Since my adult son went missing I’ve learned to value connecting with people, even as I draw away. My story has invited others into a circle of loss where mother-empties are the norm, where lifeless bodies and missing ones evoke a common grief, where no one backs away from the abyss in our gaze. The gossamer thread between my missing son and another’s murdered daughter surprised me at first. A mother whose daughter was murdered followed me on Facebook and offered her condolences there. Other mothers with similar stories follow me as well. We haven’t met but I know they stand with me. I am alone, yet not. We each have uncontrollable situations that have confirmed our worst fears.
I’ve learned that unresolved loss is a delicate subject for people. We are resilient, and we can walk through our own shadowy valleys, but hearing about another’s ongoing loss stymies us. Perhaps it’s the catch in the voice, or the careful breathing. Something alerts the listener, and they find they don’t know how to hold their own hands, how to stand, whether to breathe.
I’ve learned that being present is not my natural state, but the only time I really recognize being otherwhere is when I catch myself dissociating while driving. I don’t know how much of a menace this makes me on the road, but I do think driving may be when I am most present because I have to actively pull myself back. I check out so much now that I wonder if I was ever present when my children were little. I look back and see myself being present, but I’m very tricky with my cloak of pseudo-presence. I may seem attentive, but I’m really trying to get through the next minute. Maybe I draw away from people because they interfere with my dissociating. It’s almost like being in an alcoholic haze; you don’t want disturbing no matter how sick you are.
I don’t like admitting this.
I also draw away because grief is a sneaky, rude fellow with no respect for others’ sensibilities. It’s a remnant of my childhood that I want to take care of people’s feelings of helplessness in the face of my grief. Taking care of a borderline stepmother’s feelings while enduring nightly visits from her husband created an unhealthy lack of boundaries. Not to minimize empathy. I just don’t know where the line is.
Since my son went missing, I’ve been caught in an in-between. Some might call it a rock and a hard place, but that denotes an inability to move between two hard objects. No, I glide between two difficult choices regularly. Don’t talk about mother-empties and thus spare people from feeling helpless, or talk about the yawning chasm I walk beside every day and then empathize with their helplessness even while I’m bereft of true connection. You can’t connect with people who simply feel helpless or sorry for you. They are there and you are here and that in-betweenness that you regularly navigate is impermeable to outsiders. Everyone must walk the pain path themselves, surrounded by love or no.
The problem with withdrawing is that your story doesn’t get heard and you don’t hear other people’s stories, and story is where healing lives. Whether it’s the stories we tell ourselves, or the stories we dream, the core holds life. Story saved me when I was little, and it is saving me now.
In 2016, on my birthday, my 27-year-old, 6’4″ wry, depressed son sent me a loving text–Happy birthday, Mom. I love you–and then disappeared. Went off-grid. Died in a ditch next to a sweet-smelling alfalfa field. Hiked the lush Pacific Coast trail up into Alaska and lives in an abandoned bus. Died out in the dry desert, skin shriveled and desiccated, mouth agape. Died of exposure in Wyoming during last winter’s horrible blizzards, unfound in some grassy valley. Or found in some grassy valley but unidentified because not enough of him was found. Or he lives homeless somewhere in an unfriendly city, hungry, alone, limping in shoes that are too small for him, disoriented and shaggy and unrecognizable. I struggle seeing him in any happy scenario because it means he is choosing not to have me in his life.
Since my son went missing, I have blamed myself for possibly driving him away by literally calling out the National Guard a week after he disappeared, putting him on the news, alerting every police department within 100 miles. He’d been grieving the death of a close friend and was not himself: he’d given everything he owned away, and I was worried he would kill himself. I still spend most days mentally cataloguing the ways I have failed him and his brother as though this will help me make sense of his disappearance: I wasn’t present enough; I let them have too much sugar; I didn’t put them in sports; I went back to school instead of continuing to homeschool them; I was not enough of a mom; I was too much. Now I feel the stories of my childhood vibrating in me, as though they somehow still explain the world to me as they did when I was a child.
I am Nancy Drew, following breadcrumb clues, including ones whose importance I possibly fabricated, like mysterious hits on my blog up in South Dakota, or the way his Facebook friends list disappeared 4 months after he vanished. I’m a box troll hiding under the streets because this ordeal wants to disfigure my faith. I’m a Victoria Holt heroine in a story with this family curse of disconnection. And I am—have always been—a black sheep.
Since my son went missing, I’ve been more aware of the familial disconnection that drives me to make sense of my role as a child and as a parent, to make connections between the two, to ferret out cause and effect. I’ve also come to value being a black sheep not because of the rebel aspect of it but because the black sheep carries the story of the flock. For every hundred white sheep the farmer includes a black one, and it’s the black ones he counts. I have the sense that my life is a microcosm of the family, and if I can understand what I remember it’ll help me make sense of the whole. What does my single story tell about our flock?
My story of loss echoes other family losses and abandonments: On my dad’s side, Nana’s mother abandoned two sets of children with two different husbands before she had Nana. My mother and her sisters were put in a state orphanage when they were adolescents. By their parents.
Nana lost both of her children. When my dad died all I felt was relief, but she still grieves, thirty years later. Of course she does. He was a bad man, but his mother loved him.
I’m reminded of a story I read in a book about feng shui. A monk came home to find his television was stolen, and his response was, “Oh, I see they’ve come for the tv.” The implication is that everything has a season. Oh, it’s time to go into foster care. Oh, it’s time to give my baby up for adoption. Oh, it’s time to get a divorce. Oh, it’s time to sort of lose one of my sons.
At 1:06am one day shortly after he vanished I woke with a snap, his slurred voice in my head saying, “Where are you?”
I got dressed and drove to the house where he was staying before he vanished. Convinced he had spoken to me in a dream, in a stupor, helpless. Relieved because I’d heard him and might find him.
Climbed onto a white plastic chair, shined a light into the kitchen window and saw that yes, the dishrag was still dry, the sink was dry, the ramen noodles were still stacked next to the stove.
Sniffed around all the windows I could reach and the front door for a dead body odor. Sniffed and listened for his slurred voice, calling quietly into the crack of the window, trying not to wake the dog next door. Checked the porch steps to see if any of the powder I’d spread had been disturbed.
I’ve lived in my impermeable in-between space since May of 2016, and hope does not flourish here. Every dead body found is my son, every unidentified skeletal remains, every John Doe.
And life goes on. The sky is still blue. Onion fields still smell like ranch dressing. Bees hum in the alfalfa fields, busses trundle rickety roads, and I have other loves. My son is missing and I love to teach. My life is not on hold; I have lives to touch. My son has vanished and I love Kiwanis. Our service project of giving away books fulfills me even while I mourn. My son could be dead and I love to sew. Learning to stitch things together while I unravel gives me a semblance of control. I love the bright sharpness of living.
I wish mourning were a place I could visit and take pictures of that I could then tuck away to revisit in a decade. Ten years is not too far to dissociate. But mourning resides in me. It opens the front door and pops its head out any time it pleases, whether I’m teaching, sewing, or giving books away. Hope is just as wayward, appearing on the porch whenever she pleases, but I never let her in the door because I don’t trust her. She’s as rude as grief, and leaves footprints on the porch steps even though my son did not.
Life, and hope, and loss, they’re all uncontrollable. Like me. Like my son. My daily mantra is, “It’s harder to disappear by accident than to do it on purpose.” Every day I whisper it as a prayer, and I remind myself that if he’s not dead, he needs me to be present when he returns. This will mean a lot of driving.