My friend Ann’s words—on the other end of the phone line—dangled in the air.
“Missing? From school?” I said, my thoughts darting to the girl’s semester-long program at Conserve School in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, with its 1,200-acre wilderness campus.
“I guess she went out for a walk last night around 5:00 p.m., and no one’s seen her since.”
I snapped a look at the clock. It was Sunday, March 20, 2011, 1:00 p.m. Ireland had been outside in freezing temperatures for twenty hours. Fear formed a fist in my stomach.
After the call from Ann, I paced, remembering snippets of Ireland. Many times, the girl had biked over from her house in north Minneapolis—just six blocks away from ours. She had often cradled our dachshund in her arms. Over the years, I had watched the young free spirit paint, create, and even bake outside of the lines. In 2006, she had regularly played at our house—along with her sister Willow—during the days when Jim, her dad, was losing his life to melanoma.
Anxious, I dialed her mom, Rachelle. “I heard about Ireland,” I said. “What can I do? What do you need?”
“We’re on the road right now.” Rachelle’s voice, though steady, seeped worry. “We’re going to help look for her.”
I thought of Rachelle’s losses. Not Ireland too!
After our call ended, I scanned the news online. Ireland’s story already dotted the internet: “15-year-old high school student missing”, “Minnesota girl missing in the Ottawa National Forest”, “Conserve student on a hike now missing.” And there was Ireland’s face—plastered everywhere.
I dissolved to my knees on the living room floor and pressed my forehead to the rug.
Save her! Let her live!
But I wouldn’t know the truth for another six hours.
One morning in 2005, the phone rang. It was Husband’s supervisor.
“Is he still at home?” the man said, his tone stiff and professional.
“He left hours ago,” I said, frowning.
“He didn’t show up for work today. And he’s not answering his phone.”
Flicka and Ricka zinged goldfish crackers at each other across the dining room table. But their innocent play chafed me. I shushed them. “Maybe he’s on a flight already.” I gripped the phone tighter.
“I’ve already checked the flight registers, and he’s not there. His vehicle’s not at the airport either. No one’s seen him. His partner took the flight without him.”
The man concluded the phone call and deserted me to my roiling thoughts. Husband was steady. Reliable. He always went to work—even when he was sick. As if I had powers no one else had, I phoned him. No answer. I left a message. After that, I tried again. Then I called the Highway Patrol.
“What’s the make and model of his vehicle, ma’am?” the officer said, his voice edged with compassion after hearing my story.
I gave him the information he needed to comb the routes Husband might have taken to work. While I waited for answers, I phoned my sister, briefing her on the situation. She drove to my house with her girls, and our five little ones dashed off to play, oblivious to the worry simmering within their mothers. An hour passed. The officer called back.
“We haven’t found anything,” he said. “But we’ll keep looking.”
“Okay, thanks.” I curled into myself.
That distracted afternoon, I fed something to the kids and absorbed the blur of my sister’s kindness, her expression stained with concern. I sat numbly at the dining room table, my heart still beating because that’s what it did on its own.
After five hours, I’d receive a phone call and learn the truth.
Vivid tattoos twisted all the way down Moe’s arms to her hands, her right one holding her artist’s tool: a pair of hair-cutting shears. And with those shears she helped shape Flicka’s identity, championing my girl through her early-teen years. As Moe cut my hair too, I trusted her with my stories—the embarrassing, the disgusting, the frightening. Behind those cat-eye glasses, she winced at nothing. Except when I told her about the intruder climbing in through our kitchen window in the night.
“He messed with the wrong family!” she said, incensed, holding her scissors like a weapon.
She told us stories too—hers with a kick of reality and always doused with humor. We had loved Moe for six years. And she had loved her husband Andrew for eleven.
Then on the morning of September 1, 2014, Andrew kissed her soundly, mashing their three-year-old son Bronson between his body and hers in a sandwich-style hug. He told Moe he would go to work—but only for a few hours since it was Labor Day—and then he’d be home to spend time with them.
But Andrew didn’t show up at work. And he didn’t come home again.
Moe didn’t sleep that night. She called hospitals and friends and then posted on Facebook a frantic cry for help. A blend of confusion, anxiety, and anger knotted her nerves; she later told me she feared someone had abducted her man. Crews of searchers rallied for her, all of them unswerving in their mission to find him.
Then someone spotted Andrew’s car parked by a wooded area near the Mississippi River. The search crews—and the police with their dogs—pressed in, scouring the woods, but they found nothing. For hours, their eyes were blinded to the truth of what had happened to Andrew.
Three years earlier at Conserve School, another set of search crews—law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and search and rescue teams—hunted to find Ireland in the vast wilderness of northern Wisconsin. By early evening on March 20, they found her alive. In fact, a local hospital pronounced her in good condition in spite of her twenty-six-hour walk in the woods.
Later, Ireland told us how she had gone for a hike alone after dinner that Saturday night. She stepped off the path for just a moment to enjoy the beauty—the waning light infusing the snow with shimmers—but she was quickly lost. She collected snow in her water bottle and then slipped it inside her coat to melt it for drinking water. Before nightfall the first night, she lined a hollow log with leaves. She nestled inside and slept. By the second day, she improved her sleeping quarters by erecting a crude shelter, in case she had to spend another night outside.
The environmental school had equipped Ireland with the skills to survive, and she had conquered two enemies: exposure to the elements and time. In its October 2012 issue, Seventeen magazine published her survival story, praising her resourcefulness. But we were just happy to have her back, and we celebrated her life.
As I waited with my sister that afternoon in 2005, the phone rang. I snatched the receiver, my thoughts swirling.
“Hi,” Husband said. “I just landed and got your messages. What’s up?”
Weak with relief, I flooded his ear with the events of the day.
“My flight got switched at the last minute,” he said. “I ended up flying to Seattle instead of Washington, D.C. But my supervisor found out the schedule change only a few hours ago.”
My relief ebbed away and anger washed in. “He didn’t call and tell me.”
“I’m sorry. He should have.”
Human error had halted my life that day. Husband hadn’t been missing at all.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” I said, easing out the breath I had been holding.
On September 2, 2014, in the wooded area just across the river from our house, it was Moe’s father and her uncle who at last found Andrew. He had jumped off the edge of his life and died of depression among the trees.
A step off a wintry path. A communication mix-up. A hidden depression. No matter the cause, our lives are shredded by our missing loved ones. But they aren’t lost to the One who knows.
If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.