November 18th, 29 years ago, an eternity and yet a brief moment, marks the last happy, innocent day I spent with you, Michaela. What did we do that day? How could my memory of the day after be so sharp, but that last happy day be washed away? It was the last day of school before a week off for Thanksgiving break, so a lot of it I can know. We got up early in the morning to get ready for school. You had cereal for breakfast. I put Robbie in his stroller, and he and Libby and I walked you and Alex to school. We went right, then right, then left and right again, curling left around the circle to the back entrance of the school, walking in through the playground. It was still Fall, and we brushed through the last of the falling leaves on ground as we walked, the beautiful, flaming colors just starting to dim. At the end of the day we did the same, in reverse, with the sense of joy and freedom only the last day of school before vacation can have.
One thing I do remember is your last night at home. I woke in the middle of the night feeling crowded, pushed over to the edge of the bed, not enough space to move my legs. I reached out my hand in the dark, and identified the cause as you, as I felt the contours of your head, so much bigger than the other kids, and ran my fingers through the silky tangles of your hair, so much longer. I considered waking you, telling you to go back to your own bed, but I didn’t. I let you stay, allowed you to seek comfort from your fears in the night. I did not know that was the last time I would be able to do that.
The next morning you were up early, and Trina came over. The two of you had solo parts in the upcoming Christmas pageant at school, and you were going to practice them together. But first you and Trina set out to fix your hair, and to dress yourselves as close to identically as your wardrobes would allow. Back and forth, back and forth across the street from house to house until you were satisfied with your selections. Then you and Trina popped in one last time, one very last time as it turned out, to ask if you could go to the neighborhood market and get some goodies. I tried to say no, but you pleaded with me. I searched my mind for the source of my fear and found nothing. I gave in. I said yes.
“Oh thank you thank you, mom,” you said, bouncing a little in happiness. I walked to the front door as you and Trina went out and picked up scooters from the driveway. You had your own scooter, but for some reason that day you and Trina were using the ones that belonged to Trina and her brother. You probably were continuing the theme of trying to be identical, since those scooters were the same except for the color. “Bye mom,” you said with a happy smile, as you picked up the scooter and climbed on it. “I love you!”
“I love you, too,” I responded, and then you were off, down the driveway, left down the street. I stood at the doorway watching until you reached the corner and turned right, out of my sight.
I never saw you again.
Even now, all these many, many years later, having been pressed with the reality of your absence for three times the number of years I felt your presence, I find it so hard to believe that this actually happened. When I write it, there is a voice in my head that says, “No, that is impossible.” It is impossible that such a happy, sunny little girl, such a brilliant source of light and joy, could be taken away at all. I would think that evil would have been frightened by your sheer goodness. I would think that your light would have sent beams into the sky to show where you are, so that we could follow them, find you, bring you safely home to your family, where you could grow and learn and love and live, and one day make a life and a new family with someone you love.
I find I am typing with heavier keystrokes now, pounding the keyboard. I feel those keystrokes as disbelief coming out of my fingers, but I think it is anger as well, anger that someone could have thought they had any right in the universe to take you away. You are not theirs. You are mine. You are mine to take care of, to love, to protect.
And now I am kind of petering out. I lift my fingers from the keyboard. I sigh. I resume, because the reality is that it did happen. And tomorrow I will once again travel the miles from where I live now to where we lived then, to what was a nice little neighborhood market, which is less nice now. We will have to clear away trash and empty alcohol bottles from around the base of the thing that grows there. We call it a tree, but I’m not sure it is not a vastly overgrown bush. I haven’t seen it in a long time, not since last year I don’t think. It’s been quite a year for me, my year of being a cancer patient. I’m over that now. In remission, and planning on staying that way. I made the decision recently that I am living until I am 93. That should give you plenty of time to find your way back if you are still out there somewhere. I plan on running marathons in my 80’s if you would care to run them in your sixties! But anyway, every year when we go there the tree is still hung with the ribbons from the year before, and the year before that. They are dirty, and bedraggled, but they are a symbol of our hope, of our love for you, which may be beaten and worn down, but which never dies.
Someone said the other day that they understood how I feel because they are estranged from their daughter and grandchildren. But that is not how I feel. I don’t feel estranged. I feel that you are as close as my fingertips as I type. Before my mother died, I told her it was okay for her to leave, that I would never be alone because she would always be with me in my heart. I told you the same, that if ever you were afraid or alone, that all you had to do was touch your heart and you would feel me there. Missing you, the empty chair at the table, honestly none of those things mean even a smidgen compared to my overwhelming grief at the thought of the unknown pain and terror that you endured, pain that could have lasted a few moments or could have come to define an entire lifetime for you. That is not what I brought you into this world for, Michaela. What I desire is to hold you in my arms again. What I need is to know that you are all right, that you are at peace wherever you are, because in the end being a mother is far less about my enjoyment, and far more about my love and need to care for you, to protect you, to assure your happiness in this life I brought you to. If anybody had told me I could go days without being able to do that, I’d have told them they were crazy. But here we are. The days have passed, the months, the seasons. I have watched the hills turn from brown to green to brown again, have watched the decades flow, and even the centuries turn. How I have endured this I don’t know. No, I do know. It’s because there was no choice. But how have you endured it, Michaela, or have you?
I had a dream last night that I had a baby. I’m not sure it was my baby. I, along with eight other women, had been lightly abducted by terrorists of some sort. We were on board a Navy ship, and there was some nefarious plot abroad which I don’t really remember. At one point I had the opportunity to tell a police officer about it, and then at another point I managed to get off the ship with the baby. But the woman who was in charge of watching us showed up, and she didn’t want to take me, but she wanted to take the baby. She didn’t even say it was forever, just that she had something to do with the baby and had to take it outdoors (which was cold) and perhaps keep it overnight, but that it really wasn’t my business because it wasn’t really my baby. But she was, in my heart, my baby. I loved her and I had to protect her, but I didn’t know how I was going to be able to come up against this huge power that seemed to be everywhere and to keep this baby, and myself, safe. And then I woke up, so I didn’t have to. But at the moment I woke, I still held the baby in my arms. She was wearing a footed sleeper, in a soft yellow fabric, with big buttons up the front. When I woke, she was threatened, but she was still safe.
And now, back to real life. I have so much to do, and I am having such a hard time doing any of it. I am filled with weariness, and I just want to sit here, in my bed. But I will get up. I will cut the ribbons for the tree tomorrow. I will babysit your little nephew, Theo, because his parents have to work tonight putting on a play with the theater academy where they work as instructor, director, administrator. Next week Libby and her husband will be coming in from out of state for Thanksgiving, and the weekend after that we will be having a party for Theo’s second birthday. How will I do all this? I don’t know. It does no good to anybody for me to collapse in my bed, though. It doesn’t help you. It doesn’t help me. Life’s insistence on carrying on and in sweeping me up in its tides has been what has kept me alive, after all.
So I will continue. And I will be joyous in what is here, because I can’t help that. You are the person who first looked into my eyes with complete love and trust, who first held my fingers in a tiny fist, who first called me mommy. You taught me these things, opened my heart to them, and never ever will it close. Still your light shines and illuminates all that is good in my life. Another memory: on the day your youngest sister was born, five years after you were kidnapped, as I was giving birth to her I looked up in the corner of the room and there you were smiling down from the television screen. I have never fully understood the real meaning of that moment (because it absolutely must have some meaning), but my feeling is that you were telling me to carry on, to embrace and love this new baby with all the same love that I held for you, that you were telling me somehow that it’s okay. You were instilling in me the courage to do this one more time, even though that first time had ended in so much pain.
Michaela, wherever you are, if you could please just send me a message letting me know you are okay, I would be forever grateful. That is all that is important to me.
Just know that I love you forever, baby girl. I hold you in my heart always, and I pass through the dark, and live in the colors of your rainbows, as they sparkle and dance through my life.