom frantically looking for her kid and I’ll stay here to make sure he doesn’t go any farther.”
My daughter walked up the rocky path and out of sight. I kept my eye on the little boy but didn’t approach. I didn’t want to scare him into running farther into the woods. The guy doing illegal things was also watching the little boy from his perch so I began to slowly make my way to the place where the boy planted himself, trying to convey to the man that I wasn’t going to allow anything bad to happen.
After about ten minutes my daughter came into view, her shoes crunching on the rocky terrain, with the news that she didn’t see anyone who was obviously looking for a lost child. When she was safely at my side, we discussed the next step as we headed more purposely toward the little boy.
The young boy looked nervous the closer we got but as a mom of three kids, I knew enough to get down to his level and speak to him in a higher pitched, no-need-to-be-afraid, voice. I asked him his name. It took numerous times for me to understand what he was saying because he was younger than he appeared. After many false starts and attempts at guessing, my daughter figured out his name was Cameron. We learned he was three, he didn’t know where his mom was, and he wasn’t concerned about that. In fact, he wanted to continue his self-exploration of the park. We were ruining his day!
I asked my daughter what was at the top of the trail since she had returned from there. She told me it was the area known as the Long Meadow, acres and acres of grass where families and couples sit on blankets, play frisbee, run with their dogs, enjoy picnics, soak up the sun or any number of the usual park activities.
We decided to follow the trail to the Long Meadow and bring Cameron with us to search for his family. The walk was painfully slow because Cameron was dawdling. His only goal seemed to be get back to what he was doing before my daughter and I intervened. Like a villain on a cartoon who’s been caught, I could almost hear Cameron say, “Darn you, you meddling kids!”
The three of us finally reached the top of the trail, leaving the quiet canopy of trees and were greeted by the blinding sun. Returning my sunglasses to my face, we walked haphazardly on the paths around the grass not knowing what to do or how to start the process of finding Cameron’s mom or dad. Nobody noticed us looking anxiously around because we appeared to be a family enjoying the park like all the other people.
Everyone in our proximity seemed to be enjoying the sunny day and not freaking out about missing a boy. Because of how relaxed everyone was, I wondered if Cameron hadn’t maybe wandered out of a nearby apartment. Having a close neighbor with a son known for his escapes while his dad was left in charge, I knew it was a possibility.
We went in one direction and then another, not knowing whether we would find Cameron’s family.
Bicycle Messenger on a Rescue Mission
All of a sudden, a guy riding a bike on the grass yelled out to everyone he passed, “Have you seen a little boy? Have you seen a little boy walking alone?”
As he approached our spot, we waved and yelled, “Yes, yes. Here he is!”
The guy came rushing to us and stopped, “His mom has been looking for him. The police have been called and they’re on their way. I’ll go tell her he’s been found!”
He got back on his bike pedaled like a lunatic out of sight. His destination was so far away that he could not be seen nor heard from where we stood. As the time clicked by, we started walking toward the direction of the biker.
After a fair amount of time had passed, a woman with an infant in a front pack came running toward us. As soon as she was close enough, she dove to her knees and dwarfed Cameron’s small body in her arms. She was sobbing and didn’t seem to notice that she was squishing both of her babies at the same time. Cameron stood stiffly taking in the emotion, not hugging her back, chattering the whole time, clueless as to why his mom would be so upset.
He said in a little boy voice, “I went on an adventure!” as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do alone and at the wee age of three in a big city.
My daughter and I remained frozen in our spots awkwardly witnessing the scene. Cameron never seemed stressed or upset. He never once cried for his “missing” mother. He never said, “Where’s my mommy? I want my mommy!” He simply followed us when we asked him to, although extremely reluctantly, and stood waiting somewhat impatiently while his mom cried into his shoulder.
When the awkwardness became too much, my daughter and I mumbled something unintelligible and ambled away from the reunion, reliving the unbelievable events. After all, we had been simply touring Prospect Park without a care in the world when along came Cameron, giving us an adventure of a lifetime while on his own.
Cameron’s mom never said a single word to my daughter and me even as we walked away. She never looked up from her son.
Cameron’s mom never thanked us.
And that is okay.
Unexpected Learning Experience
The point of writing this post isn’t to get a pat on the back for being alert. It’s not about wanting to be thanked by the mom — I can imagine the overwhelming emotions of the mother after she was reunited with her son, and wonder if I could speak coherently after experiencing such trauma. I’m going to go with a resounding no. It’s not about getting attaboys from a bunch of random people I don’t know on Medium.
I wanted to take a moment and share that I finally listened to my gut— something I didn’t think I was capable of doing. And I didn’t try to talk myself out of what I thought I was witnessing. Previously, I would have assumed I was wrong and that my instincts were way off. Surely someone was coming to claim this little boy. Little boys don’t go missing right in front of my face. How ridiculous to even arrive at this assumption.
In another lifetime I would have questioned whether I was getting unnecessarily involved. Maybe I’d be wrong that the child was lost in the first place. Maybe I’d be wrong that he was too young to be wandering around an enormous park alone. Who am I to judge other people’s children’s abilities?
Maybe Cameron’s parent would yell at me for bothering his child or moving him from the place he was supposed to be? I’ve been yelled at before for thinking I was helping someone.
How often in the past had I ignored information I was getting from various inputs and wished I had paid attention to my gut? How many times had I promised myself that next time, I’d listen to my inner voice? How many times???
In this particular situation, if I hadn’t been willing to risk being wrong, maybe Cameron would have become another missing child I’d later read about in paper or see on the news.
Now when I start second guessing my instincts, and wonder if I’ll look like a fool if I act on them, I recall that beautiful day in Prospect Park when I met Cameron in the most random of ways.
Thank YOU, Cameron, for helping me remember to listen to my gut.