I will never forget that day. Halloween of all days. When ghouls emerge.
My beloved son, Koa, had just started Kindergarten up on the hill at Kapālama. My precious little sweet 5-year old venturing out on his own. I was at work on that Thursday afternoon tending to my office business when my cellphone rang. It was my wife. I answered half-distracted by my work in progress.
It was the incomprehensible sobbing words and sheer terror in her voice which made me drop everything. I could barely understand her through her crying. "What's wrong? What's happening?" I quickly asked her, bracing myself for the worst. "Koa!" She said, "He is missing! I went to pick him up from school, they said he caught the bus to the Terminal. I went there. He isn't there. Nobody was there! I don't know where he is!" she sobbed...
I immediately felt my entire being sink into the middle of my chest, and then plummet down into my stomach. "What do you mean? Where are you?" I asked her, trying to stay calm as I could as my Heart started pounding to escape my chest. "I'm up at the school. They don't know where he is!" She started sobbing even more.
I told her "Go back down to the Terminal. Wait for me. I am coming right now. I am calling the police. Stay there!"
The moments after that are a blur, as I grabbed my car keys and bolted out of the office. As I waited for the elevator, I called 911. I spoke to the dispatcher on the way down and out of the building as I ran across the street to the parking structure.
The dispatcher asked what my emergency was, police, fire or ambulance. I said, "police...my son is missing. He was supposed to be at the Kamehameha bus terminal. My wife can't find him."
"Where is your wife now?" she asked. I said "...at the Terminal. I am going there now." She said she was dispatching officers there right now. I thanked her and hung up as I ran up the stairs to my car and drove like a madman to get out of the parking structure, screeching tires and all.
My mind quickly started calculating the shortest and quickest route to the terminal which was miles away in afternoon traffic. I was still numb, my mind was racing. Heart pounding. I raised all of my sensory awareness ten-fold as I raced down the increasingly clogged streets. Cars could not move fast enough out of my way. I cut in and out of traffic like a madman. Screeching around corners, and even blowing through some red lights after maneuvering around traffic blockages. Nothing mattered at that point except my missing son.
As I drove, I went through the entire range of human emotion, trying to get to my son. I felt like I was removed and detached from my body at times. My mind couldn't help but envision the worst case scenario as I wove in and out of traffic. All I could see was my precious little boy, in his neat little school uniform, and his little backpack, being led out of the Terminal, by some hideous depraved monster of a human being, and off into the neighboring streets to the most horrific scene I could imagine. I burst into tears.
I started conversing out loud with God. From intense sorrow, grief and loss, and guilt, to intense anger and rage. "How could you? What did we do to deserve this?" I asked him out loud, all the while weaving in and out of cars, trying to see through my cascading tears. "Why? Why?" Then the most foulest language erupted from my mouth in an attempt to release everything inside that wanted to explode out of my body. Curses flew left and right in my anger and disbelief.
I am ashamed at the sheer rage and violence that rocked my body when envisioning me catching up with the fiendish depraved ghoul of a person who was harming my son. The violent scene in my head did nothing to alleviate any fears, it only served to worsen the situation and my apprehension. The darkest of visions tried to root itself in my head as I drove.
At one point, while speeding around traffic, I passed a police patrol car headed in the opposite direction. There was no way that the officer couldn't have seen my erratic speeding and driving. I braced myself while looking in the rear view mirror, for the officer to put on his blue lights and u-turn to pursue me as I raced to put even more distance between us.
I decided that I wasn't going to stop at that point for anything. Even a police chase. Every second counted when you think the Life of your child is on the line. The thought of never seeing my Beautiful little boy again pulled my entire being down into a bottomless black hole. The police would have to chase me all the way to the school.
I quickly fell back on tears, and guilt. How could I not have protected my son. Again, every emotion reverberated through my being. I drove through the tears as I ended up on the street which headed straight to the Terminal. Again, cars were too slow and blocking my way and I sped around again blasting through a red light while looking all over for oncoming cars. I didn't care at that point. Nothing else really mattered.
I reached the Terminal, and there was my wife with two police officers next to their cars. I screeched to a halt. I will never forget the distraught face of my wife as she looked plaintively at me, red and swollen from crying. My other son, Elliot, sat in the back seat looking fearful and confused out the window at me. He attended another school and she had picked him up first.
I yelled out the window, "I'm going up to the campus!" Then burned out and fishtailed around the next corner. I sped towards the campus entrance and blew the front gate. If the entrance gate arm had been down, I would have broken it. I felt again like every second counted to save my son's Life.
I arrived at the top of the parking at the Elementary, pulled into the first empty stall and bolted from the car. My eyes scanned the entire playground and school area visible to me. Every sign of a child, a blue shirt, children playing, sitting down, walking...I looked intensely. At everyone and everything, scanning for my son's face. His body. His backpack. I just wanted to wake up from the nightmare. To find my little boy. My Life.
After running around as much as I could, looking around the classrooms, play areas, all over, I made my way up to the Elementary School Office. I walked in and said, "I'm Koa's father. He is missing." The office workers all looked at me. They all knew by that time. The feeling in the air was grim and heavy. I needed to be with others at that point. To share my fear. The longer he was missing, the more grim the passing minutes seemed, and the greater the chances felt of having nothing but a devastating ending.
We started analyzing the situation. What happened. Where he could be. I said my wife told me he caught the bus to the Terminal but he wasn't there. One of the office workers hung up the phone and said that they had put out a call to all the bus drivers looking for my son. Security had been notified and they were working with HPD. I was still numb, trying to figure out what was happening as it all still didn't seem real. Every minute that passed seemed like an Eternity.
I found out that my wife went to campus to pick up Koa from the after-school program, and the girl who watches over him and other children, looked confused and said that Koa said he was catching the bus. My wife panicked and quickly drove down to the Terminal. He wasn't there. It was empty except for an older high school girl. My wife asked her if she saw a little boy and where the security guard was.
The girl said she hadn't seen a little boy, and that the guard left already to go back up to the campus. My wife started to panic, and checked the bathrooms to no avail. She drove hurriedly back up to the campus and asked the after-school program girl where Koa was because he wasn't at the Terminal. The girl started panicking and started to cry. Then my wife panicked and that is when she called me terrified.
So there I stood in the school office. There was a flurry of activity and conversations. Time slowed down. At one point, I asked, "When do we issue an Amber Alert?" They said they were looking into the protocol for that as we spoke. I wanted it out already. It had been over an hour since he went missing. The office had turned into a mini-command central. I felt increasingly helpless and hopeless at that point. Trying to wake up from the nightmare. Still numb to my core and everything seemed surreal. I was picturing my son's face going out above the freeways on an Amber Alert. It was seemingly the only thing that would give me Hope.
One office worker handed me the phone, and it was the head of the after-school program. He was so upset and apologetic. He said the girl overseeing the children there, and my son, was devastated. I felt even more horrible. He said they were reviewing everything that happened that afternoon and wanted to know how he could help us. He said he knew the police were involved already.
As I was talking with him, my cell phone rang in my pocket. I dug it out and continued to talk with him while looking at my cell. It was a number I didn't know, but I asked the man to hold on while I took that other call. I answered the phone. I could feel all eyes in the office focused on me at that point and hanging on to my every word.
"Hello?" I answered...
"Hello! Is this Koa's father?" a woman's voice asked.
"Yes!" I yelled...
"Are you going to pick him up?" she asked.
"You have Koa? Where are you!" I exclaimed.
At that point, the whole office was silent as everyone stared at me with palpable anticipation.
"He is here at the bus stop. I found him by himself crying. Are you going to pick him up?" she said.
I excitedly and confusedly asked, "What bus stop?"
"The bus stop by the Mall" she answered.
"What Mall?" I asked...trying to picture the Kamehameha Shopping Center near the Terminal.
"The Wai'anae Mall" she said.
"Wai'anae?!" I exclaimed incredulously. Wai'anae was about 30 miles away. I could hear some gasps in the office.
"Is he not supposed to be in Wai'anae?" she asked.
I said, "Oh my God, no. We are at Kamehameha. We live in town. We called the police. He is missing right now. We are all searching for him!"
Just then, one of the office workers yelled, "Tell her to stop the bus driver, see if he can bring him back to campus."
I asked her if she could stop the bus driver and put Koa back on the bus. I heard her yelling out to someone at that point and asked me to hold on. The office worker said she was talking to the bus driver right then to turn around and go back to bring Koa back to school.
After what seemed like minutes, the woman came back on the line and said the driver put him back onto the bus. The bus had just left, but was able to turn around and retrieve Koa. I thanked the woman profusely with tears in my eyes. I told her that she saved my son. She said she was picking up her child, and saw Koa standing by himself in the Mall parking lot, crying. She asked him where his parents were. He didn't know. She thought we were just late in picking him up.
By some miracle of God, my little five-year old boy, in his traumatized state, somehow knew my cell number. He was able to let the woman know my number which enabled her in turn to make that fateful call.
There were no words to adequately describe what I felt at that point. The gratitude. The joy. The relief. Given back my son. By a then caring stranger. I thanked her again profusely and hung up.
I looked at everyone who sat or stood there looking at me, with wide eyes and astonished faces, and said, "Thank you. Thank you God."
I returned to the other line and let the after-school program head know that Koa had been found in Wai'anae. He said he heard over the phone. He was so grateful and happy. He asked if there was anything else he could do, to let him know. He said they would be reviewing all procedures and that he would let Koa's monitor know right away. I asked him to give her our Love and it wasn't her fault. Tell her Koa is safe.
I then hung up and realized that my poor wife, who was still down at the Terminal, didn't know we had found Koa and was still suffering and distraught. I bolted from the office letting them know that I had to let my wife know. As I was running towards my car, thinking I would drive down and tell her in person, and bring her back up with me, I realized that every second of not knowing was still sheer terror. I immediately called her and she answered. "They found Koa! He is alright!"
She burst into tears on the other side of the phone, and started sobbing. That made be sob again as well.
"Where is he?" she could barely say as she continued to cry. "In Wai'anae" I said. "Wai'anae?!" she exclaimed, as she continued to cry.
"I will explain to you what I know. They are bringing him back on the school bus. Are you okay to drive up here to the campus or do you want me to come down and get you?" I asked.
She said she was okay to drive, so I told her to come up. So I went out by the parking lot as a police car pulled up and an officer got out of the car, headed towards the school office. I looked at him as I passed and reached out my hand. He extended his. I said that Koa had been found. He smiled and said "we heard."
I added, "I can't thank you and the others officers enough. I had never been so terrified." He shook my hand and said, "We are all so happy that it worked out."
I sat down on the wall while waiting for my wife to come up. When she arrived, she emerged from the car and ran to me. As we embraced, she buried her head in my chest and erupted in tears again. I couldn't help but cry as well.
Then we sat there, watching the Sun sink into the horizon, waiting for our son to arrive. A few school administrators and teachers stopped by to check on us and express their relief as word had slowly spread around. It was about another 45 minutes to an hour of waiting for the bus to return to the campus in the late afternoon traffic. It was October, and the Sun was setting early. The thought of Koa being stranded alone in that parking lot as the Sun slowly set unnerved me to my core, such that I didn't want to think about it.
Finally, the familiar sound of the big school bus could be heard and we excitedly got up and approached the curb. As the bus stopped, and the doors opened, we could see our son, passed out fast asleep in his little sweaty clothes, on the first bus seat. I let my wife go up the stairs first and she gently shook him as he groggily awoke. As soon as he sat up, he jumped into her arms and began crying. She cried too as she carried him down. I stepped up on the bus and shook the driver's hand. Thanking him profusely. He had no idea how terrified we were, and how relieved we were. He smiled and said he was glad to help. That everything was alright.
I stepped back down and hugged both my wife and son together, as they both continued to cry. I let my tears fall as well, until I was able to hold Koa against me. To feel his warmth. To press my nose against his sweaty hair and head, and smell him. To squeeze him so hard and tell him how much I loved him. All things I was so terrified were to be never more only a few hours ago.
In the end, Koa's Journey was a perfect storm of events on that Halloween night. My wife had to pick up Elliott at his school which was miles away, and we had put Koa in the after-school program because he seemed too little to catch the Terminal bus. He wasn't there in the after-school program for very long before my wife would arrive to pick him up and get the boys home before she sometimes had to go to work.
We had discussed about whether we could afford to pay the after-school program fee when he doesn't really stay long after-school. As much as we were worried about him catching the Terminal bus, we decided that she could pick him up there. We wrote a note for Koa to deliver to the school stating that Koa would, as of that Friday, September 1st, be catching the Terminal bus instead of going to the after-school program. We knew that if for some reason she couldn't get to Koa by 3:30, they would bring him back up to the campus, and we would have to pay the one day after-school program fee. At least he would be safe.
As nervous as we were, we decided to try it. My wife found out that one of Koa's classmates, also caught the Terminal bus after school, and told Koa to stick with him, and ride the Terminal bus down with him. Little did we know that Koa had two classmates with the same Hawaiian name. One classmate caught the Terminal bus, while the other classmate caught the Wai'anae bus. On top of that, Koa's Kindergarten teacher had an all-class teacher meeting that fateful Thursday afternoon. She had the note stating that Koa would start catching the Terminal bus the next day, Friday.
Somehow Koa told his after-school program guardian that he was catching the bus that day with his friend. She let him go. Somehow, Koa was able to get on the bus without a buss pass which gets checked by the assistants and bus driver. Koa remembers his friend brought him onto the bus, and introduced him to the bus driver, who knew the regular riders for the past two months, as "my friend Koa who will be riding with me on the bus from now on."
To add to the perfect storm, when the all points bulletin was put out by the school office looking for a missing child, a new bus rider, anything out of the ordinary, the school office had Koa registered by his legal name, Kevin. They were looking for a Kevin. The bus driver had a Koa on his bus, not a Kevin to his knowledge. Koa's friend had even vouched for him, despite not having a bus pass.
So Koa sat on the long bus ride for almost an hour, seeing sights, the ocean, the setting Sun, and scenes he had never seen before on his great big adventure. When Koa arrived in Wai'anae, he followed his friend out into the parking lot where his friend got into his parent's car, and then they waved goodbye and drove off probably headed for an exciting night of Trick or Treating on Halloween. Koa was standing in the parking lot, and began to cry as he was alone and didn't now where he was, or where we were.
That is until a Beautiful caring mother saw a child crying alone. She went up to him, and the rest is history for us. There are no words to express how grateful we are for her, and how much we love her.
We canceled any plans for Koa to start catching the Terminal bus the next day and it was actually several years before we felt like we could let him catch the bus to the Terminal when the school was trying to make it mandatory during a construction phase.
The most amazing part, is that my wife and I were waiting for Koa the other day as he is now in the 11th grade. I asked her about some of the details of that day before she called me, as I knew that the story wanted to come out and be shared. As she was recalling the events, she began to cry. I felt some emotion, and was surprised at how raw it was eleven years later.
On top of that, a few days ago, I was sharing the story with a co-worker at lunch, and no sooner had I began recalling the beginning of the story where I was speeding through traffic, terrified, I too began to cry uncontrollably. I had to assure my startled co-worker, through my tears, as I chuckled in disbelief and a little out of embarrassment, that the story has a happy ending, because I could see the worry in his face. I couldn't believe that the emotions were still present and so raw over a decade later.
Therein lay the incredible Gift. In the end, that day was a Blessing. Koa and his brother are now teenagers, approaching adulthood. Like most teenagers, Koa is going through a variety of changes and challenges, as are we. However, when frustrations reach their culminating point, and emotions and exhaustion sometimes set in, all I have to do is remember that unforgettable fateful day. How terrified we were. How helpless, powerless and lost I felt. Most importantly, how much my sons meant, and still mean to me. How much Koa meant to me that day fearing I had lost him forever. Nothing else in the World mattered that day, and those few terrifying hours imprinted themselves indelibly on my Heart and Soul.
That is the depth and breadth of the Love I have for my 'ohana. No matter how old he gets, or what challenges he is faced with, or what challenges he presents us with. He will always be the vulnerable little five-year old precious boy to me. That I almost lost my World that day, and received it back that same day as well, will never leave my memory, or my gratitude, or my emotions, or my Soul.
Love you my sons. Always have. Always will. Mahalo Ke Akua for bearing all the brunt of my anger and sorrow. Thank you especially for saving my little boy and keeping him safe, actually both of my Sons. So I can Treasure them Forever...