Having settled one-year-old Erik for his rest, I went to find Aidan. I unsuccessfully hunted the house, then into the garden I walked, calling and looking. In the middle of a newly-dug flower bed, I saw two-year-old Aidan covered in dark soil. His endearing mud-covered face grinned happily at me. This was an early vanishing Aidan, one that continued, even in older age.
My Grandfather and my cousins were all good magicians, as older brother Rolf and his own sons later became. Aidan, though, excelled as a vanishing magician from as soon as he learnt to crawl.
Like his glasses, Aidan himself was most proficient in hiding and disappearing. My friend Mary had taken the boys to give me an afternoon off. No grandparents living in Cape Town to assist, and no domestic help for me, just my wonderful friends.
“Janice, I love having your boys, but Aidan gave me such a fright today. He disappeared, we all hunted the house and called him. No reply. Then in the garden I called and called. Still no reply. I was so worried when eventually Aidan crawled out from under hydrangea bushes, happy and unconcerned. I was so relieved to find him. I just wish he would answer to his name.”
A common complaint. One day I was watching Aidan when Rolf called him from elsewhere. I observed that Aidan just nodded his head. Aidan did answer, but not enough for us to hear.
One weekend we were busy at home, early morning, when the front door bell rang. It was Howell from our shop. “Mrs Behr I have a delivery for you.” Looking into the large wicker delivery basket at the front of Howell’s bicycle, I was greeted with a great big smile from deep inside.
“Aidan what are you doing there?”
Howell explained that Aidan had walked down to the shop two blocks away and Fatima had asked him to return Aidan to us.
We had not even noticed that three-year-old Aidan had disappeared. What blessings to have all these caring neighbours.
Needless to say this prompted a higher fence, trying to Aidan-proof the garden. Erik, a year younger than Aidan, did not have this wanderlust need. Maybe it was the beginning of Aidan asserting his independent streak.
We knew Aidan would disappear if there was any form of water nearby and we had to watch him extra carefully at homes with ponds or pools, or on outings near streams.
I had volunteered to assist with Erik’s preschool outing to the World of Birds. Aidan had to come too as I would not be back in time to collect him from his preschool. What fun we all had on the journey singing together with extra children and a student teacher in my combi. We walked around enjoying looking at the fine birds, and some sorry rescued birds, until we walked through the monkey section. Again I counted heads for my little group. Where was five-year-old Aidan?
Aidan was so happy, grinning at me when I located him. He had climbed into a discarded indoor bath, now used for the monkeys, and containing faeces and feathered filthy black water.
“Oh you little rascal. And for once I have no spare clothes for you. Out now!”
School holidays. It was a Saturday morning, and Christmas Eve. Aidan was home after his first year at boarding school, aged eleven. Al and I had a few last-minute items to purchase down the road at Kenilworth Centre, and left thirteen-year-old Rolf caring for his brothers while we parents shopped.
We returned within the hour to be greeted at the gate by two very anxious faces.
“Aidan is missing,” said Rolf and Erik simultaneously.
Al immediately started panicking and I had to remain calm to pacify everyone.
“We will split up, Erik stay at the house, Rolf onto your bicycle. I will phone the police and Al, you drive towards the shopping centres.”
My anxiety made me stammer on the phone while reporting lost Aidan to the police and then shopping centre managements in case Aidan had walked to the Malls. Aidan knew what he wanted and could understand speech, though his expressive language was not clear, no more than single words or short sentences.
Rolf had already been to Adams corner store and now he went on his bicycle around the neighbourhood roads. I phoned Kenilworth Centre and Al went by the car to Maynard Mall. I walked up our road knocking on all doors until reaching Clare’s home.
“I saw Aidan some time ago walking up the road with his towel under his arm. I cannot remember when.”
“Oh thank you so much, Clare. What a relief that you saw him. I think I know where he has gone,” I replied.
Al was back home again. I said, “We must go to Kenilworth station, drive the car.” On arrival I scanned the platforms and rushed to the ticket office.
“Can you help? We have lost our son who wears glasses, cannot speak well, and has Down syndrome?”
Puzzled look. I explained: “He is Mongol, that is Down syndrome.” Oh that disliked term that everyone was trying to remove from the vocabulary, but still the only one some people understood in 1988.
The ticket officer replied, “Oh yes, we had a telephone call from Simon’s Town. A little boy was held on the train for his safety and he is on the approaching Cape Town train.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, while emotional and panic-filled tears flooded my eyes and my body shook as I walked onto the platform to await the train.
Our prayers were answered as we had a guiding hand leading us to be at that station at the right time.
I wondered if Aidan was being taken to lost property on Cape Town Station. Aidan’s Medic Alert bracelet was broken and that day he needed it. For emergencies or lost intellectually disabled children, Medic Alert had contact phone numbers on record.
Off the rear of the train stepped the conductor and a happy Aidan, shoes on wrong feet, laces undone and a loosely wrapped towel, with his bathing costume almost falling out, held under his arm. Train driver and conductor had been radioed to let Aidan off at Kenilworth. Relief. How could I be cross? He had shown such independence and ability.
Aidan was told to thank the conductor and contentedly he waved goodbye as I hugged him, relieved that he was home and unharmed. Al came rushing onto the platform with a tearful face, and hugged Aidan too. Now we had to get home and inform our other two sons who were as distressed, concerned and worried as I had been.
I have always regretted not being able to thank those kind folk who had taken care of our son on his seaward outing. Thank goodness Aidan had been guided to the rear of the train, for in the apartheid-era, the front of the train would have been much emptier, and those occupants would have ignored our son.
The talk on not leaving our house on his own was reinforced for the remainder of the school holidays.
Why had Aidan gone to catch a train? We had been once to the beach by train in that year. And prior to that Christmas weekend, we had three car trips to Muizenberg beach, only to return home unable to swim due to the presence of blue bottles. Aidan had been so frustrated. And he does not forget directions to places he likes, even many, many years later.
I have never forgotten Aidan’s most proficient vanishing trick that included a train ride. Like other children and people with intellectual disabilities, consequences of actions are not part of Aidan’s life skills. That worry they leave to their families.
About Janice Behr
Previously I spoke many words and wrote short reports, today my life is filled with memoir and children’s story writing.
The Life Righting Collective has opened me to a growing family of richness in love and friendships which continue to fill my days.