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My Son and I Ran the Same 5k. When He Didn’t Show Up at the Finish Line I Went Looking For Him

A new baby comes home, this fragile creature suddenly in your care, and along with the joy there are flashes of terror. Each new milestone seems to increase the risk of catastrophe. Your child sits up, and then stands. There is a halting first step. One day, with the wide world calling, your child turns from you and begins to run.

There is no fear quite like that of a parent looking for a lost child. You tell yourself everything will be fine, but your mind goes to the worst places.

As this year draws to a close, I still remember the fear I felt on a bright Saturday morning in late September, at a five-kilometer race in Clarkston, Georgia, as I waited for my 11-year-old son at the finish line.

I knew he could run a 5k in about 30 minutes. When I didn’t see him at the 35-minute mark, I began to wonder what had gone wrong. And as the 40-minute mark approached and he still didn’t appear, I went out looking for him.

Had he gotten lost? Did he talk to a stranger? Was he hit by a car? I crossed the railroad tracks and looked down a long straightaway, hoping to see his face, wondering if I should just keep running until I found him.

It had already been an unusual morning. About an hour earlier, when we drove into town, my son noticed an insect on the hood of my car. It was neon green, no longer than a fingernail. And it was friendly. This little green thing hopped onto my son’s finger, and walked across my shirt, and then went back to my son’s hand, where it stayed for a long, long time. It stayed so long that we would eventually give it a name: Little Friend.

The walk from the car to the registration table was perhaps a quarter of a mile. Little Friend stayed with my son. We walked back to the car to drop off some stuff. Little Friend stayed with my son. We walked back across the railroad tracks and waited for the race to start. Little Friend rode along.

Later, I found out that Little Friend was a tree cricket — probably a snowy tree cricket, according to Will Hudson, a University of Georgia entomology professor who looked at a picture I sent.

“If the cricket were a little chilly, then sitting on something warm like your hand might feel pretty good,” he said when I told him the story.

CNN senior writer Thomas Lake takes a photo with a bug on his shirt following a 5K.

A few minutes before the race, Little Friend either fell or jumped off my son’s hand and landed on the sidewalk. Maybe it wanted to go free. But this was not a good place for that. Pedestrian traffic was heavy and unpredictable. Little Friend was in danger. So my son knelt and reached out his hand. Little Friend came back.

The race was about to start, and the tiny green insect was in for a wild ride. My son would run fast, and the race would be long, and his arms would swing, and Little Friend would be bounced and jostled and eventually dislodged. I felt compelled to have a talk with the boy.

You will lose Little Friend, I told him.

My son nodded, treating the moment with appropriate solemnity.

Little Friend perched silently on his wrist.

The race began, and I lost sight of them.

I ran well enough, though not as fast as I had in college, and felt exhilarated at the finish line. That thrill gave way to anxiety when my son did not show up.

He’d run 30:34 at another 5k in late spring. Today he was nowhere near that. And beyond the 40-minute threshold, I was in a panic.

I kept asking people if they’d seen him. No one had. Across the tracks at the long straightaway, I looked for him in the distance. He wasn’t there.

Returning to race headquarters, I wondered how to put out an all-points bulletin for my son. And in my stumbling confusion, I didn’t even see him crossing the finish line.

But there he was, thank God, just ahead of the 45-minute mark.

And there was Little Friend, riding on the upper crook of his right thumb like a very small captain on a very tall ship.

There was something else the entomology professor told me about these snowy tree crickets. Living in trees and shrubs as they do, they are used to feeling the wind blow.

They are good at holding on.

My predictions had been wrong. My son had not run fast, and he had not lost Little Friend, and these two facts seemed somehow related. He blamed a cold he was getting over. I suspected it was more than that, but I didn’t question him too much about it.

A boy has his reasons, some of them unknown even to himself. There is more than one way to win a race.

We walked back to the car, smiling, and found some bushes in the parking lot that seemed like a good place for my son to drop off Little Friend. Their brief, intense friendship had run its course.

“Be free,” my son said, and gently nudged Little Friend. It took some more nudging, but Little Friend finally sprang from his finger and plummeted downward, its bright green body merging with the dark green shrubbery, a fragile creature going out of sight.

One day my son will leave too, running off on his own adventure. My brother recently sent me a picture of us together. It almost broke my heart. My son, then 6, was holding my hand, looking up at me with this indescribable expression of hope and innocence. It seemed he was trying to tell me something. But I was looking ahead at something else. When I saw that picture, I wanted to yell at myself: Turn your head! Look at him! Nothing in the world is more important!

My son knew the truth. Sometimes life gives you something beautiful, a fragile, fleeting treasure that attaches to your hand. There is no need to rush ahead. Treat it gently. Savor each moment. Hold on while you can.

Source: CNN