Neil Humphreys: Dad’s Nightmare before Christmas

We were looking at the Christmas display inside the supermarket, picking out chocolates to buy later. We then shuffled through the festive crowd to find the bread. The place was packed. So I turned back to grab her hand.

She had gone. My daughter had disappeared.

Initially, I rolled my eyes. She had probably stopped to admire a cheap, nasty, plastic toy that she’d desperately wanted for Christmas. It was a sweetie dispenser with a fist on top. When a button was pushed, the fist made one of the “scissors, paper, stone” shapes. Unfortunately, one of the shapes suggested the fist was giving the middle finger, so I hadn’t been keen on buying it.

But that’s where she probably was. So I headed back to the toys. She wasn’t there. I returned to the aisle. She wasn’t there. I found myself walking briskly, poking my head down the adjacent aisles. She wasn’t there.

At this stage, the only instinct was anger. I discovered that amber vanishes when a child goes missing. There is a green light. There is a red light. There is no amber.

Swearing under my breath, I was picturing the punishment. No festive treats, no weird plastic toys that give the middle finger, no TV; She was bed-bound straight after dinner. My temples started to throb. Rage consumed me.

Seconds turned into a minute, perhaps even two. And that haunting voice – that distant parental voice of reason – whispered for the first time in my life.

Two minutes wasn’t long. But it was long enough.

Panic slowly gave way to pragmatism, which was even worse. Panic blocks rational thought. Hope can still filter through irrational, blind panic. But pragmatism is a parent’s worst enemy. Pragmatism amplifies that voice.

It’s been too long. I should’ve found her by now.

I grabbed a teenager stacking cola bottles. “I’ve lost my daughter,” I sputtered. “Can you make an announcement on the public address system please?”

He was from Mainland China. He answered me in Mandarin. I’ve written columns and books about English-speaking Singaporeans feeling alienated in their own country by the communication barrier, but I didn’t have time for this now.

I stopped another staff member – a lovely Chinese auntie – and expressed my increasing terror.

“OK, OK, I understand,” she replied softly. She was also a parent. Her eyes told me. “You come to counter, make announcement.”

“No, you make the announcement,” I cried, my voice cracking. “I’m staying here. This is where we lost each other.”

Hysteria strangled my throat. The tins on the shelves started floating. The aisles wobbled, everything went woozy, dreamy. I was floating above myself, listening to that voice again.

This isn’t happening. This happens to other people, people on the news, people on TV, it doesn’t happen to me.

I started shouting my daughter’s name. Sometimes the voice came out.

Sometimes it didn’t. I was vaguely aware of other shoppers staring.

The anger was dissipating, but I wanted it back. Rage was giving way to resignation and fear. I preferred the anger.

But the fear was fighting with the rising pain, a real, sickening, breathless pain. My daughter had disappeared in a crowded supermarket. At least three or four minutes had passed, the longest four minutes of my life. It doesn’t seem long. It isn’t long, until a Daddy loses his daughter. Then it’s an eternity.

I screamed my daughter’s name, running from aisle to aisle, all sense of decorum and reality had gone.

And then, a young Malay guy with dyed brown hair tapped me on the arm.

“Er, I think your daughter is near the front of the supermarket,” he whispered.

“Take me there,” I ordered, grabbing the poor man’s hand as we ran together.

We made our way through the crowd and there she was, alone, vulnerable and terrified. I ran towards her.

I was going to unleash hell. I was going to scold her. I was going to punish her.

But I could only hug her. Then I wiped away her tears of relief. Then I wiped away my tears of relief. Then I hugged the confused Malay guy with dyed brown hair.

My daughter thought the bread was at the other end of the supermarket and had wandered off in the opposite direction. She had tried to help Daddy do the shopping. I squeezed her again.

Hollywood movies suggest the natural reaction when finding a lost child should be one of euphoria, but it really wasn’t. It was an overwhelming sense of being pulled back from the precipice, a horrifying near miss. I was still shaking when I told my wife at home later.

Even now, it’s a lesson that can never be learned enough. Watch them. Hold them. Never take your eyes off them.

Still, at least my daughter thinks the story has a positive, happy ending.

We never take each other for granted in crowded public places anymore. And I bought her the plastic toy that gives the middle finger.

After the supermarket nightmare, I know how the toy feels.


About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His most recent Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island (2012), was a No.1 best-seller and turned into a TV series. His illustrated book series – Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase – is proving popular with children all over the world and is currently being adapted into an animated TV series. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Esquire, Men’s Health, FourFourTwo and Young Parents. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.

Categories: Neil Humphreys

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