My Obsession With Missing Persons

My mother read me Miss Nelson is Missing! before I achieved literacy. The story is about a good, sweet, conventionally pretty teacher whom the children she teaches all take for granted. Then she goes missing and a cruel, ugly substitute teacher named Viola Swamp shows the children how easy they had it with Miss Nelson. “Is she the same lady, just dressed different?” I asked my mother. Toddler me had a mind for solving mysteries.

“Yes!” Mom said. “Aren’t you clever?”

Not really. The clues are strewn all over the pages, including a pair of incriminating shoes.

The case of the missing Miss Nelson was not much of a case, then. There were others to fill that gap: Adam Walsh, the six-year-old boy who was shopping with his mother at the mall and then disappeared. I was six when he was six. I lived in the aftermath of his disappearance and the photos on milk cartons and the very special TV episodes he inspired, plus Stranger Danger talks at school from the local police. Don’t go anywhere with a stranger. Scream. Ask for help from a cop. Resist. Have a secret password only you and your parents know, to use with trusted family friends.

Adam Walsh, abducted and murdered, was found sixteen days later, or rather, part of him was, in a canal. The missing boy was missing no more.

But what of those they don’t find? This is a question that perturbs me. What is it like to lose someone and never know what happened to them: where they went and with whom; are they dead or alive? These are stories with multiple endings, so many endings, because they are all conjecture. Truth, in the absence of a body or a confession, cannot be known.

I don’t like not knowing the answer to a question. For me, the very notion of not knowing what happened to someone I love would be awful. Is that why my mind has brooded on the topic so long? Minds are wonderful that way, rolling around in your dark fears the way dogs roll around in road kill. It was only a matter of time until I wrote a book featuring a missing person and then did it again, differently, because an obsessed mind is a difficult thing to sate.

There are so many questions to be answered in a missing persons case. The most obvious: where is she? But also, why did she disappear? Was she abducted? Was she afraid? How did it happen? When and where and why? Perhaps she hit her head and has amnesia and has no idea who she is or maybe her creepy ex kidnapped her. And the more time passes, the more possibilities open.

When someone disappears from your life, their story ends at the moment. Any future moments are unknown to you and so the stories you have of them loom larger than they would’ve have because they are the only tales you have. Small moments (a bad report card, a prize won at the fair) become worn and shiny from repeated handling. This, as a storyteller, fascinates me. How we remember things, how we talk about those memories, and how precious they become when there are fewer of them.

When I was four years old I took my dog, Coco, for a walk to our next-door neighbor’s house. But my friend, Tammy, wasn’t home. So, I untied Coco’s leash from the porch railing and tried to go home. Only Coco walked past home. Coco walked up the street, and I, a silly little girl, was afraid that if I let go of her leash, she would become lost.

I couldn’t lose Coco, so I held firmly to the leash and let her guide me to the busy main street I wasn’t allowed to walk on because of heavy traffic and a lack of sidewalks or any safe side berm. She led me down that street. Years later, I realize she was headed for the convenience store where the kind owners gave her treats. But before we reached it, a woman who ran a daycare center spotted me and realized I was too young to be on that road, alone.

My mother, at this point, had realized I wasn’t next door. I wasn’t at home. Where was I?

Poor Mom. She was the one frantically calling my name. My siblings, at school, couldn’t be enlisted to look for me. My father, at work, was no help.

The daycare woman tied up Coco and brought me inside and let me do crafts with the kids. It was heaven. Like school, which I was too young to go to yet but wanted to attend. Other, bigger kids! Crafts! Fun! And learning. Until the policeman came. He asked me my name and I told him “Nicholas” because it was the name of the boy I had a crush on from TV’s Eight is Enough. He asked me my dog’s name. “Sasha,” I said. Every question he asked was met with complete fabrication.

My mother had called the convenience store. No, they hadn’t seen me. Clever Mom. She was on to Coco and me.

While I happily toiled at making a picture using pussy willows and glue, my mother telephoned the police. Gave them my name and description. Yes, I was missing. How long? I don’t know. Was it a half hour? Was it an hour? No longer, surely.

I cannot recall the moment my policeman got the call and made the connection, but I can imagine it. Missing blond girl with a dog? Yes, yes, he knows where she is. He has eyes on her right now. She dunks a soft, fuzzy pussy willow bud into glue and pushes it onto paper.

My mother hugged me hard when she found me. She was upset. “Time to go home.”

“But I haven’t finished my picture!”

I wanted to finish my art, and she probably wanted to take me apart and reassemble me so that I never scared her like this again.

She found me. This then was a story of a found girl, and it had a happy ending, but it became a legend in our household. In part, because my family could never understand why I lied to the policeman so many times. And I do not remember—can only vaguely remember—being annoyed by his disbelief that my name was “Nicholas.”

I was missing an hour (at most) and it became a saga.

What of the stories of the missing persons never found? How much more room do they consume and take up in a person’s life? Had I never been found, how would my family be different? How would they speak of me and when? These are questions I think of in a roundabout way. And they are unanswerable. I hate not having the answers.

So, I make up stories. Because stories provide answers even if it’s to questions that only I have asked.