Slogging through the weeks with leaden feet, day by day the cement of despair slowly drips into my body. As the realization sinks in it hardens to seize the breath from my lungs, the color from the sky, and the musical sounds of happiness ringing through the halls of our home. My wife, and life, have slowly slipped into the haze of my hopelessness. I am a cement robot, a functioning avatar that satisfies expectations for now. For seven years…
Piper was the joy that painted our lives bright colors. She was the heart that pumped life blood into the walls of our home to wrap us all in its protective embrace. She was a bubbling seven-year-old package of energy with an often-frightening ancient wisdom that would emerge at the strangest of times. Prone to probing questions, she could surgically lay bare the true meaning of any mystery. Our only child, one that demanded our constant attention and amazement, drove away all thoughts of having another. “Let’s stop at perfect” was what we used to say. As her father I was able to hold her and watch her grow. Like fresh green tendrils of ivy in the spring, her love took hold inside me and wrapped around my core. She was lighter than air and it was her wind that filled our sails. Like any captain, I was steering the ship, but ahh, it was the wind that was really in control. So, when the wind was gone, I lay aimlessly adrift.
Piper disappeared on Tuesday, May 17th. It was a beautifully bright day, and a Friday. Piper was bubbling about plans we had made for the summer to her mother in the kitchen after school. With only one more week before the break, she was impatient to get that out of her way and get on with her seven-year-old life. She was a spring child, growing with her face to the sun. Telling her mom that she was going out in the yard, she headed to the backyard to “garden” in a newly planted flowerbed. In my minds eye I would often see her kneeling in the dirt, diligently digging. She would turn to wave at me and smile, a muddy trowel held in her garden gloved hands. But too often I imagined her turning, looking to the street that bordered the yard. I could see that her lips were moving.
“Who are you talking to? “
I pressed my face against the windowpane of my imagination, but the smears of my face through the years had clouded the view.
“No! Don’t get up!”
But she does and walks from the garden, dropping her trowel.
“No! Don’t go, please don’t go!”
My scars prove that often I press too hard, shattering the window to see where she went. Why she went. Who she went with. But answers never seem to grow in that garden, and after seven years the brambles, thistles, and thorns have overgrown where her trowel had been found lying.
I remember sitting at my desk at work, stunned, breathless. The phone must have simply dropped from my hand, the cement in my fingers cracking at the words in my ear.
At what point when a child goes missing do you give up? When do you pass from dreary denial into the searing salvation of acceptance? We had struggled with what was right, and what felt right. Too many voices and their opinions had drifted in, muted in our misery, like messages finally received on a distant planet. But we had to face the decision. Months went by like shovelfuls of dirt from a grave. A year passed, then another. Finally it felt like hope had slipped away as the pile of dirt grew. We laid her to rest in the spring, a time that belied her spirit. Deep down I was resentful for the farce, and gritted my teeth to keep myself from yelling out at all those who were ready to paste her into a scrapbook.
I burst through the doors of the police station. Memories of this place landed like ravens, their claws sinking deep into the tissue of my shoulders. I remembered a room full of faces turning to look at me as I was escorted in. All looked at me with the eyes of judge, jury, or executioner. It didn’t take long in the interrogation room for me to understand. They didn’t have an answer, so they hoped that I was the answer. Now the faces that turned to look at me struggled for empathy but found it beyond their imagination. I was led into another room, anxiously waiting for the shoe to drop, the farce to be revealed. What cruel hearted prankster would try to fan the embers of my existence back into life?
They had a video. It was taken by the neighbor who had finally called police and voiced his suspicions about the man across the street. They warned me about what I was about to see. I could not understand. If my daughter was alive, then everything could go back to the way it was. She and I could be a family again. Even though her mother had made her permanent decision two years before, the two of us could be the way we were.
Squad cars, lights flashing, sat on the street outside a one-story brick home. A decorative wrought iron screen door was opened to the yard, and the front door stood open inward. Several uniformed men entered and exited while the neighbor shifted for a better shot with his I-Phone. A paramedic entered the frame with her arm around a young girl, who had a white sheet draped over her shoulders. Her eyes were downcast, and she squinted at the brightness of the day as she was led from the house. Long matted hair hung lifeless from her scalp. Bare feet that looked mottled with bruises shuffled across the threshold at the urging of the paramedic. As she was being led to a waiting squad car, her eyes lifted warily for a moment, staring towards the camera.
“Piper!” My emotions started leaking through my cracked cement. Whatever relief this miracle allowed me was matched by my horror at the sight of this emaciated creature.
“What happened to her?”
In time, I was given my answers. Not all of them. They gave me small bites, dabs of information that started to form images on the canvas of my mind. I didn’t care. My only hunger now was to see my daughter. My pleas grew stronger through the day, showing an ironic impatience, having waited seven long years.
Piper sat on a couch in the room, wearing a sweatsuit that someone had provided. On her feet she wore slip-on shower slippers. Her knees pressed tightly together, her feet were spread, and her hands fidgeted nervously in her lap. Her hair seemed freshly washed, but her eyes darted away as I entered the room. Now fourteen, I could barely see the seven-year-old that she had been. I sat down quietly next to her, not saying a word. When a thief breaks into your home you can determine what has been lost. I could not see what had been stolen from her. I could not see all that had been broken.
I dared not touch her. Her skin itself trembled in little waves. She kept her eyes down, willing invisibility. I sat; cement immobile, unmoving lest I spook her. After sitting in a silence that neither of us dared interrupt, I could feel tender shoots growing, probing, reaching out from my cracks to slowly wrap her heart in their gentle embrace.
She reached out to hold my hand…