Many parents have likened their child’s symptoms to having a feeling of being trapped in their own bodies. What about how that child feels about their environment which we structure and oversee as much as possible? Hyper-vigilance helps keep that child safe and under watchful eyes (as do multiple locks, security systems and tracking devices), but as this story shows, kinks in the system happen, and danger can be just moments away.
Tuesday. More specifically Tuesday evening shortly after 7 o’clock. It’s pitch black outdoors and a very chilly 30°. Families on my block are usually finishing after dinner chores, getting kids ready for bedtime or settling onto the couch to watch a TV show. I’ve usually just started our bedtime routine counting down the minutes to some ‘me’ quiet time.
Tuesday was anything but quiet.
I was upstairs in my home tucking three of my little ones in bed. It had been a very difficult day full of rotten attitudes (mine included), so I welcomed their bedtime quicker that evening. My oldest had been sent home from school mid-day with a fever. She’d gotten into bed long before my youngest three were tired. Ronan was in an exceptionally good mood that evening. He’d had some great school reports for a few days in a row and carried that positive energy home. He was still wide awake even after a long day at school with ABA therapy immediately after, so I put a DVD on for him while I ran upstairs to get the littles tucked in. Ronan is usually tucked in first, but giving him some movie time would give me a few extra minutes to make amends with the kids about our rotten day earlier.
I could hear Ronan happily squealing downstairs knowing his favorite scenes were keeping him captive. He sort of hums along with the music from the movie which has always been helpful because I can always hear him even if I don’t have eyes on him. I’d just sat with the little girls for the first few minutes of Ronan’s movie. They were full of sleepy smiles and about to drift off to sleep. I had about 10 minutes before Ronan’s movie was over which was plenty of time to hop over to Little Buddy’s bedroom. Ronan’s little brother picked out a Bible story and was ready to say prayers. Ronan was still squealing with glee as Little Buddy told me a little bit about his school day and shared the specific special intention he has said nightly for Ronan: for Ronan to talk and to play with him and so that other kids like Ronan can be healed. I started to read the Bible story knowing I had just about five minutes left before Ronan’s movie was over. Ronan made more happy noises as Little Buddy settled under the covers.
I was mid-sentence when my heart stopped. I looked past the bedroom doorway, listened to the silence and tossed the Bible on the bed. Little Buddy immediately sat up worried.
“Mommy? Mommy?!” he cried while looking for me to turn to him. He saw terror in my face as I screamed, “Ronan!”
I don’t remember running down the flight of stairs or tearing through our dining room into the den. I do remember the moment that I instantly knew something was horribly wrong. As I rounded the corner to the den door that leads to the garage I didn’t even have to look. I knew that the door was going to be open.
Ronan was gone.
I felt Ronan’s absence in the silence long before I saw that the door was ajar. The emptiness. The darkness. The terror of knowing, and terror of not knowing. And then the cold from outside as it crept into my home. I crossed over the threshold into the garage and into the night air. Chills replaced the feeling I had in my body that was starting to go numb.
Ronan. Ronan! RONAN!
I had both my house phone and my cell phone with me when I was tucking Little Buddy in, so back upstairs I tore. I yelled as I bounded up the stairs to my kids, “Get your shoes, jackets, go, go, go, Ronan is out. We have to find him! Fiona, Fiona!” I yelled toward her bedroom, “Get up! Help me, please, please, please, help me!”
I don’t remember how quickly we got assembled with coats, hats, shoes and whatever flash lights we could find, but we were out the door and my kids up the driveway to find their brother so quickly. Seconds earlier the kids were in their jammies and under warm covers, one still sick. The biting cold didn’t stop them from fanning out to the neighbor’s houses. I called 9-1-1, about to make one of the scariest phone calls I have ever had to make.
Earlier, I had said to myself to close the garage door as we sat down to dinner, but as things go with our constantly busy house, I got distracted and said I’d close it once dinner was over. Ronan had easy access to the rest of the world he is not prepared for. It was so dark and so cold outside. Ronan was in just a sweatshirt and long pants. I couldn’t remember if he had shoes on. He was home, happy and making silly noises; then he wasn’t.
Terror again fell over me.
I was connected right away to 9-1-1. Knowing I had to finish the call with the operator, but desperate to start looking for Ronan myself, I quickly gave her my name, our address and phone number and Ronan’s description: brown hair, brown eyes, 48 inches tall, 54 pounds, non-verbal, slipped out of the house while I was tucking children in, he has the Project Lifesaver bracelet, husband traveling, please, please, I need to go, I have to go find my son!
My hands were shaking as the operator continued to ask for information. Assuring me help was on the way, she kept me on the phone wanting more information to tell the responders.
I could now hear police sirens winding through the streets. “Ma’am? Where are you now?” I was at the top of my driveway watching my neighbors run from house to house, looking in between bushes and running into backyards. “I’m here, top of the driveway, my other kids are looking for Ronan. My neighbors are helping. Ronan has Project Lifesaver…can I give you that number?”
“Yes. Ma’am, the police are on their way,” she continued. “You’re sure he’s not in the house? Have you looked at where would he go on a normal day?”
From the driveway I had already determined Ronan was not where he’d usually go which was to our backyard or the neighbor’s yard to their swing set. I know he wasn’t there because both of the backyard lights are motion-sensor activated, and both backyard lights were off. “He’s not here! I know he’s not here,” I sobbed.
“Okay, I’m giving the police this information, they’ve got a description. We’ve got several units on the way. Stay where you are so they can talk to you and coordinate the search. One last question, Mrs. Jameson. Is there a body of water nearby?”
A new awful sinking feeling hit me as I tried to suppress hyperventilating, “The pool, the neighborhood pool! He knows exactly where it is. He loves going there. There’s a retention pond behind it on the golf course, but he has never seen it. Dear God, I need to go find him, please!”
“We’re directing a unit to go straight to the pool. They’ll work their way down to your house,” she finished.
Tears, silent screaming and aching pain gripped every part of me. I whispered, “Thank you….” As she said that it was finally okay to hang up, the first cruiser blazed down our street. A young sheriff’s deputy jumped out and went over the information he’d received: Ronan. Almost ten-years old. 4 feet tall. Non-verbal. Autism. Wandered away. Twenty minutes ago…
“Mrs. Jameson, we have a unit at the pool, he’ll work his way down. A K-9 unit is on the way,” he started.
K-9 unit. Searching. Hoping to be able to rescue.
Again, a heart-pounding, this-is-not-happening fear swept over me. I pictured Ronan in my head, my beautiful, carefree, unaware and unable to speak little boy. And now, lost, wearing a dark smoky blue sweatshirt and navy blue pants in the dark of night. Of course they’d send dogs to help pick up Ronan’s scent. We could barely see a few houses ahead of us. Beyond the twinkling Christmas lights and the few front porch lights that were on it was so very dark outside.
The first officer on the scene was a sheriff’s deputy. He took charge of the situation with the assistance of one of our neighborhood police officers. Both young, both ready to serve and protect, both intently listening to me as I struggled to remain calm enough to repeat what had happened so quickly: I was saying prayers upstairs with my other son, Ronan was watching a video, the door leading to garage was unlocked as was the garage door, Ronan is non-verbal, autistic, unaware of safety and could be in serious danger.
I offered to show them a picture of Ronan but said that I’d have to go back inside the house to get it. The deputy said, “Ma’am we need to check the house and make sure it’s cleared. Are you sure he’s not inside.” I said I was sure, but they said they need to check themselves and that I needed to go in one more time to check with them. I was to go first and call Ronan as if it was a regular request for him to come to me. Trembling, I tried to cheerfully call to Ronan, “Hey, Rone, it’s Mommy. Come here, Buddy….” Room after room I was greeted by silence – my house void of any sounds beyond my heavy breathing and the footsteps of the responders a step behind me. The only thing I was sure of was how empty it felt inside.
As they cleared each room, bathroom, closet and every nook and cranny in between, I scampered to my office and grabbed Ronan’s latest school picture. The local police officer described Ronan and repeated his stats into a walkie talkie to his partner who was on our street looking for my little boy.
My other children were outside with several of our neighbors. My three girls went to the two houses to the left of our house to call their attention that Ronan had gone missing. IzBiz, age 6, could barely speak as she cried to them to help. Sobbing so hard, they knew right away something was terribly wrong. Those neighbors were out on the street in a flash understanding instantly how dangerous a situation this was for Ronan. In the opposite direction, Little Buddy was with another set of neighbors to the right of us. They had just pulled into their driveway as I was making the 9-1-1 call. They quickly grabbed their flashlights when they heard my plea and fanned one side of the street while the other families searched the other side.
It felt like hours had past. Less than half-an-hour had actually gone by. At this point I was still with the police and had stepped back outside to join the rescue effort. As I looked to the deputy to tell him I couldn’t stay still any longer and was going to join the search, I heard someone yelling, “MRS. JAMESON! MRS. JAMESON!!! We found him, we found him!” One of the older children on the street bellowed the message while running straight toward me. My oldest daughter was with her. As they approached, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and ran as fast as I could to where I saw a crowd of people yelling, “Cathy, Cathy! We have him! He’s okay!”
Unable to see because of how dark it was, and because of how hard I was still crying, I could only make out silhouettes. The closer I got I saw my kids, my neighbors, some police officers and finally Ronan. Cradled in the arms of one of the neighbors, I ran to him. Barely able to stop my arms from shaking, I scooped Ronan up and held him. Time stopped in that moment. I held him and cried into his sweatshirt as I burying my head into his chest.
Every emotion and feeling I’ve ever had went through me. It was a mixture of fear, joy, anger, luck, anxiety, exhaustion, sadness, sorrow and relief. My neighbors stood close by encouraging me as I shook uncontrollably. Their presence enveloped me and gave me the strength I needed to stand up, hold Ronan in my arms and walk toward my house.
We walked together and out tumbled the story of how they found Ronan. He was across the street from our house and about four houses down. He either knocked on that neighbor’s door or tried to get into the house by himself. We hadn’t met this neighbor yet, but of all the people on the street, Ronan picked the house of someone who knew sign language. Ronan was trying to sign with her, and she with him, but the sign Ronan was using wasn’t one she was familiar with. To find a neighbor who understood sign language, who also knew it was odd for this little boy to be out at night alone, while trying to figure out what he needed gave me goose bumps. Thank God for the stalled communication as it kept Ronan in one place for a few minutes.
We gathered at my driveway thankful the search had ended in success. One by one the neighbors returned to their own homes assuring and reassuring me that they are always ready to help and to never be afraid to ask for it. The neighbors we know the best on our street lingered in the driveway with me while I talked to the deputy. I sent the kids inside after giving Ronan one more hug. The deputy wanted to ask a few more questions to be able to complete his report.
Making sure all five of mine were safe inside and that the doors were locked behind them, I asked, “God forbid there is a next time, but what should we do if there is a next time?” He said I did exactly the right thing to call 9-1-1, to ask the neighbors to help and to be ready to assist once the police had arrived. I explained that in another neighborhood where we lived we had given the chief of police a “Person of Interest” write up. On the page was a current picture of Ronan, his medical diagnosis, current height and weight and our address and phone numbers. The deputy said that would be helpful to have. I promised I’d drop one off in the morning to our local police station.
I said one more thank you and then good night to my neighbors who made sure I was okay. I turned to walk into my house and saw my beautiful children through the doorway. They were standing there hovering waiting for me with worried looks still furrowing their brows. I closed and locked the front door and broke down. I reached for my children and collapsed in a big hug crying. Ronan stood a few steps from us not understanding why we were crying or how intense of a situation we’d just experienced, but he too came in for the hug and let me hold him tightly.
I ushered the kids to the dining room table where we sat and said prayers of thanksgiving. We then talked about what happened and why we can never ever lose Ronan like that again. The kids asked thankful for all the help we got and gave me a play-by-play of who was helping them. Then, they asked how I knew Ronan was gone because each of them saw my panic, and each of them felt how quickly we needed to act. I told them it was my Mommy intuition. I just knew. I could feel Ronan was gone. IzBiz cried again. Then she stopped and in all seriousness said, “Mommy, it was a message. You got a message that Ronan was gone.” Yes, sweet child. I did. Thank God I did.
Little Buddy brainstormed quickly, “Mommy, I know what we can do! We can get Ronan’s picture, put it on an index card and give it to every neighbor. We should write our address and phone number and say that Ronan can’t talk, he knows sign language, likes gluten free cookies and sometimes drools when he works hard.” I had to smile. Sweet Little Buddy who only moments before the frantic search was praying for his big brother asking for healing of Ronan’s body so that they can do normal things together. I said that was a great idea but maybe we didn’t need to include that Ronan drools. We’d make cards on Wednesday and deliver them to each neighbor after school.
I kissed each child, tucking them all back into bed with an extra hug praying that each of them could have a restful night. When I finally sat down by myself I couldn’t stop crying. I was finally alone, my ‘me’ time. How I wished that evening’s event didn’t have to be. The night still raw, the chill still in my body, the physical ache of being out of shape but running as quickly as I did, and the reminder of how panicked I was. I was afraid. I was afraid to think, to move, to not think and to sit still. I was afraid to go to bed. I was afraid if we’d have a ‘next time’. I was afraid of how quickly things fall apart in these types of situations. I was afraid of everything, and I was afraid of a ‘God-forbid’ moment that I could lose Ronan forever.
Wednesday afternoon rolled around. We set out to visit our neighbors, this time in daylight. I had time to make only a handful of cards that day as Little Buddy suggested but wanted to deliver as many as I had to whomever was home. We gave a few cards to neighbors closest to our house, introducing ourselves to the ones we hadn’t met yet, thanking those who were on the street with us Tuesday night. We received an overwhelming response as we shared the cards—one gentlemen offered to be in charge of a neighborhood phone tree to rally everyone. Another said she wanted to meet Ronan so he could recognize her and not be afraid of her if she’s ever the one to rescue him. Another made sure her children were listening in case they saw Ronan out alone. We were greeted at each house with cheerful smiles and departed with lots of support.
I had one card left from that first batch to deliver and knew exactly who I wanted to give it to. We walked to one of the last houses on the street where I knew someone from the sheriff’s department worked. My husband had met everyone on the block at a big neighborhood Halloween party, but I was not able to go and missed out on meeting everyone. This family has four kids, some of whom play with mine. I should have introduced myself long ago, but with Ronan’s needs and how busy we are, I just haven’t done that. It was time to finally say hello and to let them know a little about Ronan.
Night was beginning to fall, so I wanted to be quick at the door. I had only wanted to say, hey, this is us, this is my son, here’s why we need you to know who he is and then get us home. I got more than that.
I rang the doorbell and stood on the front stoop. A young guy wearing a ball cap and in workout clothes answered the door. I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Cathy Jameson, we live down the street. I don’t know if you were home last night and heard all the sirens, but (handing him the index card) here’s why. This is my son, he’s non-verbal and wandered away….” The young man interrupted me and said, “Cathy, I was there.”
Stunned, I looked at him again. My mind flashed back to Tuesday night. The sirens, the lights…oh, my gosh! It was the sheriff’s deputy!
All of the emotions from the night before rushed back. Holding back tears I hadn’t expected to shed I said, “Oh! I didn’t recognize you. Ohmygosh, you live here! Thank you. Thank you so much!” I blurted while trying to remain composed.
We talked. A short ‘here’s us’ intro turned into a detailed conversation. I told him I’d stopped by our neighborhood police station that morning to give them Ronan’s person of interest page. I thanked them for their quick response time and reminded them that Ronan has Project Lifesaver. The deputy said that he was able to make sure Ronan’s information was readily available to the sheriff units who respond to our neighborhood. All of the important data would be immediately accessible should this ever happen again. I thanked him and said we were making sure doors were locked, that Ronan stayed under a watchful eye and that by week’s end every neighbor would have an index card with Ronan’s picture. I had already started to gather items for a search and rescue bag making sure each of my kids had a bag with a flashlight, picture of Ronan, and a picture card of one of Ronan’s favorite toys to help redirect him to come home. The deputy nodded his head because he and I had spoken about having a “go to” bag ready at the front door the night before.
We visited half a dozen houses that evening having met several new neighbors and offering continued gratitude to those who acted so quickly. I do know that as much as my world caved in Tuesday night, it grew a little bit bigger as more people came to the rescue. As night fell and the sky darkened once again, and as I walked the very same street Ronan wandered up the night before, sadness came over me. I knew I had more work and planning to do. Raising a child with Ronan’s abilities and more so, his disabilities, nothing has yet been a guarantee. Great days are great, and we celebrate them. But, those awful, terrifying, heart-stopping days full of the scariest moments I’ve ever lived are ones that hurt. It hurts deeply both physically and emotionally. Those days are nightmares and happen while I’m wide awake.
Walking to my house, passing the homes of my neighbors who I know I can completely depend upon gave me a second of peace, but only a second because of how unpredictable life has been. I approached my house and could see lights on and activity inside. My children. I live for my children; they helped make me who I am. I was greeted with smiles and hugs.
They were safe, all of them including Ronan, for now. I entered my house, locked the door, and prayed. Feeling ever so thankful for Ronan’s safety, I prayed for continued safety. Feeling overwhelmed again, I prayed for help because this is so hard—to do everything I possibly can for Ronan, to make sure I stay healthy and alive to be able to help him, to know how to know what is right for him, I do not want to mess anything up. I prayed for myself, for Ronan, for my kids. What my children go through on the scary days cannot be easy to handle yet they are some of the strongest people I know. I prayed for our family because we are learning as we go and have to work together to make things better for Ronan.
As I walked toward Ronan, to make sure he was okay, and to get a physical reminder that he was safe, I hugged him and prayed once more. I prayed with all of my heart. I love you, Ronan, more than words can say. I pray for you constantly and always hope that you know how much we love you. I prayed for other kids like Ronan knowing so many children are affected and how truly unfair life is for them. I prayed for their families, for their caregivers and even for those who refuse to believe but need to. My last prayer before I started dinner and what I hoped would be a much quieter and safer evening for us was a prayer for those who have wandered, that there never be a next time. How I hope and pray we never experience another moment like what happened on Tuesday ever again.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.