I never asked her name. I never asked her name. Despite the fact that for 45 heart-stopping, panic-infused minutes, this woman became my lifeline.
For 45 minutes I lost my daughter in a very crowded T.J. Maxx the Saturday before Christmas. I have shared the story of my daughter's autism, but this is not a story about autism. It is a story about a total stranger -- a woman, a mother -- who recognized in the eyes of another mother, sheer panic and called to action an entire community of shoppers to help search for a missing girl.
It all began with a glass falling in the aisle where goblets and vases are piled high upon shelves. As the glass came smashing to the floor, my instinct reached to grab the two babies toddling in front of me, their feet poised to step right onto the shards. In the seconds it took me to grab those children and place them safely in the arms of their mother, my daughter was gone.
Quietly I searched every aisle, every row, every corner of the store assuring myself that she had to be somewhere. She never just disappeared like this before in a store. After 10 minutes it was clear -- I could find her nowhere in the crowd.
Standing in front of the entrance doors, surveying the sea of people, a woman who was walking in touched my arm and asked what was wrong. Looking at her I said, "I can't find my daughter."
"Oh, we'll find her. I promise you, we'll find her."
"You don't understand," the words coming out in pulses as I tried to keep my breathing steady. "She has autism."
Gravely determined, she said, "We will find her. Describe her to me."
And I did. I described my daughter's features, her outfit, her height.
She then raised her voice above the din of the crowd, the Christmas music, the beep of the cash registers and called for everyone to listen. In both English and Spanish she told everyone to stop what they were doing and start looking for my daughter.
I watched as everyone, I mean everyone, put aside their carts, put down the overflow of items in their hands and started calling out my daughter's name as they went up and down every aisle, circling the store. An off-duty police officer and a firefighter searched the stock room, bathroom, dressing room. The store rang in a resounding chorus of Katies.
But she could not be found. In my gut, I knew that she was not in the store and I ran through the doors and across the parking lot, making my way to the car that was parked in a row near the Hudson River. Every step that drew me nearer to the car brought bolts of fear that she might have strayed towards the river.
As I approached the tinted back window of the car, I could see the shadow of her silhouette sitting in the back seat. My heart pounded to the resounding beat of my brain, "She is safe. She is safe. She is safe."
We returned to the store where the crowd was still searching for her. Seeing me with Katie, the woman who organized the search called for the crowd's attention. She told them that they arrived at this moment, strangers locked in their own world looking for the perfect gift that no one will ever remember. As long as I live, I will never forget the rest of her words,
"This is Christmas--this coming together of strangers to help this mother. This is the gift Katie gave to us tonight. Katie showed us what is most important. She gave us a gift that cannot be wrapped--one that we must always remember. Merry Christmas everyone!"
And then, we were all gone. Gone back to the lives we had shelved moments before. The power of the moment seemingly lost.
However, the further I get away from that moment, the more profoundly her words touch me. In the space of an hour, this woman restored my faith in the kindness of strangers and brought home the true meaning of Christmas. And I never asked her name. I never asked her name.
So, to the kind stranger who brought the meaning of Christmas not only to a crowded store filled with last-minute shoppers, but to my heart, I thank you. Whoever you are, whereever you are, I hope my words reach you, and I hope that you and your family have a very Merry Christmas.