It was New Year's Eve, 2009. My wife and and I had taken separate cars on shopping errands and were to meet up again at home to go out for dinner and then to a party with friends. With nothing on my mind but how to spend some Christmas cash that my mom and dad had given me (thanks mom and dad) I drove over to the local mall. After meeting up with Kelley at Nordstrom (she was there buying a coat and wanted my opinion), we said our goodbyes and I headed for Fossil and God knows what. I hadn't been to the mall in a long time. Probably because I don't like going there, but I have a one track mind when it comes to shopping like this: I get in, get what I want, and get out. Hit it hard and fast and minimize the damage to my sanity. With me so far?
Well, I had made a pass down one corridor, didn't find what I wanted, and was about to head back the way I'd come to get the heck out. I was trying to think where I could find what I was looking for when a lady walked past me headed in the other direction. She was shouting "Natalie!" quite loudly. My first thought was one of annoyance. I remember thinking that she obviously had no idea how to conduct herself in public, and seems to think that shouting across the mall to get someone's attention is an appropriate thing to do. How dare she interrupt my thoughts and my shopping experience with her foolish behavior.
I began to look back after about the third shout of "Natalie!". My brain began to tell me that something wasn't right. At first it seemed like she was shouting to a friend up ahead, but now her voice had grown frantic. I turned to see her coming back up the other side of the mall corridor, and now she was jogging. I could see the look of panic on her face and as she came along side me and shouted the name for about the fifth time I saw that the look of panic was quickly being exchanged for terror. I knew something was wrong. It was obvious that she wasn't trying to just catch up with a friend.
But I'd frozen.
I'd like to tell you what went through my head while I watched other mall goers watch her run past in a panic, obviously looking for her child, but I'm not sure that I can adequately define the machinations that led me to such horrifying inaction.
I watched as she sped past me, huffing and screaming now at the top of her lungs. A small voice leaped out of the deep recesses of my conscious mind pleading with me to help this poor woman. I thought sluggishly that if only all of the people in the mall would stop what they were doing and organize themselves that this poor lady's child could be found with ease. But while I thought about what to do and struggled with whether and how I should volunteer, a young lady in exercise clothing stopped the searching mother and calmly asked her (with a smile) if she needed help.
I walked towards them and felt like I'd got stuck in a dream. The kind where you want to run, you know you can run, but you just can't manage it, and all you end up doing is crawling and pulling yourself along desperately towards some unknown end. I was stuck in a sickening syrup of indecision.
As the two women hastily discussed the situation, I realized that I had my cell phone and that I could probably make good use of it at this point. Finally I was in motion. By the time I reached the two women standing outside an Express store, I was a part of a larger crowd gathered around them. Most of us had our phones out and were listening to people repeat the information. The lady's child had gone missing. She was five years old, wearing a brown sweater and pig tails. Her name was Natalie.
I punched in the mom's phone number and tried to think where the nearest store that would have any interest for a child would be. Just down the corridor was a Build-A-Bear store. I walked slowly towards the store, scanning in all directions on my level and down to the ground level below me. I arrived at the store and checked it over, making sure to look carefully at each kid, and checking around corners. A clerk stopped and asked if I needed any help, so I told her what was going on and to call mall security if she found the girl.
I walked back out and up the corridor. I saw security heading for exits and members of our anonymous search party looking around for the little girl. I guess we'd been looking for about 15 or 20 minutes when a lady walked past me, touched my arm, and said "They found her." Relief spread through my belly like the first warm spoonful of soup taken on a cold winter's day. And as I walked, smiling at the good news, I saw the mom, another family member that I presumed to be her sister, and three small children with them. One of the tiny, cute little girls was being admonished pretty vigorously in hushed tones to hold hands and not to wander off. The mom was crying. She didn't see me, but I'll never forget her, and I'll never forget Natalie.
So why do I tell this story? I tell it to illustrate how great we as a people can be when we work together instead of against one another. I tell this story to demonstrate how inaction whether due to fear or selfishness ends in the same result.
A lady was in need of help finding her little girl on New Year's Eve and my first reaction was annoyance and indecision? I can't count the times that I've stopped to help someone (even grown men) lift heavy things into their car or truck in department store parking lots. I've stopped many times to help stranded motorists push their cars to safety, taken gas to a biker with an empty tank, brought food to the homeless, and jumped to the defense of the defenseless. How callous had my heart grown that I couldn't see that this woman needed help? Had I become one of those city people that you see in movies who stand around at the scene of a crime, watching someone be victimized, and never lifting a finger to help because they're afraid to get involved?
The good news is that the lady found her little girl and she was fine. I am glad that I woke up from my stupor and was part of the effort to find her, but I take little solace from it. I could have been the first person to stop her and ask if she needed help, rather than watching with the other 100 odd gawkers as precious seconds ticked by.
What I took away from this experience is the understanding that while we may be ever approaching the theoretical reality of a global community, most of the time we do not behave as one.
But I also learned that it only takes one person to make a difference and do the right thing.
And I promise you, dear readers, next time I won't hesitate to be that person.
God bless you.