2018-08-01 / Columns

Parent-child separation is a nightmare no family should endure


Once, long, long ago, I was at a huge, bustling factory outlet with my hand holding on to our daughter Nancy’s little hand. “I don’t like it here,” she had said to me with the uncanny wisdom of a four-yearold.

What was there to like?

Pipe racks? Artificial light. Noise. And the kind of mayhem that’s easier felt than explained.

What tiny girl would find any of that enchanting?

“We’ll be finished soon,” was my reflexive answer to whatever child of ours I’d had to drag on the shopping trip. So I am sure I said that to Nancy.

And then I must have been distracted, looking away at something. And suddenly her hand wasn’t in mine. Nor was she anywhere in sight.

If you’re a parent, and you’ve ever had that moment, you know the heart-dropping raw panic that comes when that tiny person who depends on you for safety is suddenly just not there.

Nancy is 50 years old now. She is a mother herself. But sometimes we still talk about that day, and we both pause and then push it away.

I won’t toy with you. Nothing terrible happened at that factory outlet except the overwhelming feeling that if anything had happened to Nancy, I should never have forgiven myself. That this was my fault for being distracted. Caring for her was my job, my sacred responsibility.

And just writing these words on my computer is making my hands shake. There is something primal about protecting our children.

Of course there was that dreadful announcement on the loudspeaker that there was a lost child wearing a pink jacket, that her name was Nancy, and that she knew her phone number.

That last accomplishment was a source of pride to this youngest daughter whose two older sisters had taught our phone number to her. Reciting it was her delight.

What seemed like a day later, but was no doubt only five minutes, Nancy was brought back to me by a store employee. “I told them my phone number,” she said proudly as I, not Nancy, sobbed in relief.

Yes, a simple story, one that’s probably repeated endlessly in stores and public buildings.

But those were different times. Simpler. Safer. Not as mean.

Our mother-child separation was literally only minutes, but it tore my heart out, and I know I would have walked through fire to get my child back that day.

And I have replayed that day over and over again during this summer of images of immigrant children ripped away from their parents, then put in cages, with parents pleading, screaming, raging, begging, and praying.

I will never know how it feels to live what they are living. I will only know that it is unbearable not to have your child with you because of politics and power plays.

Over one of these endless stifling summer days, my husband and I have sat and gasped about children as young as three years old expected to testify in a court proceeding about their own immigration history.

I seldom venture into political subjects. But I do venture into family subjects. And I do keep asking others what we are to make of this country I love when we see those images of a kind of barbarism— yes, barbarism, that is beyond understanding.

And I come back to that day 50-some years ago when I didn’t know where my child was.

I suspect that somewhere in every parent is the tiger protecting his/her young—helpless, powerless, perhaps, but still a parent. The pure agony of having a child taken away must reverberate for all of us who are parents. For the child who lives in such a bewildering, teeming nightmare, will there ever be a complete recovery?

My very smart child psychologist friend thinks maybe not. Early damage is evidently too often lifetime damage.

I so wish I could do something. I so wish that by the time you read this, there will be some balm on this monster human wound of parent-child separation that feels for all the world like kidnapping.

Even the cockeyed optimist in me is feeling that we will all be mourning this chapter of history, as our dramatic daughters used to say, “…all the way to forever.”  pinegander@aol.com

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