Caleb’s Laugh

I had stepped away from our weekly pizza dinner to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t have been gone more than three minutes, five max. I didn’t feel the need to hurry, but I also didn’t take my time, not wanting to leave my son, five year old Caleb, alone too long. So I hustled it up, washed my hands and walked quickly back down the hall.

I turned the corner and came into the kitchen going to say, ‘Hey there, buddy, let’s head out and look for those frogs,’ but I only got the “Hey there, buddy…” out. The table where I’d left him was empty. I quickly surveyed the room. I didn’t see him anywhere. My son was gone.

Caleb was the child I always wanted and he was the light of my life. I couldn’t help it if his mother and I didn’t get along. Well, maybe I could, but that’s another story. After the divorce six months earlier I got to see Caleb one weekend a month and every Wednesday. It was one of those Wednesdays, the 27th of July last year that I’ll always remember.

“Hey pal,” I greeted him when I picked him up at his mom’s earlier that evening. “How’re you doing?” Like I usually did, I gave him a quick once over, noticing the dark shadows under his eyes. Not sleeping too well again, I figured. Man, I felt for him. I’d also been a child of divorced parents and I’d promised myself that it wouldn’t happen to my children-a lofty goal I’d set that I failed miserably to attain. Lynn and I had lasted six years. Caleb was our only child and I often wondered how much of the fighting and arguing between his parents he’d remember. My guess was way too much.

“I’m really good, daddy,” he told me, grinning as I snuggled him into his car seat. “Pizza tonight?”

“Yeah, buddy, pizza tonight,” I told him. He liked his routines and pizza on Wednesday was one of them.

Lynn’s boyfriend lived ten miles away in the ritzy suburb of Minnetrista, and she moved in with him even before the divorce was final. That was fine with me. Once the rifts started to appear in our ill advised marriage they widened at an almost exponential rate. It was amazing how quickly we drifted apart, but we did. I was bitter and sad for a while, but then not so much, wanting only to move on too. I was able to keep the house, a modest bungalow on the edge of Long Lake, a small town in western Hennepin County. It was on a shady lot with a few mature maple trees in front and a backyard that sloped down to a small wetland we called the swamp. It was full of cattails, weeds and all kinds of amphibians, and Caleb loved to play next to the edges of it, under supervision of course. We often spent time together poking around in the mud, looking for frogs, toads and salamanders. It was as fun for me as it was for my inquisitive little boy.

Caleb was one of those kids who loved being outdoors, constantly exploring his small world: trying to catch butterflies in his tiny hands, playing in the sand with ants and collecting bouquets of dandelions when they were in season. It was because he loved the house and the yard so much that I was prepared to fight to keep it, but it turned out I was worried for nothing. Lynn put up no struggle at all, preferring instead to move in with Sidney, a well to do junior partner in a mid-sized law firm she met at the gym where she was a personal trainer. Well, they could train together all they wanted to now, as far as I was concerned. I had the house and I could see my son; maybe not as much as I wanted, but at least I could, so all was well. Right?

That evening we ate our pizza at the kitchen table where we could look out through the patio door into the backyard. It was a pleasant summer evening: nice and warm, not too humid and a light breeze out of the south. ‘You can almost hear the grass growing’, would be the statement most of my neighbors would use to start a conversation. Me, I was a kind of keep to myself kind of guy, enjoying spending my time with my son and managing the local hardware store, living a quiet and uneventful life.

“Have the frogs been talking, daddy?” Caleb asked, looking out the patio door down the hill toward the swamp.

God, he was such a sweet little boy. He was dressed in a dark blue Twins tee-shirt and red nylon basketball shorts. Lynn and I had decided to keep his hair cut a little longish and he looked almost cherub-like with his full cheeks and light brown wavy locks that fell below his ears. “They have been,” I nodded, swallowing a bite of pizza and wiping my mouth on a paper napkin. “They were wondering, ‘where is that little Caleb? Where is my little buddy?'” I said using my pathetic imitation of a frog’s voice.

Caleb giggled and laughed, choking a little on his pizza. “Daddy, you are so silly,” he said.

I leaned over to him. “Here, let my get that,” I said, wiping some tomato sauce off his chin. Then I leaned over further and kissed the top of his head, taking in his boyish scent of outdoors, crayons and a vague sort of sweetness that reminded me of vanilla.

He good naturedly pushed me away and took another bite of his slice, chewing methodically and swallowing before asking me if we could go down to the swamp after dinner. “Can I go look for the frogs, daddy?”

I checked the clock on the wall. It read 8:05. It was midsummer and the sun wouldn’t set for another fifteen minutes and there’d be nearly an hour of twilight after that. We had time. “Sure, buddy. You finish up, help me with the dishes and we’ll go down there for a little while. Ok?”

He gave me a big, happy smile. “Goody, goody” and stuffed the rest of his slice into his mouth.

He excitement was contagious. I hurriedly finished dinner and we washed the few dishes we’d used. Then the fated run to the bathroom.

“I’ll be right back, little guy,” I said and gave him some plastic dinosaurs to play with. “Just wait right here at the table.” I headed down the hall.

Caleb always did as he was told. Always. That’s why when I came back into the kitchen and he wasn’t in his chair where I’d left him, my parental antenna went up right away. Where the hell was he? I looked around, calling his name. The kitchen was small and the table where we ate took up most of the floor space. Caleb’s dinosaurs were scattered haphazardly on it, one lay on the floor. Beyond the eating area was the open area I called the family room where there was a little television along with a few comfortable chairs and a couch. My house was small, a story and a half, and the family room was where I spent most of my time, both when I was home by myself and when Caleb was over. I went in there and looked around, calling for him some more, not too nervous yet, thinking maybe he was playing a game of hide and seek with me. I looked behind the couch and behind the two chairs. No Caleb. Then I started to get worried. He never did things like this.

“Hey buddy,” I called, “Time to come out. Now! No more playing around.” I heard the pissed off tone in my voice, but didn’t care. This was getting ridiculous. If he was playing a trick on me, it was time for it to be over. I quickly walked through the family room to the front of the house where the little used living room was. There wasn’t much furniture but I checked it out anyway. He wasn’t there. I went to the stairway across from the front entry that lead upstairs and called some more. No answer. I ran upstairs and checked both bedrooms and the upstairs bathroom. No Caleb.

Now I was worried. Really worried. My heart started to race and beads of perspiration broke out on my forehead. I ran downstairs and back into the kitchen, looking around and calling, ‘Caleb, Caleb’ more frantically than before, opening cupboard doors under the sink and counter, looking into and behind every nook and cranny I could think of where he might be hiding. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Panic set in. The sensation that he might really be gone was becoming real and with it a feeling unlike any other I’ve ever experienced settled in; my heart literally started to break. The pain was so intense, I thought I was going to pass out. I stumbled to the kitchen table and grabbed a chair sit in and steady myself. All the stories I’d heard about young kids being snatched from their homes by deranged perverts flooded into my mind. The terror of what my son might now be experiencing overwhelmed me. My vision went blank. I almost passed out, but then a surge of adrenaline flooded my system and focused my thinking. I needed to do whatever I could to save my son. I made a move to stand up to get my phone and call 911 when my gaze fell on the patio door. I hadn’t noticed before, but It was ajar, not much, but open just enough for Caleb to be able to slip through. My heart was hammering in my throat. I leaped to the door, pushed it wide open and stepped onto the patio, calling for my boy.

“Caleb, Caleb, where are you, buddy?” I tried to calm my voice, not wanting to scare him if he was only outside playing. But who was I kidding? He never did anything like that. He always followed the rules and one of the primary rules was to never go outside without letting an adult know where you were. I was surprised he could even have pushed the door open as much as he could. Could someone really have come into my home and stolen my son? The thought was too horrific to contemplate and I shoved it to the back of my mind. He had to be around outside somewhere. I said a silent prayer that he was. Anything to help.

I quickly crossed the patio to the right where a row of lilac bushes blocked the view to my neighbor next door. I looked around them and from what I could see, my son wasn’t in that direction. I looked to the left where an open expanse of lawn lead to my other neighbor’s house thirty feet away. I didn’t see Caleb over there either. I scanned out in front of me down the sloping hill to the swamp. The sun had dropped below the horizon to my right. Twilight was settling in and frogs were calling, sounding like thumbnails scraping over the plastic teeth of a pocket comb. They were Western Chorus frogs and they were among Caleb’s favorite. He must have gone out on his own to see if he could find some. God, kids had drowned in three inches of water. Panic returned. I ran down the incline, silently berating myself for letting him slip away. The swamp was nearly one hundred feet from the patio. I made it in about two seconds.

Cut a football field in half and that’s how big the swamp was. It was rimmed with grasses and reeds that were chest high. In the middle water collected, more now after recent rains, and it was probably three feet deep with a muddy, mucky bottom.  It was deep enough for ducks to swim and dive in. In spite of my growing panic, my vision was crystal clear as I scanned along the marshy edge, both to the right and left of me. All round it neighbor’s yards slopped down like mine did, stopping where the thick, dense, weedy, shore began. I didn’t see Caleb, but I did see some red-wing blackbirds perched precariously on stalks of reeds out toward the middle. Their calls were strident and they seemed to be scolding me. I know I deserved it. Weird how some things stick in your mind. A laser like clarity of that evening came back to me later: the smell of someone’s fresh cut grass, the aroma of meat searing on a grill, the sound of those frogs, for they were, indeed, out that evening. My senses were on high alert, that was for sure. I could see every blade of grass crystal clear, every weed and every bit of muck. But I didn’t see Caleb anywhere.

With the sun below the trees, shadows were lengthening. It was going to be dark in less than an hour. I moved to the right calling, “Hey Caleb. Hey there, buddy. Where are you?” With all of my being I was imploring him to come back to me, willing him to magically appear, all the while anxiously searching the mucky shoreline, looking for any indication that he was uninjured and safe.

I had only gone a short distance, lost in concentration, watching and looking and calling, when my next door neighbor from the house on the left startled the hell out of me.

“Hey Kenny,” he said coming up to me, tapping me on the shoulder, “What’s up?”

I jumped at least six inches straight up in the air, nearly having a heart attack. Trying to appear unabashed, I quickly collected myself and turned to face him. I was wondering how I was going to explain my poor parenting skills and the fact that I had lost my son, my only child, whose care I was responsible for and who meant more to me than life itself. But that all vanished in an instant when I saw standing next to him, of all people, my little guy, Caleb! He was safe and sound and there wasn’t a mark on him. I fell to my knees both in thankfulness and to envelop him, hold him, and be as close to him as I could possibly get. He was Ok. In his hands he was holding, not a frog, but a toad. It was the size of his small palm, speckled brown, with bumps on his skin and inquisitive eyes. It sat there and was very calm, way more than I was. The time for explanations could come later. I hugged my son for all he was worth, tears of joy streaming down my cheeks.

“Daddy, daddy, why are you crying,” Caleb asked, letting me hold him tightly, his arms around my neck. I could feel the toad kicking in my hair. It felt wonderful.

My neighbor seemed to get that we needed this moment alone. He left after telling me that Caleb apparently had seen the toad on our patio and he’d somehow gotten the door open and followed him over to into his yard, where he had taken Caleb and his toad into his garage to look for something to put it in. ‘Just being neighborly’ was how he put it. I might have done the same thing. Unsuccessful in their quest, they came out to the backyard just as I ran down to the swamp.

I profusely thanked him and a waved a friendly but exhausted good-bye before releasing my hold on Caleb. I held him at arm’s length. He looked fantastic. The horrible terror of earlier was replaced by a feeling of gratitude that was overwhelming. My son was Ok.

Oblivious to the uproar he had caused, Caleb was more focused on the treasured amphibian in his hand than anything else. “Daddy, can we keep toady?” he asked as we turned to walk back up to the house, hand in hand, Caleb using his other to carefully cradle the toad to his chest.

I was willing to do anything. My son was safe and sound. We’d talk later about his actions and their consequences, but right now all I cared about was that he was all right. He’d just been on his own adventure. I remembered a story my mom once told me. I had been the same age as Caleb when I had wandered away from my home in the tightly knit neighborhood in Minneapolis where I’d grown up. I had crossed a busy street, walked a block and crossed another busy street and was heading down that block too, when a concerned lady (a parent herself) had stopped me and asked me where I lived. I was able to point behind me and she turned me right around and walked me back eventually to my house where my mom was frantically organizing a search party of nearby neighbors. When mom got done reprimanding me she asked me where I had been going. I told her simply that I was going off to see the world. I had been on my own adventure, in a way, just like Caleb had been. Apparently, like father, like son.

I thought about that now, walking back across the yard and holding my son’s hand. It was a big world out there. I would do the best I could to keep him safe; try to keep an eye on him the best I could. But I had a feeling it was going to get a lot more complicated as the years went by. I better get ready for it. For now I was thankful he was unharmed and that he was with me. I promised myself to be more diligent in the future. I owed my son that much at least.

We walked up to the house and stood on the patio. I was trying to decide what to do about the toad. I figured I could find a box somewhere and then suggest to Caleb that he set him free in the morning. For now, it looked like we’d have an overnight guest.”Let’s go inside and get some ice-cream, buddy. How’s that sound?” I ruffled Caleb’s hair. He was excited to have found a new friend.

“Can toady have some?” he asked looking up at me with his big brown eyes, so full of innocence. So full of wonder.

“Sure,” I said, sliding open the patio door to go inside, enjoying kidding with him now that the trauma and fear of the last half hour was gone. “What flavor do you think he’ll like?”

And Caleb laughed, then, a laugh I hope I never forget; straight from the belly, it was the laugh of the innocence and pure joy that only a child can have.

“Chocolate, daddy. I think he’ll like chocolate,” he said and laughed again, carefully holding the toad to his chest and petting him.

And I laughed with him, too, looking forward to our evening together. “Chocolate it is,” I said.

Then I followed him inside and securely shut the patio door behind us, locking it this time.