Bud and I took a mini-vacation this week and spent a few days staying at a hotel (Bud's very favorite thing in the world) and taking day-trips to the beach. Much to my surprise, after one thrilling day riding the waves at the ocean, Bud was ready to return to the tranquility of the lake, so most of our vacation time has been spent at the very same beach where we've spent most sunny days this summer. (Luckily, though, vacation is really just a state of mind.)
The other day, Bud brought his four prized Teletubbies figures with him to the lake so that they could enjoy a little R & R as well. The six of us - the four Tubs, Bud, and me - were floating together on a blow-up ring when I heard the unmistakable sound of thunder rumbling in the distance. The two teenage lifeguards stood high in their chairs, blew their whistles, and announced that everyone would need to clear the water for 30 minutes after the sound of thunder.
I tried to keep my voice even and calm, unsure of how Bud would react to this unanticipated turn of events. Thunder has been one of the most powerful triggers for Bud's anxiety, yet he had barely reacted this time to the sound of the thunder in the distance. I explained that we needed to leave the water, and Bud suggested that it was time to leave the beach. I agreed and we started to make our way to the shore when Bud stopped in his tracks.
Tinky Winky was missing.
We started scouring the bottom of the lake in the area where we'd been floating, but the sand was kicking up and clouding the water as people all around us vacated the water. The lifeguards' whistles and shouts became more insistent and I could feel tension filling my body as I tried to lead Bud to shore: "We need to leave the water, honey. We'll get Tinky Winky later. He won't go anywhere. We'll get him."
Bud's anxiety kicked in and he started sobbing. "I need him!" he wailed. "PLEASE can you get him, Mama?"
I looked at Bud standing at the water's edge and tried to see the situation from his perspective: His friend - his best friend - his rock - was stranded at the bottom of the lake with a thunderstorm - the scariest event possible - getting threateningly closer. I looked at Bud's tear-stained face and saw his little body tremble and I scanned the beach trying to come up with a plan.
"The lifeguard," I said to Bud. "We'll ask the lifeguard to help us."
Bud trailed me as I walked down the beach toward the high lifeguard chair and approached the tall, muscular teenager who was shouting out to people still in the water.
I fumbled through an explanation of my problem - "My son, his toy, in the lake, he's panicking, it's a Teletubby..."
"I'll help you find it," he said.
Bud stood on the shore, his eyes red but his tears gone, as the lifeguard and I walked gently through the area where we'd been floating, our eyes scanning the sandy bottom. The lifeguard multi-tasked - scanning the bottom, blowing his whistle at lingerers, scanning some more, shouting to kids who would not leave the water, scanning again - as I searched and searched, worrying about what I'd do if I couldn't find the toy. I looked up at Bud.
"Did you find him, Mom?" he shouted, his eyes and voice full of hope.
"Not yet, Bud," I said, with renewed determination. I looked over at my teenage counterpart and wanted to explain to him how much this meant, how appreciative I was, and stammered again "Thank you so much... don't know what I'd do... autistic... really important to him..."
"It's no problem," he answered. And then, a moment later, he added, "Take your time. Really. There's no rush."
My shoulders relaxed and for the first time since I'd heard the rumble of thunder, I exhaled. Then I looked down, and there on the sandy lake bottom was our old friend, Tinky Winky, soaking wet, but safe and unharmed.
I reached down, scooped him up, held him over my head and turned back to the shore.
"You did it, Mom!" Bud shouted. "You find him!"
I turned to the lifeguard several yard away, still shooing swimmers back to shore, and held up the doll. "Thank you!" I yelled, and he waved and went back to work.
It's important work they do, those lifeguards. Every day they make decisions that change lives. Sometimes they really come to the rescue.
And sometimes - sometimes they get to be heroes.