By Jennifer Richardson
Looking back, I don’t know why we felt it was our best choice for summer entertainment with small children. Despite the foreseeable challenges, we headed off to an amusement park in Indiana for the day when our girls were five, three, and almost two years old.
We hauled backpacks, snacks, extra clothing, bottled water, and a variety of items we felt were essential for all the possible issues we might face in a day with our little ones. By the time we got everyone through the gate and paid for we felt we had done a good day’s work.
Our youngest child Anna was always a runner. We were forever chasing behind her with that panicked look of a parent that can’t quite get close enough to grab the child’s shirt while the kid throws their head back, laughs, and easily evades capture.
Sure enough, as soon as we walked through the gate and clumsily came to a stop with all our gear in front of the bumper cars, we looked away for one second and the youngest was off and running.
I stayed with the older two girls who were struggling to understand why their sister’s disappearance would be important enough for them to have to wait to ride the much anticipated bumper cars. After all, bumper cars are why we came here, they said. Anna will come back they said, because she will want to ride the bumper cars too.
Despite their best efforts, we stayed off the ride waiting for dad to come back with Anna. Rolling through my mind were all the ways I could keep her by my side for the day. I had always looked with some skepticism at the parents who kept their children on the toddler leash contraption, but I was rapidly seeing the advantage to such an arrangement.
Robert returned shortly but he did not have our daughter with him. Genuine worry set in, and we fanned out separately to call her name and look for park personnel to assist in the search.
Another couple of minutes passed, and I began to envision all the things you think only happen to other people. My beautiful, blond, blue-eyed baby was lost, and I was not going to be able to take an easy breath until we found her.
We began asking all the grownups in a two hundred foot radius if they had seen a small child running alone. No one had seen her. Around the ten-minute mark I gave up all pretense of calm. My heart was pounding and I was anxious.
I noticed a man walking toward me. He had a ripped t-shirt on, and had several tattoos on his arms and neck. He had a chain wallet in his pocket. He had scruffy long hair, and my mind instantly expected something menacing from him. I felt a little fear in my spirit as he approached.
He stopped in front of me and asked if we were looking for a little blond girl. He had the kindest voice, and gently touched my arm as he spoke. He said he had seen a small child running, had stopped to pick her up. She looked lost, and he had asked her to point to someone in her family. He walked her through the general area, but she could not find anyone she recognized. He said she was crying, but he wiped her tears and told her that her family would be back soon.
He led us to the place where he had located a park employee and handed the little girl off to the caring arms of someone who could help her. He had decided he would lend a hand in the search until she was reunited with her family.
A moment later we were ushered to a small room where Anna was waiting for us in all her tear-stained splendor. We enjoyed a happy reunion with our youngest family member.
By the time I remembered that I should thank the kind stranger he was gone.
I was truly humbled as I thought of how quickly I had judged him by his outward appearance. I don’t doubt that he saw the apprehension on my face when we met, and I stood there ashamed of myself because he turned out to be our greatest friend that day.
Thoughts of this moment have come to mind many times over the years, along with the valuable lesson it taught me.
I don’t know his name, but he gave me two gifts that day. The safe return of my precious daughter, and a great lesson; a gracious human heart can come in all kinds of packages. Where ever he is, I owe him my gratitude, and I will always consider him to be one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen.