“I’m going to leave around 10:30 in the morning,” she told me one Friday evening as I made my way through the house straightening and folding and fluffing and wiping. She would bring a friend with her and they would only stay one night. They were going to a party and would leave the following day since class was Monday and, at two weeks into the new semester, skipping was out of the question. Phoebe was 19-years-old and a spitfire! She was strong, independent, stubborn and outspoken. She was also naïve, loving, tenderhearted and compassionate. She was honest about everything because she thought lying insinuated fear or shame; two things she vehemently detested, even at her age.
Saturday morning the text read, “Ok, leaving now.” It was 10:30am on the dot and there were three hours between her and us. Around noon I called her to see if they would be having dinner with us that night but she didn’t answer. Instead, she texted, saying, “Getting gas.” I calculated a 1:30 arrival. She would come in, drop all her stuff in the middle of the hallway, saunter into the kitchen and ask for food, then suddenly, with an absent-minded charm, introduce us to her friend who would be polite for both of them; it was all planned, written, predictable. I decided to continue decorating my office. The window looked down on the street where she would pull up too fast and I would begin scolding her before she turned the key in the lock. Damn kid. At 1:30 I focused my futzing near my office lookout. One thirty-five. One fourty-five. One fifty-five. My husband had cracked open a beer and was knee-deep in papers. My silence made him look up at me. We said nothing to each other. I texted her, “Where are you?” Nothing. More minutes. Half-hour late. “They probably stopped to get snacks. Don’t start worrying, now.” Greg was usually right about these things. But, I was having trouble swallowing. My chest felt tight. My head felt strange. I called. Nothing. Greg started watching me for clues. He walked away and I heard his phone dialing. Nothing. He left a cheeky but firm message that would satisfy me. We waited. Two-thirty. Another text. Another call. Nothing. I did a trace on her phone – no signal could be detected. I stayed at the window. Two-thirty is a perfectly respectable time to arrive if you’ve stopped along the way and got distracted by some trinket in some store in some town, somewhere.
Three-thirty. Greg was looking at me and saying something but his voice was somewhere in the distance. I road the synapses in my brain while my body started moving like an animal’s through the house. Out to the front step to peer toward the top of the street. I squinted, but her beige Toyota wouldn’t appear. Back inside. Texting everyone – five friends, six friends, seven friends, “Have you heard from Phoebe?” Her roommate, her sisters, everyone was clueless. They started calling other people, friends of friends. The last communication was from a gas station at noon, “Getting gas.” I stared at the text from Phoebe. Can I derive anything from it? Is there something hidden in the letters, the white space? I stared at it. I wanted to ask it something. Are you alright? Is there someone else there? Please tell me, sweet daughter. Talk to me. Show me. I’m really worried now. You don’t do this kind of thing. Ever. No call? No response? Silence? Three hours in now.
Four o’clock. “I have to leave!” I raced for the door, Greg, his voice becoming deeper and louder than before, following me with keys to the truck. The truck sits up higher. We can see into the ditches and over other cars. He seemed panicked, angry, confused. “She’s alright!!! You’ve got to pull it together!!!” His voice drifted in and out. I looked into the hundreds of cars in the opposite lanes but beige Toyotas were everywhere. We fell silent. The gears shifted and the roar of the engine was like a match to a flame. This was real. I traded texts with exclamation points, ALL CAPS, as we moved westward into the country between her and us. The traffic thinned at twenty miles out. Greg left more messages, “Sylvia, this is Phoebe’s dad. Her mom and I have left several messages on yours and Phoebe’s phones. It is IMPERATIVE you contact us IMMEDIATELY. Again, this is Phoebe’s dad. Please call us right now!!” He turned his attention to me. I was sitting there, a fraction of the being I was just hours before. I had become pale, wild, distant. I could no longer be soothed with a word, a common phrase, a touch. I knew only one thing. Wherever Phoebe was, she was no longer in control. In all of her 19 years, she had never given me cause for alarm. Never, not once. We had spoken regularly since she’d left for college four months before. I knew she wasn’t happy at school. She had gotten off to a rough start, immediately shedding her biology major for art. But, we talked constantly and this gave us both comfort. I had raised Phoebe on my own until she was eleven. Our connection is more a spiritual kinship, a light that shines on both of us, or neither of us. A mother knows. We all know.
We pulled off the road. We were 40 miles out and 5:00 felt dark, like the moments before a storm. I was paralyzed, in and out of reality, staring out at the fields in front of me, whipping around to the traffic behind me. Greg insisted we return home to figure out a plan, launch a search, do whatever we were going to do next. There’s no manual for this. No one knew what we were going through. Life kept moving along beside us with an ambivalence that rocked me to the core. I had no argument. I didn’t know where we were going. I had no destination. I just had to go in the direction she would have been last. Were we moving closer to her or further away? I tried to feel her energy in the air. I tried searching my body for clues. Was something in me hurting? I started screaming. I couldn’t feel anything. I just started screaming. I scanned the map on my phone for hospitals between there and here. “Hello, my name is Celia, I’m looking for my daughter. She’s been missing for three, no four hours now! Can you please check your records?” The hold. I felt the blood drain from my hands, my face. “I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s no one here by that name.” There were eleven hospitals off the highway between there and here. Each time, that hold, that frantic energy, that collected voice on the other end. Nothing. Mexico was only hours from us. Human trafficking was prevalent in our area. Was she unconscious in the back of a van? Was she across the border? Had she already been beaten or raped? Had she been robbed and left for dead. Was she still alive? I practiced dying. My body kept shutting down and rising back up. Whatever was happening was happening every moment that expired and we were helpless to do anything about it.
The 6:00 sun was barely there when we pulled up at the house again. I called the police. They would send an officer to file a missing person’s report. I can’t be hearing this! I spent 19 years smiling through every terrifying thought that entered my head. I watched her intently, talked to her carefully about danger so as to make her wise but unafraid. I relished in her every belly laugh, her singing, her commentary about things she knew nothing about but almost convinced me she actually did. I thought of the years and years I held her on my hip when everyone told me to put her down and let her walk. I thought of her arms, pudgy, then thin, always around my neck. Her confidence that convinced me she would be alive for a hundred years or more. I sunk into a state of desperation. I pleaded with God, the Universe, the Blessed Mother, Jesus and Buddha. I made deals with them all. I made promises. We waited in a house I would never want to return to.
Everyone was working to find her. Her sister was trying to hack her accounts to track her phone. Who was her favorite teacher? Who was her least favorite teacher? It was a race against time. The time it would take for someone to make the decision to take her, to rape her, to kill her – everything was in slow motion and the light that filled the windows just hours before was now a monstrous black that I considered a benevolent accomplice. It was now 7:00.
As I fumbled through an incomprehensible conversation with a dispatcher, our middle daughter got a hit on Phoebe’s phone. Everything fell silent around me. What does this mean? Her phone was sending out a signal from a small town several miles north of the highway. No movement. Every refresh revealed a static location. Again, we drove westbound – over 100mph this time. It’s now 7:30, almost eight hours since we last communicated with her. There were few businesses in the vicinity of her phone. I found a motel cattycorner behind the location. I dialed the number, which rang many times before someone picked up. I derived it was a younger man, maybe 30’s or so. He seemed lazy and indifferent, kind of quiet and vague, uneducated maybe. He wanted to know how old she was. What kind of car did she have? “Nah, don’t think she’s around here.” Everyone was suspect. I immediately felt violent toward this man. We hung up. I started screaming again. I called the police and they transferred me to another city, then they couldn’t help me and said I needed to call the town where her phone is. I called every small-town police department in the area with no answer. I called our city police department again and cried. Who do we call? Please help us! We believe we’ve found her but there’s no communication. It’s been eight hours! We’re headed there now! Someone has to go to this location quickly! Please!! They told us to pull over so an officer could assist. I rebelled and told her we would not, that we needed to keep going. In the confusion between me and the dispatcher, I heard Greg say, “Hang up! We found her!!” I screamed, “What?!!” He repeated, “We found her!” The moment hung in the air like a silent film at a pivotal cusp; like the split second before the doctor reveals his findings. My heart stopped.
Phoebe had been arrested after being pulled over for speeding. She was in jail. She was alive. I bellowed. I screamed into the passenger window, “Oh, God, thank you, God!!” I couldn’t feel my hands again, my feet, my body; everything was numb. My head was ablaze. I rocked in my seat and mumbled my prayers. We were 15 minutes from the jail when my phone finally rang. It was Phoebe. At that moment I loved her with every ounce of my being. She began to explain, her words shaking and feeble, “I couldn’t call you, Mom.” But, I could only hear the divine sound of my daughter’s voice. She was alive. It was all I knew. I just couldn’t muster anything but unconditional love for a being I had brought through this life; a being I had raised and nurtured, and loved with all that I am. She was alive. Violence had, in fact, not touched her that day.
We weren’t allowed to see her so we turned around and went home, passing the same landmarks and roads that held our attention from a very different perspective just hours earlier. I watched the stars flicker in the sky, the silhouette of the trees and the fields, the cars silently moving along the vast highway. The world was a different place now. It had forever changed for me. I understood the fear of loss, and its potential to withdraw a human’s will to live. We had a lot to deal with, regrettably. But, my Phoebe was alive and it was all I knew. It would be 13 more hours before I would see her.
Sunday morning, my daughter came out from behind a door, into the lobby where I had stood the night before, and she wrapped her arms around my neck again. I stood back and starred at her. I touched her face to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. For a moment, I questioned if I was inventing another ending; a strange, fabricated reality that would let me keep her a little longer. In the end, my child, my daughter, my heart, does, indeed, still walk this earth with me. As for the rest, that is doable.