12/21/2015 09:39 EST | Updated 12/21/2016 05:12 EST

The Moment I Lost My Toddler At The Mall

Tara Mandarano

It was a Wednesday like any other: a mid-morning outing to the mall with my two-year-old. We were enjoying our new mother-daughter tradition -- strolling around the shops and splitting a banana chocolate chip muffin in the food court. She ate most of it while I inhaled my caramel-flavoured coffee, content to sit for a bit and take a breath.

We had been in the big department store before. She loved climbing up on the couches in the shoe section and saying hello to herself in the mirror. When she suddenly darted in between the racks of women's nightgowns, my heart stuttered. I told her to come out, to come back, but she took off.

As every excruciating second ticked by, I felt a little more hysterical.

I was pushing one of those car-shaped shopping carts where the kid pretends to drive and the mum attempts to browse in peace. It was cumbersome to turn in narrow spaces, so I simply abandoned it in the aisle, along with my purse.

I darted the way she had gone, but there was no sign of her. I was praying for her little legs to appear under the hanging shirts and pants, but there was just empty space. As every excruciating second ticked by, I felt a little more hysterical.

I realized we were now playing a terrifying game of hide and seek. Everything felt surreal, like I'd stepped into a TV movie. I ran by a woman and asked her if she'd seen a little girl go by. She said no, giving me an exasperated look.

I had heard the stories, of course, from my own mother and my mother-in-law. The times their kids had wandered away from them in public and given them a heart attack. I guess I never realized how easily it could happen. A small part of me had probably judged them, wondering how close of an eye they were really keeping on their kids.

Now I knew different. I hadn't been distracted by any of the shiny wares around me. I hadn't turned my back even for an instant. But it didn't make any difference: she was still missing.

I experienced a horrible second where I imagined having to call my husband and tell him I had lost our daughter. I was on the verge of screaming for security, a description of her clothing ready on my tongue.

She's wearing a pink Peppa Pig sweater dress and green leggings. Her hair is in pig tails. She's got the most beautiful blue eyes you've ever seen.

When I found her a bit further up the aisle, safe and smiling, my world righted itself. I picked her up and hugged her too tight, overwhelmed and overjoyed at the same time. She had only been out of my sight for a couple minutes at most, but it was an eternity in the life of a mother.

The enormity of what could have happened lingered long after we went home and watched an episode of Bubble Guppies. I told her again and again how we only play hide and seek at home, not at the mall.

I wasn't sure if she really understood what I was saying, but then she turned to me with those big eyes and said, "Mama scared. Mama sad." And I thought maybe she did.