9-1-1. Three little numbers with potentially vast consequences.
Kidnapping, carbon-monoxide poisoning, domestic violence, assault, murder, terrorism, hostage situation, trapped beneath the weight of what? A TV console? We don’t have earthquakes or hurricanes in Michigan, but that specific part of the building, that very ceiling of that very apartment could have collapsed from minimal seismic activity or sustained wind gusts. Our daughter could be buried beneath debris.
She could be struggling to free herself from somebody’s persistent grasp.
Thirty-some minutes was too long not to lay our eyes on her, to witness her breathing. No matter how hard you try to push it out, irrationality wheedles into your conscience. Although I stand behind my husband’s decision to call 9-1-1. It may be the most rational decision he’s ever made.
Earlier on a Saturday morning than I would’ve preferred, earlier than I’m positive my daughter would have preferred, my husband dropped off Ava so she could once again undergo a cultural rite of passage: hair braiding. By undergo I mean sit for two to four hours in front of an iPad or TV while the sweet and lovely college student I’ll call E tugs, tortures and strong-arms Ava’s hair into an amazing work of manageable beauty. Depending on who you ask, I may or may not be exaggerating the root of the cause, but certainly not its resulting effect.
E has a genuine and enviable gift. Plus, we’ve known her for around two years, celebrated her acceptance in our alma mater, welcomed her into our home, offered her advice regarding coping with a bad boss and living with an annoying roommate, held her dependable gaze, appreciated her bright smile, thanked her for her guidance on black hair products, opened our refrigerator and our hearts to her. I’ve no idea what they’d charge in a salon, plenty more I’m sure, but I feel we’ve always paid her well. Not that any amount of money would have mattered in the fucking least at that moment.
That moment we didn’t want to consider our daughter was gone.
At about Ava’s age I fell asleep beneath some hanging bolts of fabric. Or was it a clothing rack—fifty-percent off slacks and blouses? Or was it my husband? We didn’t know each other back then, but both of us went MIA as kids in the same small town on some seemingly innocuous day when our mothers went out shopping. The residual specifics are fuzzy, maybe because fear didn’t freeze the details of our temporary disappearance. I don’t recall either of us being afraid, but our moms, I’m betting our separate vanishing acts scared them shitless. They’d remember every poignant and pointless detail.
Yet our most concrete of memories are fickle, too. It’s been almost a month and I can’t quite picture what Ava wore the day she went missing for thirty-three and a half minutes, give or take. I do remember seeing my husband’s breath—tiny clouds of panic rising and dispersing in the cold air—and that his knuckles were red and swollen.
What did the 9-1-1 operator say after my husband said he was going to break into E’s apartment? Please, don’t do that, sir? Was it something more reassuring, melodramatic and cliched like in the movies: Help is on the way! No, it was measured and calm, but firm about the B & E, as in, no, no, that wasn’t a good idea.
Here are the general facts: E didn’t have access to a car. Could she possibly braid Ava’s hair at her place? We dropped off our daughter at E’s first-floor apartment at 9:30 a.m. At 11:50 a.m. E texted she’d finished. Ten minutes later we arrived at E's apartment to pick up Ava. Nobody answered the buzzer, but my husband shrugged; E mentioned it had been malfunctioning. Nobody came in or out of the building. We waited. My husband texted E. We waited. Nobody came in or out of the building. My husband called E. The call went straight to voicemail. We waited. My husband told me to stay put so he could check around back, see if he could get their attention through the slider or a window. I waited alone, shivering but steady. This was nothing more than a minor inconvenience, a blip on the radar of our lazy Saturday. Nobody came in or out of the building. Seriously, I thought, doesn’t anybody else live here? Nobody returning from brunch? Heading out for groceries? Taking the dog out for an afternoon stroll? Did they allow pets there? Yes, they did, E had a toy terrier, a Yorkie named something or other. Sweetums? Gum drop? Coco? What was that dog’s name anyway? Why wasn’t E answering our buzzes, our texts, our calls, my husband’s tapping, knocking, pounding, pounding, pounding?
Where was our kid?
He was on the phone but kept his distance from me. At first I assumed he’d reached her, had secured the whereabouts of our daughter. Then I realized the conversation seemed too long-winded. He’d been pacing too much.
“I called 9-1-1,” he said.
There I stood—a pillar of motherhood duty—still barred from E’s apartment entry way, and I remember replying with what not why. Not what have you done, but my God, what is happening? What are we going to do?
The cop pulled in right after my husband’s second call, the one where the same dispatcher advised him against jimmying a window, smashing through glass with what, his fists? A random crowbar discarded in the parking lot? Did we happen to leave our bowling balls in the car? He could hear the incessant barking of E’s dog. He could see only darkness through the window. No faint glow of cartoons on the TV or the iPad discarded and left running. My iPad. How often had I told Ava to turn the stupid thing down—if I had to listen to the theme song to Shimmer and Shine or Paw Patrol one more time—or shut it off? She could and should take in the world around her for a change.
Wherever Ava was now, was she able to drink in her surroundings? Observation could be key to her survival. So many screens. A blessing, yes. A curse, yes. Had we taught Ava how to pay full attention to anything? Intuit by actually looking, smelling, hearing, tasting?
What is your daughter’s name?
When was she born?
How tall is she?
How much does she weigh?
What is her eye color?
What is her hair color?
What is your name?
What is your birth date?
How long have you known the person she’s with?
What is her name?
How old is she?
Do you trust her?
The officer doled out the necessary questions per standard operating procedure. Between pleading with him to let us inside, to please, please just get us inside E’s apartment, my husband gave him the necessary data. That’s when the nature of our emergency struck me with agonizing and absolute force. We were filling out a missing person’s report and the missing person was our daughter.
On the precipice of terror.
That’s when E pulled into the parking lot with a man in the front—her boyfriend?—and our daughter, safe and sound in the back seat of a car E said she didn’t have for the day. My husband threw his arms around me. Tears of relief spilled down his cheeks.
“It’s okay, It’s okay.” (My attempt to soothe and convince him, and myself.) “We can’t let her see us this way. We’ll scare her.”
What else can I tell you other than my subdued, repeated okay wound up being truth? Ava was okay. E was okay. We were all wholly, wonderfully okay.
I feel bad about not thanking that cop or shaking his hand. I don’t recall his name, and can’t say I mumbled so much as a halfhearted goodbye. I can say with certainty I felt my pulse in my throat. I can also say E said “I’m sorry,” and strangely, we said we were sorry, too. My husband and I are quick to apologize. The older we grow, the easier we forgive. A blessing, yes. A curse, yes.
Al stayed outside with Ava while I collected her things from E’s apartment. Before I paid her (yeah, we still paid her) and left, I blurted something stock—like she had to understand this was 2017, we had no idea where either of them were, anything could have happened. She said she understood. We were parents.
E was right. Al and I were parents. But what kind of parents were we? Are we?
Sure, what mom or dad doesn’t ask this question? There’s no such thing as the perfect parent, after all. Teach your children well … and feed them on your dreams… We do the best we can for our kids and hope for the best for our kids.
Whether we scratched the surface of the best for Ava in this particular circumstance is up for debate, at least in my mind. Despite how cynical I can come off, how much I relish snark, I am also trusting. I have great faith in humanity.
Not that I’m incapable of anger. I was and am angry at E, or maybe I’m more pissed off at her carefree lack of judgment or my breezy casualness. However, time, like memory, has a way of ebbing and flowing, deluding and dizzying. Yes, the memory remains, but those spans of seconds, minutes, hours, days and weeks begin to do the important work of healing.
For me, the scab has been ripped off. I suppose the only way to rid myself of its lingering scar is to reach out to E again, dig into what really happened that day before it festers. Why did she put our child in the back of her car without a booster seat to run an errand without our permission? Why was her cell phone off? Why did she say she didn’t have access to a car when she did? Did her boyfriend need a ride home from work or a friend’s house? Was he her boyfriend? What was her boyfriend’s name? How long had she known him?
Did she want to braid Ava’s hair any longer? Do we want her to braid Ava’s hair any longer?
Today is the seventh of December and I haven’t found the answers to any of these questions. The only thing I believe I know is this: Teddy. It appeared to me a few nights ago, silly and insignificant, but explicit.
Teddy, the name of E’s yapping dog.
|E's talent and our gift.|