I remember my mother and father sitting me down to deliver the news. The last time my parents sat me down in such a fashion was to let me know that I was going to be a big sister. As a middle child, it wasn’t unusual for me to be out of the loop. I thought maybe that I was getting ready to learn that my parents where going on a trip or maybe, could it be? Another sibling? What my parents were about to divulge to me, would alter the course of how I was to view the world forever after that day. A part of my life, that eternal feeling of summer in the soul that you feel, as a child, was gone and so was my big sister. She was my idol, my friend and my tormentor (as any good big sister would be). She was the one who would let me sneak in her room when I was unable to sleep and who would let me sneak out of our parents camper on lake trips for secret late night stargazing. I wanted to be like her in every way. Maybe I should have told her. Maybe things wouldn’t have happened that way. My parents, hesitant to share the news, tried to break it to me easy. They were sure she was just with friends or that she was just being a teenager but I could hear the panic in their tone. I knew they were trying to convince themselves just as much as they were trying to convince me. The truth is, that my parents had no idea. In the days before cellphones and GPS systems, pictures on milk cartons and most certainly before social media campaigns of missing children, all they had to go on was the local rumor mill. Teachers, schoolmates, close friends, family, church kids and even all the old boyfriends were questioned. They felt that she had decided to leave with a new boy she had become acquainted with but were not for sure and definitely didn’t know why. It was hard to get help form the authorities because it appeared she had chosen to leave. Law enforcement did their best but they were also at a loss. Truth is that it didn’t matter how or why she was gone. All that mattered now was where. Where was she? How could we find her?
“Please, just come home…”
In the months following my sister’s disappearance, little was said. My parents didn’t want to talk to me about it. They thought it would only upset me more when all I wanted was someone to say something…anything. My sister was a true natural beauty with jet-black hair gifted to her courtesy of our Cherokee heritage and green eyes from the Irish we also share. What I really remember most was my sister’s room and like all big sisters, her room was super cool! Her room was exactly how you would picture the room of a 70’s teen to be. A rainbow of sunset colors, teenage heartthrob posters like dreamy David Cassidy and Andy Gibb along with a beautiful glass amber lantern in the corner over her bed and macramé plant hangers to add an earthy touch. She was a decorated pom-pom girl and she had her trophies displayed like Oscar Awards! She loved to sleep in her sleeping bag and I often would tease her about being a caterpillar in a cocoon. After my sister disappeared, I would often go into her room, crawl into her sleeping bag and close my eyes as if it were a time machine, in hopes that if I tucked myself away for long enough, I may awake wherever it was that she had gone.
“Please, just come home…”
My Dad was a hustler of a man. Always on to the next big thing and the kind of person that could make it happen. Growing up poor, he wanted us to have more and nothing, especially things like sleep and naysayers, could stop my Dad. He was gone a lot and I knew it was because he was taking care of us. He used to come home, no matter how late, and always make time to spend with his girls. It may have only been 30 minutes snuggling in his recliner through a sitcom or the late show but he wanted us to always know he loved my brother and us too. He became much more serious during that time. The light hearted man I once knew, for the first time, showed signs of frustration and sadness than I had never seen in him. Throughout my whole life, my Dad always had a quiet determination. I knew, just like I knew when my Dad left for work that he was taking care of us, I also knew, somehow, through some means, he was searching for her. I also knew he would never stop looking.
“Please, just come home…”
My mother was petite in stature but strong in will. She was quiet most of the time but not to be confused with demure. She had spirit about her. She had already seen hard days early in her life and though I know she wasn’t a stranger to tragedy, this was taking its toll. It truly is strange the things you can and can’t remember when you are going through a storm. I have to work to recall my exact age and I have to think hard to remember what was happening in the world. I don’t remember Christmas that year and I don’t know if we got snow. I can’t think of what I chose for an Easter dress though it was a tradition to go shopping with my mom for spring clothes and shoes and to pick out the dress. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. I knew enough to know that my parents felt she was alive.. Of that, I was glad. It was only a few short years before that three young girls had gone missing at a Girl Scout Camp less than an hour away which resulted in me realizing two things: first, my mom was not ever going to allow me to be a Girl Scout and that is something I wanted very much to be and secondly, children could die. Until then, I was unaware. My mom became very protective after that incident. That was always confusing to me. I couldn’t understand how my sister could go missing when my parents were so careful after that incident.
“Please, just come home…”
Probably the thing I do remember most vividly was the landline phone in the kitchen. We lived in a nice one-story home with a split-level and I can still remember my parents purchasing an extra long cord for the phone. In the months that my sister was gone, my mother would pace about the house, doing chores and rarely leaving. It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to understand why. Every time the phone rang, my mother would race across the house to answer it. Nothing was going to get in her way. My mother, who stood all of five feet tall, would leap over furniture and skid across the breakfast bar, to reach the phone, in hopes my sister was on the other end. Inevitably, she would hang up the phone and tears would well up in her eyes and she would melt into the floor, at the foot of the bar, in the corner. That is where she chose to release many of her tears. Sometimes she would sit in that corner, inconsolable, for hours. She was becoming more and more unreachable every time my sister wasn’t on the phone.
As for me, I spent a lot of time playing with my baby brother. He was a joyful distraction to what otherwise seemed like a constant stabbing pang in the heart of my family. He was much younger than me and I latched on to him and made sure that he had a really good big sister, like I had, so that he would know how lucky I felt, provided she never was to come back around. I had to carry the torch and I had to be strong. Everyone felt they had to be strong. But all we wanted was to see my sister’s face and have her home.
“Please, just come home…”
Fall turned to winter and winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer and what seemed impossible to except became our reality. We would hear rumors from time to time that she could be here or might have been spotted there. Nothing seemed to pan out. I remember sign-ups for church camp and all I could think of was how much I had wanted to be a Girl Scout. I was sure I was not going to be allowed to go because being away from the safety of my home was scary and I should be very wary of these types of activities. I was a timid child and I still don’t know why I asked to go. I didn’t feel safe in my own bed much less away from my family. I asked to go anyway. I remember packing and having thoughts that were far more morbid than I knew my mind could conjure and I even tried to back out at the last minute. My parents were torn whether to let me go or to keep home. You see, that is always a situation when you are a parent of a missing child. How far do you allow the others to be away? As anguishing as it was for me, I am sure it had to be absolute hell on my parents. I mustered up the determination anyway.
I made it through that week at camp. I even learned some really great things about God and about stuff I had wanted to learn as a Girl Scout. I learned to canoe and shoot a bow and arrow but my favorite was working with the horses. I learned to groom, saddle and ride horses. It was a dream come true, until nighttime. I didn’t sleep much that week but I did feel pride in my accomplishment of going to camp. When the church bus arrived back home, I felt it was a reunion like none I had ever known but little did I know, it wasn’t the only reunion that I would have that day. As we pulled in the driveway, my parents told me that needed to talk to me. It was a déjà vu. I was instantly very afraid. All I could think of was if my sister were ok, she would have come with them to greet me upon my return from camp. What I was about to learn was that sometimes, things can be good and bad all at the same time and there aren’t always answers to everything in life.
This time, I wasn’t the one waiting for my sister to come home; my sister was waiting for me. Almost a year later, my sister had come home. My dad had been searching and my mom had gotten the call. I ran in the house and to her bed, and in her sleeping bag cocoon, lay my sister. She had been through a lot in the last year. She had been hurt. She wasn't the same. None of us were the same. That wasn't what was important though. What was important was that she just came home. My life has taken many twist and turns but now I help others whose family members have gone missing. I look for those that are lost; because to the ones who love them, all that really matters is that they just come home!