“She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.” Proverbs 3:15
“Mary! Is Lottie with you?” These were the words that came out of my cousin’s husband, Michael, when he frantically climbed the fence of the pool to yell for me. At first, I couldn’t hear him, but when he repeated himself, the words I thought I had heard were said again… My fingers went numb, and I couldn’t feel my legs… No, I didn’t have Lottie. She had walked down to the beach minutes before with her Aunt Lura and cousin Huntley… from that moment on, I couldn’t hear any noise around me.
It was Saturday June 17th, around 2:30 in the afternoon. It was our first day of vacation, one I like to call “day half” because we arrived around noon and planned to spend the afternoon between the beach and the pool. Upon our arrival, my mom let the girls immediately change into swimsuits and took them to the beach while David and I unloaded the car and got everyone situated. When we finally finished, it was time to settle into our vacation, and start enjoying our friends and family. This year was different than most, as the entire Thompson side of my family was also there, totaling almost 30 people between my Dad and his brother’s children and their families. Everyone was coming in – some on the beach, some in the pool. It was a happy time, lots of hugs, lots of catching up – just pure excitement!
At one point, I noticed Lottie walking to the right of our canopy and quickly ran after her and reminded her of her surroundings. I told her she couldn’t walk away because (and I literally said this, which I hate to admit) “someone will steal you.” She looked at me confused, but I told her it’s the truth, it happens, and to always be aware of those around her. Not long after that she came to me and said she wanted to go to the pool. Being the kind of girl who likes admiring the beach and ocean from a nice pool – I happily obliged and took my sweet girl away from the large party of people to the pool. It was very relaxed, and I even said to my friend Trang, I’ll go back down and visit with everyone later, because to be honest, I was just starting to feel settled after a long trip South. I saw my family trickling in, but just stayed with Lottie enjoying the quiet moment. Soon, Lura arrived to get Huntley, who was also with us at the pool and Lottie jumped up asking to go. I agreed with Lura that it was fine. After all, David was on the beach along with 7 other adults. As I’ve replayed everything in my mind, I believe we visited for around 20 minutes, before Michael was calling my name asking if I had Lottie. This is when my whole body felt like I was leaving the earth for a split second, and my mind began to spiral.
Where was she? What had happened? Did Lura make sure she followed her all the way to David? Did she veer off before making it to the beach canopy? And worst of all, was she drowning? Had she been kidnapped? When these thoughts entered my mind, I knew things were getting more and more serious. Every single family member went opposite directions on the beach, and my father went immediately to the beach ramp station and reported it to the Beach Patrol/Police. From that moment on, I cannot even tell how quickly or slowly time was passing. I was still in a wet bikini FRANTIC after darting out of the pool the minute Michael yelled for me. Without even putting on shoes or drying off I started running. When I met David, he was in such distress all I could say was “WHAT HAPPENED?” and his only response, through a pale white face was “I DON’T KNOW!” At that moment, I knew we were better to look for her apart than together.
In the time I searched, some alone and some with my brother, Josh, I had two moments when I was faced with what could have been a sight that changed my life forever; Lottie’s lifeless body floating in the ocean, at the bottom of a pool or on the ground after falling off a balcony. The search continued for almost an hour until my cell phone rang and it was Lura. I said “DID THEY FIND HER?!” she said “YES, BEACH PATROL FOUND HER AND IS ON THEIR WAY. COME SEE YOUR BABY!!!!!!!” I literally collapsed in front of everyone around me at the pool, who had also seen me in a frantic state, and took it upon themselves to search in some way. When I stood and saw the silent siren on the red beach patrol truck and an officer helping her out of the back, I just sobbed tears of joy. For more time than I ever thought possible, I could see my life turning into one of those stories I’ve read about or watched on TV about missing children. I kept saying in my head, “Is this going to be our story? God, please don’t let this be our story.”
I was a short distance from where the officer brought her, but I saw her getting out of the truck. We learned from the beach patrol that she was “looking for shells,” and wandered too far away, looking down at the sand as she walked. When she looked up, she didn’t recognize anyone around her. The officer said that Lottie was “so brave” and gave him her full name – Charlotte James Graf. She told us that there was a “divider” in his truck, and she knew that wasn’t good, so she laid down in the seat so nobody would see her. We learned that the moment my dad reported her missing, that all ramps were notified to be blocked, so no vehicles could leave without being searched. I’m so very impressed with the entire system, and the way they sprang into action for my child. I will forever be thankful to know all hands were on deck for that time, whether it was our friends and family searching or the law enforcement doing what they do best. Aside from all the details, I just want to share as a parent what I’m taking away from this experience.
- Forgiveness. This can happen to anyone! David still isn’t’ to a point where he feels okay about everything, but I would have never cast blame on him. Had it happened to me, and things ended badly, I would only be able to move on through the forgiveness of others and the ability to forgive myself.
- Awareness. Talk to your kids about the difference between strangers and people of authority. Beach patrol versus predator.
- “Never take your eyes off them” isn’t totally realistic, but it definitely needs to be the motto at all times. It isn’t just swimming times that someone needs to be designated to watch the children, but at all times, especially in large crowds.
- Reactions. It doesn’t matter what happens to you that counts, it’s how you deal with it. Your children react the way you do. There was absolutely no way for me to hide my emotion when I saw Lottie, but with the help of my parents, aunt, uncle, loving cousins and friends, we all embraced her quickly and did the best we could to create light and happiness. I knew her little soul was full of fear and confusion, but I didn’t want it to ruin our entire vacation. We quickly scooped her up and went back to the pool and tried to carry on, even though David and I – and all the adults were completely spent.
I also learned most importantly when you are faced with the truth of a missing child, something happens. I saw my life flash before me, in snapshots. Almost like they say what happens before death. As I was searching for her, I saw a constant reel of images flashing in my brain. She was constantly there as I was frantically running around screaming her name. I knew if I didn’t get her back, life would never be the same. All the “things” we own in our life matter nothing without our child. New Smyrna Beach would never be same to me if this story turned out differently. As I’ve reflected on the experience, it shows even more, how all the things in this world are nothing.
Forgiveness. Family. Faith. God’s mercy. God’s gifts. My prayers are with any parent who didn’t have a good ending. How many haven’t seen their child come back or be saved? This one hour of my life was real, and it was real for everyone around us. I’m thankful our story ended the way it did, and this is a day I’ll never forget. This picture with Lottie shows the end of a happy family vacation, a moment I’ll treasure forever.
“Lottie’s Mama’s little girl.
Lottie’s Mama’s shiny pearl.
Lottie’s very, very good.
Mama loves her like she should.”
-This is a lullaby that my Father sang to me as a child, originally sang to him by his mother. He was one of three boys, so the words were written for them. He re-wrote the lyrics for me, the first Thompson girl born in 50 years. I sing it to my girls before bed, and hope to keep singing it, as long as they’ll let me.