This is a difficult morning. It started out with a dream in which I was supposed to be giving some public address. I was in a strange place, and for some reason I couldn’t shower, or wash my hair, and I had no blow dryer or straightener, so I had this huge bedhead which people kept trying to tell me was okay. My suitcase and clothes were in the trunk of someone’s husband’s car, and he was mad about something and was driving around aimlessly and so we couldn’t get the suitcase with my clothes. I had a special outfit for the talk I was to give. I could figure out the meaning of this dream pretty easily, but the outfit gave it away, because it was a tee shirt with a lot of words on it, and while I couldn’t tell you the words, it was about Michaela. Someone had stolen some of my makeup, and someone else brought me a dress to wear, which wouldn’t fit.
And I woke up relieved, because I know the dream represented the anxiety I faced each year at the anniversary, where it was our custom to tie ribbons to the tree next to where Michaela was kidnapped. Fewer and fewer people came each year, and most of the ones who were there were from the police department. Some really good friends showed up faithfully every year, and being able to see them and hug them was the best thing. Occasionally media showed up, and sometimes they would ask questions like, “I saw you laughing over there,” (as I was talking to these good friends). “Does that happen often?” Yes. Yes, I laugh. Yes, however much I miss Michaela, I find joy in people and things in life still. As someone pointed out very early on, Michaela would have wanted it that way. But I ended up feeling on display, and it was uncomfortable. I always felt like I had to say something, but as the years went on, I started running out of things to say. I felt like it had to be something new, something fresh, but all I had to say was what I had always said before.
This year, I am in Iowa, far from that parking lot in California where Michaela’s nightmare began. And, notably, this year I have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However fast or slow, I am dying. Years, I think I have, but not a lot of them. And it has very much changed a lot in my life. This morning the obvious dawned on me. For some time now I have started to bristle when people say things like, “I hope Michaela comes home soon,” or “I hope you get justice.” This is a 2 plus 2 that is not so hard to put together, but really, wouldn’t it be ironic, and terribly sad, for Michaela to come home and me not be able to be here for her? And more to the point, the thought of seeing Michaela again is one of the things that makes the prospect of dying more acceptable. I have a lot of really difficult emotions in my life right now. Through long practice of dealing with the most difficult of emotions, I have honed the skill of being able to distract and deny to a fine, fine art. But those feelings are still there. It’s a little like living in an active seismic fault zone. Cracks appear in your driveway, in the stucco in your house, and you wonder, where did they come from? Such is my heart.
I apologize for being so overly sensitive to these things. But I am. I am worn to the bone. My heart has been stomped on by so very many hobnail boots, well, it’s a wonder it works at all. But it does. If anything, it has been tenderized by the pounding.
I haven’t quite figured out what I am going to do today. Since I cannot go to the market, I have established one new tradition for this day, and that is to put up our Christmas tree. This is extraordinarily early for us! Normally I will not entertain this request until December, but this year it feels right. I came up with the idea of tying tiny yellow ribbons to the branches of our tree in Michaela’s honor, and then I morphed that into filling the tree with the tiny ribbons in a rainbow, because as you know if you have followed Michaela’s story, she loved rainbows. She drew them all the time. I have one of her rainbow drawings tattooed on my arm, as well as on my heart.
I have some big yellow ribbons, and I have a lot of trees on my property — a little one in the front, and big ones in the back. I bought some fair size yellow ribbons (couldn’t find any of the really really wide ones) with the intention of tying them on my trees. And likely I will, although I have had some reluctance, because the neighbors will wonder what it is all about, and I don’t terribly want to carry the “mother of missing child” title with me to a new town. I mean, my immediate neighbors know, and it’s not likely to spread throughout the town, but after living publicly for so long, it has been nice to live privately.
I have had to shut down the private messages on Michaela’s Facebook page, because so many people have wanted to slap me down for wanting to withdraw into the privacy of my feelings, and out of “the case.” Websleuths were just up in arms. If anyone is inclined to these feelings, I would simply ask you to consider putting yourself in my place, not just as the mother of a child who was kidnapped 32 years ago, but as someone with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I have been told for years to hold onto hope, and for many of those years now, I have told people that unfulfilled hope is a lead balloon whose weight can crush you. Now, well, I have always said that I am not afraid of dying, and I still think I am not. But I am afraid of the process of dying. And I am very afraid of letting go of this world, this life, the people I love. I have always been a nurturer and a caretaker. Empty nests (which can happen even when people live under the same roof as you) have been hard on me. But now I rejoice at every step my children have taken towards independence. I do believe in God, and part of the reasons is because I have seen him at work in accomplishing this. It’s like he said, “You don’t think I would leave such an important thing undone do you?” In the past year, between my move to Iowa, and the steps that led to it, and Covid, and cancer, I have seen clearly ordered steps. I have come to sum it up as “God has put me in his pocket.” Some things have yet to work themselves out, but I believe they will. I can see it. I have a child who lost his wife just two months ago, but I believe he will be okay when he resolves his grief enough to allow himself to be. I am worried about my husband. He is very strong and independent, but I really don’t know what this will do to him. And I am worried about my dogs, because nobody has the time and devotion to care for them like they are used to. They are all ages seven to ten, and I hope to outlive them.
And Michaela? During my cancer journey, I had a place I went to. When I was first diagnosed years ago, my pastor gave me a Scripture, the one where Jesus bids Peter to come to him and walk with him on the water on the Sea of Galilee. I have written about this before, about how I went to that place whenever I had to go through a scary procedure, and how alive this became, how the vision changed from time to time. After my diagnosis with Stage 4 breast cancer, I went through a really scary period of time, and so I went to this place. This time I was walking on the water, alone, not far from the shore, and on the shore I could see Michaela, my mother, and even my little dog Spike, who died last year. They were standing there, waiting for me, and I told them no, I can’t come right now. There are still things I have to do. Honestly, I tend to have these kinds of “visions,” and they are unexpected enough that I give them some credibility. And this gave me that closure everybody keeps wishing for me. It gave it to me in my soul, if not in the world. To me, it is real and it is sufficient. People have asked me for years what was my gut feeling, whether Michaela was alive or not. I always told them I had too many hopes and fears around it all to have any gut feeling. Well, now I do, and I am at peace with it.
As for justice? Justice exists not in inflicting punishment on the bad guy. Justice exists when the bad things come to be balanced out by the good things. That is why I asked people, for this anniversary, that instead of tying yellow ribbons, to allow Michaela’s light to shine through them, the light of her love and absolute kindness, the light of her spirit. Michaela’s light is what I will not allow to die in this world as long as I have breath, and what I wish others to keep alive. Not her victimhood. Not “the case.” Her bright and shining light. Something else I have written about many times, but which bears repeating, is the conversation I had over coffee, in which these words came out of my mouth, surprising me as they did, that I could see myself sitting with Michaela in eternity, and we would look back on this life, on this terrible tragedy, and we would kind of shrug and say, “oh that,” because it will seem so very, very insignificant in the light of eternity. What instead will be important is every single human being whose life was impacted for the better by what happened to her: everyone whose heart was touched by her because they could feel her spirit, could see her light. I know some people think it is the reflection of the sun from her blonde hair, her blue eyes, that they think they see, but that is not it. It is her inner light that draws you. What is also important is every person whose way has made even the tiniest bit easier by what I have experienced. I have often thought my purpose in this life was to stand on a mountaintop and wave my arms and say, “Hey, I’m still here! I’m still alive! I can still embrace love!” And anybody who is impacted by the words I write in my blog. I don’t think anybody would ever have seen any of them if it weren’t for Michaela.
And in the end, I point you to faith, to absolute hope, to love. People have said that I am brave because I kept going after Michaela was kidnapped. But there was no choice in that. The bravest thing any of us can ever do is open our hearts to love. Giving birth to Michaela was a far greater act of courage than living on after losing her. Particularly after having our hearts crushed by love, it is so hard to open them up again, but if you don’t, you have already crushed your heart yourself. When I gave birth to my youngest child, five years after Michaela was kidnapped, we had the television on in the labor and delivery suite, and truly just as Johnna was entering this world, I looked up in the corner of the room, and there was Michaela smiling down at me from the television, as a local news station was broadcasting pictures of children still missing in the Bay Area after Polly Klaas’s memorial. I have thought and thought about the meaning of this, because it couldn’t not have a meaning. I have come up with a lot of things, but at its most basic, I believe it is a message to fully open my broken heart, which had been partially closed in the intervening years, and also a message that it was okay to love, be happy, carry on. None of our loved ones would ever want us to live under a blanket of grief, or survivor’s guilt. All of our loved ones who have passed on have one wish for us, and that is that we would be happy. As someone who is contemplating the prospect of leaving this life, leaving my loved ones, I would be absolutely thrilled if instead of mourning my death, they celebrated my life, and celebrated my freedom from the hard stuff, celebrated their own lives, and grasped love and joy to the fullest. I want no tears.
I can also point you to faith, because I can tell you that the “God can’t be real because if he was bad things wouldn’t happen” is a lie. God works through all things, and his purpose is greater than a happy go lucky existence in this world. There is a worship song that I love, and have sung many times, whose lyrics include, “Spirit lead me where my faith is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you may lead me.” I love this song. I have sung it many many times, but recently I was thinking about it, about its meaning, about how dangerous a song it is. You might have heard it said, “never pray for patience,” but think about what we are asking when we pray the prayer in this song! We are asking to be taken to a place where our need for faith is so great it pulls down our borders. For me personally, combined with the walking on the waters referenced in the song, which has been the vision that has accompanied me through my cancer journey, well, it calls me to faith, even in this, or particularly in this scary place.
I am not sure what time I started writing this, but I am looking at the clock on my computer, and it is now 12:26 p.m. Central Time, which is 10:26 a.m. in California. I have written through the time that Michaela was kidnapped. I have written through the time of her terror. If I had been in California, I would have been standing in a parking lot, honestly probably trying not to get covid, being distracted. As it is, I have spent this time completely with Michaela. Instead of being with a handful of people remembering her with yellow ribbons, I am reaching out to the entire world with this blog. Instead of focusing on her victimhood, her kidnapping, the bad stuff that happened, I am drawing attention to the greater meaning of Michaela’s life. Instead of the darkness, I am shining her light.
So that’s okay. My oldest daughter worried that because I wasn’t in California and wasn’t going to the tree, that Michaela would be forgotten. But she hasn’t been. She will never be, not in this world, and not in the next. She has touched lives, hearts, the world, and that cannot be forgotten.
I love you forever, Michaela. My heart aches at what you had to endure in this life. I believe you are in a better place now. Although I have resisted your presence for years by holding you here in this world, I open myself to you as the angelic being you have always been.
And God, help me to know just what it is you have for me to do in this world, and to do it. In this way, also, I honor Michaela, because she is a gift from you.
To those of you reading this, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for loving Michaela. And I pray that this love will remain and grow, that it will comfort you, and that it will lead you.
November 19, 2020