This Doesn’t Happen to Families Like Ours: Except When it Does

“Don’t panic. Everyone is fine.”

Cold, hard fear gripped my heart. I’m fairly certain I stopped in my tracks walking out of the restaurant where we just had lunch with our oldest daughter and some of our cheer family. My heart stopped; of that, I am certain.

It was Saturday morning, and it was a cheer weekend. Cheer weekends are long, fun, tiring, and always memorable. We typically do not bring the twins with us because they aren’t down with the early mornings, late nights, and the hours upon hours of sitting on stadium seating watching what feels like a million cheerleaders compete. It’s loud, it’s overwhelming, and they prefer to stay at home. My parents and my mother-in-law, and sometimes our niece and nephew, come to our home those weekends to stay with the twins.

This week, Ava, our beautiful, feisty, sassy 7-year-old wanted to stay with them instead of coming with us for the weekend.

“There was an incident.”

I couldn’t breathe if I wanted to. Things like this don’t happen to us. We aren’t those people. We are a good family. We are happy, and healthy, and we are busy and have fun and we surround ourselves with amazing people we’ve known our entire lives. We aren’t the kind of people who have incidents.

Except, we are those people. Those things do happen to us.

Let me just rewind a moment, so I can preface this with a story that may play into this.

Last weekend, we were in Dallas, Texas for the night because we had to catch a very early flight home after visiting my grandmother for her birthday. It was late when we arrived at our favorite airport hotel – the Hyatt – and I had my husband drop myself and our four kids, and our luggage, off at valet with the bellman so I could check us into our room and get everyone bathed and to bed while he returned our rental car and made his way back to the hotel.

It was well after 10 pm when we checked in. We were tired, we were ready for showers and bed – and we were ready to go home.

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While I stood at the front desk with my four small children to check into our room – looking every bit the harried single mom – the concierge asked if he could give the kids a little gift. I told him that would be lovely. He proceeded to give the kids each an inflatable airplane in the color of their choice (which, while so sweet, is not the best gift to give kids about to get on a plane. Just imagine our family of six walking through security while the twins are using their best outside voices to ask if we “can blow up the plane now,” while we basically screaming, “INFLATE. INFLATE! You want to INFLATE the plane!”}.

He handed the kids each their planes and proceeded to tell me I have a beautiful family. I thanked him. Then he told me I was beautiful. I thanked him again. Then he proceeded to call out my four-year-old daughter about being exceptionally beautiful, and followed that up with, “You want to be careful with your kids in this hotel. It’s a dangerous place.”

The twins ignored him.

I did not. Neither did my 7 and 10-year-old daughters.

My husband could not make it to our room fast enough that night.

Ava did not sleep. Every noise she heard all night long caused instant fear and panic, because someone told her that she’s in danger where she is. It was a long night. It also required us to have a conversation with her that we’ve had more than once.

We see all the Facebook posts from moms and dads walking through the store when they notice people paying too much attention to their kids. We know all about the growing epidemic of child sex trafficking. It’s already got us on high alert when we are with our kids at home, in the yard, traveling, anywhere.

And we always encourage our kids to stay close to us. It’s not a requirement. It’s a must. They must have their hands on us at all times in public. Holding our hands, our arms, our legs, whatever. When we are unloading carts at the store, we make them count so we can hear them in case we have to glance away for a split second.

Because a split second is all it takes.

We usher them into our vehicles before we do anything else when we are out – and we immediately lock the doors behind them while we unload our shopping bags into the back. We are careful. Bad things don’t happen to us.

I notified the hotel after going back and forth about it.

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I hate ‘telling’ on people in public because I prefer to share the amazing service we have to the negative. I love to tell a manager or whomever is in charge when someone is exceptional. I hate telling them when they are not – I don’t want anything free. I don’t want anything comped. But, I feel that this is always what people think when complaints are issued.

I went back and forth but ultimately decided that it was the right thing to do.

The hotel was exceptionally gracious in their response, reaching out to me personally to apologize and to give me a step-by-step notice of their plan of action, what they’d already done, and the new training requirements they’re implementing to ensure that their guests are treated with kindness and respect, but to also make sure everyone is aware what is kind and respectful and what strikes fear. The assistant manager also asked me to please notify him personally the next time we are in the hotel – I’d mentioned to him we are frequent guests since we do travel to Texas several times a year to visit my grandmother – so he can treat my family. I will not notify him. I don’t want anything but to feel comfortable and to have my kids feel safe.

“We took the kids to the park, and then we took them to McDonalds for lunch and ice cream per their request.”

I still could not breathe. Or move. At this point, everyone with me noticed I wasn’t moving, and they recognized the panic in my voice.

“What happened?” My husband grabbed my hand.

“While sitting down eating her lunch, Ava called me closer to where she was seated at the table, and she told me that the man sitting behind me facing her was creeping her out because he kept taking photos of her with his phone,” said my mother.

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“But everyone is fine. When she said it, we turned around and noticed him holding his phone out around me sitting at the table to get a clear view of her and he was just snapping photo after photo, but Liz jumped up and stood right in front of Ava so he no longer had any view of her. He put his phone away. We notified the manager and called the police, but he got up and ran out of the restaurant when he noticed me talking to the manager and she began pointing in his direction. He picked up his phone, made a call, and quickly ran outside. A white GMC Yukon – older – came racing into the parking lot and he jumped into the passenger side and they took off. I took photos of the tag and the vehicle. I have them. The police have them. Ava is fine,” she said.

This doesn’t happen to people like us.

But it did.

And our girl knew it was wrong.

Someone creeped her out. Someone made her feel uncomfortable. And she spoke up. Loudly. She wasn’t afraid, but she wasn’t standing for it, either. And my 12-year-old nephew took note of his outfit, too.

He was wearing a Dunkin Donuts staff shirt and grabbed a Dunkin Donuts visor from his pocket and put it on while he was running from the restaurant.

They waited and waited with the kids in the restaurant, lingering over dessert, until they felt that he was gone for good and he wasn’t watching their cars or following them back to our home.

They all did the exact right thing.

Addison’s competition could not end quickly enough for me. I could not get home fast enough to give my girl a hug.

A man took photos of my child, and he did not even try to be slick about it. He clearly had a ride that could show up seconds after making a call, and nothing about this is right. NOTHING about this is right. The entire situation is terrifying.

I still couldn’t breathe.

“What did the police say? Can I talk to Ava? Send me the description of the car and the tag number, and I’m sending it to Officer L. He will find out what is going on and who this person is. Are you home? What did the police say?”

By now, our party of 9 was all stopped, looks of concern and fear on their faces.

Ava is all right. Everyone is all right.

She did the right thing.

3

And she did the right thing because we talk to her about things that are scary and uncomfortable. As much as we’d like to shelter and shield her from things that are hard and scary, we didn’t – and it may have saved her or another child from something awful.

Was this man working for a child trafficking ring? Was he a pedophile trying to take kids or even just their pictures for his own perverse, disgusting, horrifying pleasure? Was he going to kidnap my baby and take her somewhere and hurt her?

We don’t know. We will probably never know.

But we do know we will never feel comfortable letting our kids go anywhere without us right thing watching them ourselves. We will forever worry when they go anywhere with someone other than us. Cheer weekends will now bring a hint of fear and panic, and I know we will never be entirely comfortable again unless our kids are close enough to touch.

This is no way to live.

Our parents should be able to take their grandchildren to the park and to get ice cream and not worry about things like this. They should be worried about who is spilling ice cream on their shirts or who is behaving in public. They shouldn’t be worried about trafficking and kidnapping and pedophiles.

But now they are.

This is the world we live in, and it sucks. It fucking sucks. There’s just not another word for it.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I will probably cry myself to sleep a lot of nights. It’s over, and she’s fine, but the kind of fear that gripped my heart when I picked up my mom’s call coming out of lunch that day will never let go of my heart. It’s like a hand, holding onto my heart, ready to squeeze it until it stops unexpectedly. It will never go away.

It’s scary, but you must speak with your children. You must tell them that they have to speak up. They should listen to their little bodies when something feels wrong. When someone ‘creeps them out’ and when someone makes them feel uncomfortable. They should speak up. No one will EVER be mad at them for speaking up when they don’t feel right.

I don’t care that my daughter yelled out that another person is creepy for others to her. I don’t find that embarrassing – I don’t give an actual you-know-what how another person feels. If you make my child feel ‘creepy,’ I don’t care how you feel. Sorry, not sorry.

Talk to your children. Let them know it’s okay to speak up. Let them know that it’s okay to talk to you.

Talk to your kids. It’s the difference between a phone call that begins with, “Don’t panic, everyone is okay,” and “I’m so sorry.”

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