A new day dawned on the quiet summer colony. A Sunday morning met by a dewy and damp ground, leftovers from scattered storms over the previous few days. Despite the Canadian breeze from the north it was that type of morning that already felt warm and well on its way to hot….even in the early 7:00 hour. As summer has its own rhythm, we were squarely in the middle of the season’s ebbs and flows. A few lingering lawn flags and porch buntings remained from the Independence Day holiday a few weeks earlier, yet not officially into the dog days associated with August.
The sleepy summer cottages started to show signs of their residents’ rising. Shades were drawn. Newspapers gathered. Dogs walked. Grandparents bounced babies while the sleepless new parents, who provided the connection between these generations, took some rest after a long night of infant-related trouble shooting.
The swish, swish, swish of a broom pushing away the sticks from the sidewalk. A storm had passed through and graciously spared the lake community any substantial damage, but left just enough debris and sticks to make its presence known. In the background a train’s horn rolled over the corn fields and bounced off another sound from the other direction…one of summer’s treats. Were those waves? Yes! Another gift from the storm…the Great Lake would have great waves today! The kids would be so excited…it was going be a good beach day.
As my family started to stir in their beds, I quietly put on my sneakers. I hoped to sneak in a quick jog before the flurry of activity that is breakfast and beach preparations overtook my morning energy. Although we should be well practiced at this by doing it on a regular basis, our family of three young children and two adults can still only be propelled to the beach by a chaotic whirl of applying sunscreen, searching for swimsuits (it was right here last night!!), packing snacks and selecting beach toys.
As I took off on my regular route my senses immediately picked up an unusual presence on the quiet streets. A bright yellow firetruck, accompanied by an ambulance. They looked like giants among the tiny cottages. Black police SUV’s and people stepping off their porches, headed towards the beach with a quickened pace. I slowed to a walk, steadied my breathing, paused my music and pulled out my earphones. Seeing some familiar friends, I asked what was going on just as a police car pulled up.
He showed us photos on his phone of three young girls. Had we seen them? They had been missing since the night before. Their shoes and bikes were found at the beach.
A pit in my stomach. I didn’t know these girls. But they were children. I wanted to hug them, I wanted to protect them. I wanted to wrap them tightly in a giant towel and whisper in their ears that everything was going be alright.
A racing mind. As soon as the question came to my tongue a neighbor was already asking it as we seemed to have not only a collective concern but a shared brain wave and thought pattern. The police officer provided information. Question, question, answer, answer. Another five questions met with only two answers. Pop, pop, pop.…a rapid fire exchange, but instead of from a weapon with intentions to hurt, from emotions with intentions to help. Everything was suddenly very fast and very transactional. Exchange of information and calls to action. They were last seen around 12:30 am. AM?! At a party. A party?! Grade school aged. So young!? With their mother. Mother?! She was missing too.
In a community that claims multiple generations of family members returning year after year to partake in long fun days of summer recreation, everyone knows everyone, or at least thinks they do. But no one knew this woman. They’d noticed the woman in the last few days and her kids unattended. She didn’t appear to be stable. Not the night before, not all week. Someone mentioned that the police had been called earlier in the week. She wasn’t familiar and no one could recall her being here before.
Another foreign presence, a helicopter in the sky above. And on the beach, not umbrellas or beach chairs being set up for the day. Rather a yellow rescue boat steadily making its way back and forth running parallel with the shoreline and further down a police boat mimicking its route. This all felt abrasive and in stark contrast to the peaceful backdrop of the waves lapping up on the beach.
I rushed back to our cottage, quietly got my husband’s attention and stayed with the kids while he hopped on his bicycle to help out. I stalled our kids who were eager to check out the waves at the beach and my husband and I took turns out on the bike riding the neighborhood. The Block Watch had been activated and several neighbors visited our cottage asking us to check our yard, storage shed and to report in if we saw anything. Auxiliary Police volunteers in neon vests came by with the same information.
Whispered voices, tense faces, hurting hearts. While the feeling was somber and palpable in the neighborhood I was relieved that my own children were happily playing with their dolls and yard toys. They were an oasis of uninhibited laughter and typical sibling bickering, unaware of the concern all around them for three children, similar in age to them.
My husband returned and I took my shift on the bike. I rode the beach where a small crowd had gathered and was standing on the shoreline, their hands to their brows, squinting at the waves and rescue boats. What did they see? And then I saw it. A sight that took my breath away and filled my eyes with tears and my heart with fear. A human chain moving perpendicular to the shoreline. Synchronized in their slow and methodical movement, guided by a fireman and blow horn, a chain of men, women and children of all ages held hands stretched yards upon yards into the lake
I was vaguely aware of reading in the news about a human chain being used in New Zealand to save a drowning child. But I’d never, ever seen anything like this. Some of the people in bathing suits, some in their clothes. I counted at least 47 heads bopping up and down, with outstretched arms walking hand in hand, waves in their faces as they walked east, then turned around all together and going back west.
Admittedly when I first saw this image I was rattled and chills ran up and down my spine. But then the image was reframed for a moment and hovering above that human chain, linked hand by hand I saw goodness. I saw community. I saw spirituality. I saw action and it was inspiring and uplifting. Warmth filled my heart and while it didn’t replace the fear, it surrounded it.
In this image of goodness I was reminded of a quote I once heard about how many people turn to God as their last resort, when really we can turn to Him as our first resort. Prayer. How had I forgotten prayer in the morning of activity?
When I returned to our cottage my five year old asked what was going on at the beach. I had hoped to shield her and her innocence from this unpleasantness. I wanted to keep her away from this awareness that bad things can happen. I wasn’t sure that I wanted her to know that some children may not have someone who is protecting them in the same way I was trying to protect her.
But I realized that to shield her would not truly protect her. Instead I needed to give her the tools to find strength when life gets messy. And the reality is that it will, in some form or another, be messy at some time. But right now, at this young age, I can teach her how to utilize her own inner voice and spirit to steady her sails when the storms hit.
So I gave her a brief and age appropriate version of what was happening. Her wide eyes showed the same concern that everyone in the community had. I told her that the best thing we could do right now was to say a prayer for their safety and to ask that peace will surround their family right now and in the future, whatever it may hold.
My daughter reverently sat down on the cement stoop, folded her hands and said her prayer. Then she stood up and rubbed my upper arm and said she thought that the kids were probably scared. I nodded and said we should add a wish for their courage and protection to our prayer. And so on a humid summer Sunday morning, amidst a flurry of activity and rescue efforts, my daughter and I had a moment of stillness and a moment of surrender.
Just as I saw goodness and spirituality in that human chain in the water, I felt goodness and deep spirituality in our own moment of stillness, meditation and prayer.
After a few hours the search was called off and the mother and her children surfaced, not from the lake as everyone had feared, but rather from deep sleep tucked away, far from where they were expected to be, but where they likely had spent a rowdy night before.
Instead of focusing on the sensationalism of the outcome of this situation, and while prayers for this family are likely still needed, I am going to focus on what I witnessed that Sunday morning in that moment. While no one in this community really knew this mother and her children, everyone felt as I had initially. The one thing we knew was that they were children. And the collective we wanted to find them, to save them. To rescue them and tell them it would be okay. We wanted to protect this family we didn’t even know. If this act of human kindness is a snapshot of human kind, then I am proud to be a part of it.
A reverent Sunday morning. A Sunday morning interrupted. Families on our way to church, brunch, exercise or the beach were stopped in our tracks. Our paths redirected towards each other, community and a call to help. Not in the walls of a church, but certainly in the sanctity of a summer beach community, holiness was present and goodness was at work.