My daughter, who recently turned 20, ran away from home when she was 14 years old. I don’t remember if I have ever written about this horrible time from the past. It was a horrible incident, and probably one of the worst experiences I ever had as a parent. That is saying a lot, considering we have lost two children and our oldest son had a terrible accident (brain injury, multiple broken bones, and was in a coma for three weeks) when he was 12. What made the runaway incident worse by far was the fact that she chose to leave. She chose to hurt us. My babies didn’t choose to die, choose to leave me. My son didn’t choose to be injured. She chose not to care. She chose to hurt the ones who loved her.
It was early summer right after she had completed 8th grade. I had rushed home from work that night to perform in the first concert of the season in our local community band. The band was a big deal in our hometown. Everyone came out to our little central park for the concert and the movie that followed. I was a proud mom that night with three of my kids playing with me in the band. Andrew was the drummer. Luke played trumpet, and Emily and I sat side by side playing our saxophones. She and I smiled at each other between songs. T was in the crowd with Lola and the grandparents. (Oh, how I miss them!) After the concert, I gave Emily some money to go buy strawberry shortcake and ice cream. She hugged me and ran off with her friends. She would sit with her friends during the movie, and we would meet up later to walk home together.
I still remember the movie, “Because of Winn Dixie.” T had taken Lola home to go to bed midway through the show. I didn’t know where the boys were, but I saw them walking through the crowd from time to time. I sat with my band friends munching on popcorn and sno-cones, talking, only halfway watching the movie.
After the show, I helped put away chairs and park benches behind the band shell. I remember looking around occasionally for Emily. I expected her to show up anytime and begin nagging me about something. Either she would ask to go to a friend’s house, or ask if we could just leave NOW, or maybe she’d ask if we could stay longer.
The crowd thinned out, but I still didn’t see Emily. I began to ask the handful of people who remained at the park if they had seen her. That’s the beauty of a small town. I knew everyone, and they knew my daughter. By this time, very few people remained. I decided that maybe Emily had walked home by herself. I was angry that she hadn’t told me first, but our house was only a couple of blocks away. I headed for home.
T was standing in the mudroom as I came in the back door. The boys were in the kitchen, and Lola was in bed. I asked him if Emily had come home. He whipped his head around and said, “What do you mean? She’s not home.” He was angry that I had left the park without her, and I felt terrible.
We jumped in the car and drove back up to the park. The lights had been turned off on the band shell. The park was dark. We drove around all four sides of the park, but we didn’t see Emily. We drove around again, and saw a woman with three small children standing by her car. We stopped and asked her if she had seen our daughter. When I saw her face, I knew. She was also looking for her son who was missing.
To say I went ballistic would be an understatement. Her son was older than Emily….a high-schooler. I didn’t know anything at all about him other than the fact that he was tall and skinny. My mind instantly demonized him. I asked his mother if he was unstable. Would he rape my daughter? I asked her if he had weapons. In the course of two minutes, this woman hated me. I gave her my cell number and headed back home to check on my other kids and figure out our next steps.
I called our local police, and they began to check out the obvious hiding places. I called Emily’s phone over and over. At first, it rang and rang, and then went to voicemail. Then, it went straight to voicemail. Her phone had been turned off. I pictured a violent moment when this “serial killer” took my daughter’s phone from her, because the ringing had driven him mad. I pictured a violent rape. I saw my daughter lying in a shallow grave. I have never felt such panic in my life.
I called all of Emily’s friends whose numbers I had. The story began to become clear. She had left on her own. At first they lied to me, until I told them I would call and ask their parents to help me figure out what was going on. One friend said that she had seen them leaving along the train track. Now I pictured my daughter being sliced in half by an oncoming train.
The boys were beside themselves. Andrew was 19-years-old, and he ran out to his car to begin searching. Luke was 16, and he didn’t have his own car yet. He was a cross-country runner and headed out to run along the train tracks. I tried to stop him, because I was afraid he would be hurt. It was dark. He wouldn’t be able to see well enough to run. The police officer came back to our house to tell us that he had seen nothing and to let us know the areas he had already check. I can’t say enough good about our little, bohunk sheriff’s department. They didn’t make us wait, but they called in extra help to search for our daughter.
It had been years since I had seen my boys cry, but they cried that night. I was sitting at the kitchen table when Andrew returned. I was home with Lola, who was sleeping, while T was out searching. Andrew came over to me and held me while I cried. He was worried that I was going to have a heart attack. When Luke came home, the three of us stood in a circle and held each other. Luke scared me. He was shaking with anger. He knew the boy Emily was with, and he vowed to kill him. I was genuinely worried that Luke would make good on his word.
Eventually, we exhausted our search options. The police said that if the kids weren’t found by morning, they would ramp up their efforts. I spoke multiple times to the (horrible) boy’s parents on the phone. They were searching, too. Apparently, they were in the middle of a nasty divorce. For some reason, their personal problems angered me. I felt that they would be useless, no help in this dire situation.
T and I lay on our bed fully-clothed on top of the covers. We talked quietly. We cried. I shivered with fear. I was under great-grandma’s ugly blanket. That ugly blanket has been with me through the very worst moments of my life.
I must have dozed off of a while. When I woke up, the sun was coming up. I made my way into the bathroom wondering what to do next. I pictured helicopters circling our little town. I pictured being notified of a body being found. I pictured having to tell my parents that their precious granddaughter had run away. I didn’t want to shatter their image of their little princess. I sat on the chair in the bathroom with the phone in my hand. I decided to try calling again. It rang this time! Her phone was no longer turned off! She didn’t answer, but I left another long voicemail. I pleaded with her to call me or at least text me. I told her about her brothers crying. I told her that Lola had gotten out of bed after hearing all the commotion and had spent the rest of the night sleeping on the steps waiting for her sister.
Moments later I received a text from her. She was alive! I don’t think I have ever felt such a huge sense of relief. I replied to her. I begged her to please, please call me. I told her that I felt like dying without her. I needed to hear her voice. If there was ever a time when I genuinely humbled myself for the sake of love, this was one of those times. When my phone rang, I answered with tears in my voice. She sounded strange. She was unanimated and spoke in a monotone. I asked her where she was, but she didn’t want to tell me. I said, “Please let me know where you are I need to know that you’re OK.” She refused.
I kept her on the phone. I told her that I was worried that she was walking on the train tracks. She assured me that she wasn’t. In the meantime, I went in the bedroom to wake up T. I shook his foot and silently warned him to stay quiet, be calm, and follow me to the car.
I kept Emily on the phone, and little by little, I began to piece together the story. This boy Emily was with was attempting to get his parents’ attention. He thought that if they were worried about him, it would bring them back together. I knew where his parents lived in the country outside of town. I asked Emily if that’s where she and this boy were hiding. She said, “Mom, I’m not really sure where we are. We slept in a field.” I asked her who the field belonged to, and she slipped up and told me a name. Bingo! I had my first clue about where she was. She didn’t want me to find her. She refused to tell me where she was. She thought that she was helping this miserable boy. She kept telling me that I just didn’t understand. Oh, I understood. I understood enough to know that she thought she was doing the right thing. She thought she was helping this boy and scoring points with him.
T and I drove to the farm Emily had mentioned. Thank God we knew the area. We knew every dead-end and farm path in the county. I kept her on the phone while T and I drove. I knew she was walking on a country road., and I knew the general vicinity. She had no idea that I was in a car. She thought I was talking to her from home.
Then we saw them, two figures walking down a country road as the sun rose in the sky. We pulled up beside them and I said, “Get in the car,” through the open window. Emily immediately climbed into the back seat while her buddy kept walking. I got out of the car and grabbed the kid by the front of the shirt. I said, “Get in the car, you little son of a bitch.”
I don’t remember what I said, but I know I did a lot of yelling. I reprimanded them for hurting people who loved them. I asked them if they had had sex. They looked shocked. I told them that everyone would think they had sex! I threatened the stupid boy, as we drove him to his home. I walked him to the door holding onto the back of his shirt. I told his mother that if I ever saw him near my daughter again, I would press charges. I told her to keep their personal problems at home and away from my family. I was practically insane with relief, the lingering fear, and mounting rage.
When we got Emily home, I called the sheriff’s officer who had helped us the previous night. I asked him to come by our house, and give Emily the scare of her life. I made her sit in the living room alone while we waited for the officer to come to the house. I dramatized the trouble she was in with the law. I told her that she had misused public resource while people had searched for her and feared for her life. She seemed shocked that we had thought something terrible had happened to her. She hadn’t understood the enormity of her actions.
The police officer was wonderful. He told her that she was in deep trouble and that they were going to keep their eyes on her. He told her that they had her name on “their list.” I will be forever grateful for his help in scaring my daughter straight.
After the officer left, I made her stay in the living room. I quizzed her relentlessly about where she had been and what had happened. She and the boy had watched DVD’s on a portable player. They slept under the stars. They had brushed their teeth before they fell asleep. She swore up and down that they had not had sex. All these years later, I know that she was telling the truth.
Technically, Emily was not in trouble with the law, but I felt she had violated the laws of our family. I told her that I was sentencing her to house arrest and community service. I didn’t trust her to be alone. I told her that trust was something that was given freely, but once it was broken, it had to be earned. She was going to spend the next few months earning our trust once more. Even though I had very little sleep the previous night, I had to be at work in two hours. I made her come to my office, a half hour drive from our home, with me.
I had a Board meeting that morning. I was unprepared. I didn’t tell anyone what I had gone through the previous night. I hid it all. Somehow I got through the meeting while Emily sat waiting behind the desk in my office. I had turned off my computer so she couldn’t access the internet. I had taken her phone.
After the meeting, I drove her to our local Red Cross, a few blocks from my office. The Executive Director was on my Board, and I told her what had happened. I volunteered my daughter for the summer. I would bring her with me each day, and she would help them in whatever capacity they could use her. I’d pick her up at the end of my work day.
Emily spent that summer as a camp counselor at a day camp for disabled and disadvantaged kids. She worked at a senior center, and she worked for a few weeks at a public housing project. She saw pregnant teens and teen parents younger than herself. Best of all, she learned to appreciate the security and blessings in her own life. She learned that she was a lucky girl. She learned compassion.
The next three summers, Emily volunteered on her own to work at the Red Cross as a volunteer. Service to others saved my daughter. Her volunteerism grew to be a way of life. She received more than she gave. Volunteerism taught her to value herself as she learned to value those less fortunate. As she matured into a wonderful, responsible young woman her volunteerism grew right along with her. Emily has donated her hair to Locks of Love four times. She has worked at river clean ups, downtown clean ups, food pantries, and multitudes of fundraisers.
She’s twenty now, and of course, I have forgiven her for the actions of years ago. She still hasn’t forgiven herself. She refers to her actions from time to time. She still struggles with guilt. I ask her to please let it go. It’s over, and we are so proud of the woman she has become.
It’s amazing for me to imagine this daughter of mine who has become my dearest friend was ever a child that caused me worry or grief. She still lives at home, and she swears that she’ll never move out. How is that she once tried to run away from her family? She is a gentle and empathetic woman. She cares for her little sister like a second mama. That troubled girl has turned into a wonderful young woman.
The other night, she told me that she needs to find a way to volunteer, because she misses helping people. We’ve been here for a year, and she is ready to begin volunteering in our new home. She asked me to help her find something to do. She said, “I have a NEED to volunteer, Mom.” She planning on donating her waist-length hair again next week. She went on to tell me that she spent her last paycheck to purchase a crib for a co-worker who was expecting a baby soon and was worrying about not having money for a crib. She hadn’t asked Emily to do this, but Em listened, and she reacted to someone in need.
Today Emily had the day off work, and she spent the day at the hospital where her work supervisor, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, was having a test. This woman didn’t have anyone else to go with her, so Emily jumped right in to help. We have been here for almost a year. Not only has Emily adjusted, but she has begun to find people to help.
Tonight during dinner, we were talking about the weather. It was a yucky, windy day. It was also garbage day, and trash had blown around the neighborhood. Emily told us that when she came home from the hospital, trash was blowing down our street. She went in the house, grabbed a garbage bag, and went out to pick up trash. Amazing.
I’m so very proud of my daughter. She is a fantastic example of why we should never give up when things go wrong. She was headed down a bad path, and I’m glad we didn’t give up on her. The pain, stress, and worry was well worth it when I look at my amazing daughter who has one of the greatest, most-loving hearts I’ve ever known.