Each second of every minute of every hour of every day the pain I endured was like having a sword plunged into my stomach to the hilt repetitively without parlay—without the blessing of death. My days at work mostly involved an overwhelming urge to curl into the fetal position and crawl under my desk. My nights included two to three hour work-out sessions and then alcohol and then maybe sleep. It was January and my son was missing in Spokane, Washington. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees without wind. He was fourteen—maybe on the streets, maybe in a crack-house, maybe dead—four weeks earlier he along with some older boys hopped the fence at a drug rehab center.
I lived in Seattle. My ex-wife and two other children lived across the water on Bainbridge Island. Every weekend I drove over the Cascade Mountains across barren Central Washington to the cold, bleak streets of Spokane to search for my son. With me I took three hundred copies of a poster with contact information and the latest picture of my son. My son—in this latest picture looked nothing like his former self—he resembled a homeless child strung-out on methamphetamine. His usual healthy dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes were replaced with dyed black hair with sunken dull orbs.
The drive, the long hours alone on the stretching road, were some of the toughest times—just me and my thoughts and my tears. Thoughts that found every extreme place to travel, every horror story read or heard about in the news, every thing I did or didn’t do, every moment lost; and the past—in all it’s glory and periodic heartache. But one memory seemed to overshadow all others.
When my son was only three years old, we drove to Tucson, Arizona to visit my dying Uncle in the hospital. He was somewhere on the fifth or sixth floor. As my wife and I and several family members were waiting for the elevator to return home, deep in conversation, the elevator doors opened. My son, fearless, walked into the elevator reached up with his tiny arm and with a short plump finger pushed a button. Before anyone realized it the doors closed and off he went. All at once with gut wrenching horror our awareness of what just happened slammed into our stomachs like a battering ram.
For me, time seemed to slow but my mind raced. There was shouting, crying, running but these were only sounds in the distance—some television left on in another room. I envisioned the inside of the elevator and I envisioned my son reaching up to the buttons and I hit the stairs at full speed. When I reached the first floor I ran out and questioned every living soul within sight and then back to the stairs. Over the loud speaker I heard the enouncement that there was lost child and the speaker went on and on in a monotone madness—a voice in another reality. I burst open the stair door to the basement—a long dully painted hallway with mechanical and electrical lines hanging from the ceiling. My eyes immediately shot to an image of two men with a small child walking down the echoing gantlet. I rushed down what seemed a shrinking tunnel toward the three fading silhouettes, shouting as I went. Relieved to have my son back I didn’t think to ask why they were heading out of the hospital—at least, not until later. My son was not fazed in the least. That is until the adults surrounded him with worried tear-streaked expressions mixed with heavy relief. At some point during or shortly after, I promised him that if he was ever lost I would never stop looking for him.
The fourth weekend is still surreal to me. A vivid memory full of strange events that by themselves amounted to nonsense but when stirred into the universal mix of that day painted a picture of unparalleled magnificence splashed upon a canvas that laid out a map to my son.
Money was in short supply. I missed my other children. Hope was dwindling. My car couldn’t make the three hundred mile, four hour trip again.
The parents of a child who attended class with my daughter at the Madrona School gave me three hundred dollars to pay for a rental car and use as I saw fit. They were not close friends of our family—truth be known we barely knew them at all. Our cordial exchanges occurred while picking up our six year olds. Their generosity was the beginning of a day I will never forget. And although we still speak only cordially, in passing, I count them as Angels. This story is full of such Angels—it is they who deserve honor, it is they who will find peace during the stormiest times, it is they who I can never repay.
During the previous weekend searches, I met resistance among the many runaways and homeless children who frequented the streets and shelters where I concentrated my efforts. Many of these children did not trust me—viewed me as the enemy. To help circumvent such obstacles my stepson—still in his early twenties and hip—agreed to come with me.
We pulled into the familiar parking lot of the Motel, I checked in, made certain the flyer of my son was still posted, and I motioned toward the poster and started to asked the same question as the previous week, “Has anyone mentioned…”
The clerk stopped me short, “No, nothing…I’m sorry.” He replied as he handed me the room key. His hands were trembling slightly. His eyes were kind.
After putting our things in the room, I sent my stepson to the shelters for children with a stack of flyers. I headed for the bus depot and the Mall with another stack of flyers. I always walked—could talk to more people that way.
I pulled my brown bomber leather jacket tighter and tried to ignore the biting cold that invaded my every breath. Already these streets that I had walked down so many times held strange memories. The cracked sidewalks and grimy concrete walls and old brick buildings depicted the time worn area of a once prosperous place that now succumbed to age and despair like the bent grey homeless man across the street, crouched in the shadows of the urine stained stairwell, clutching a brown paper bag crumpled in the shape of a bottle.
Four weeks before I would have avoided this man…barely looked at him. This night I approached him with a confidence not of my normal nature. He saw me coming toward him and in vain tried to melt further into the shadows of the small alcove. As I drew closer, his eyes darted around nervously.
“Excuse me.” I said softly and extended my right hand with a flyer, “Have you seen my son?”
The man relaxed and looked at the flyer then at me. “I remember you…” he said with a slightly raspy voice. He then went into a fit of coughing that shook his entire frail body. He coughed into his ragged black wool coat. When he turned back toward me his glassy eyes were watering and his face was a yellowish pale color. “You came into the Shelter last week.” He continued. His voice more strained. It was almost painful to listen to him speak.
“I did.” I tried to recall him but there were so many…
“The poster of your boy is still there…on the board.” He said with an air of satisfaction. “They wanted to take it down after you left…” He smiled, revealing yellow sparsely placed teeth, shook his brown bag toward me, “Bastards!” More coughing. “We wouldn’t let them…” He looked me in the eyes. I almost looked away…so much loss, so much pain, so much… “We wouldn’t let them…” He repeated, almost in a whisper. “They don’t understand…” He said in a soft voice riddled with clutching pain.
“Thank you.” I said quietly.
He took a swig out of his bag and coughed a little and with some effort cleared his throat. “Give me some of them there posters and I’ll pass ‘em along to some fellers I know.”
I left him with several copies and walked to the bus station where teenagers congregated along with the homeless adults and children. I recognized many of them and they me. I went back outside and there stood a group of older boys—the oldest, the leader looked at me and smiled and pointed to his eyes, “Still watching out for him.”
Two weeks prior this same group of boys who dressed and shuffled about like a street gang from LA squared off with me—a white man out late without protection. The leader took one of my flyers looked at it, handed it to the boy on his right, tilted his head to one side, “Why you lookin’ for him?” He asked accusingly as he pushed his hand deep into the pockets of his puffy black jacket, slumped his shoulders, pursed his lips slightly.
It was Saturday and it was late, very late. My legs ached. My emotions were raw like my throat. I should have been afraid as the group formed a semi-circle around me. I felt only a tinge of fear in some deep far off place in my exhausted body. I should have felt angry about their intimating posture. I felt only resolve. My feet pulsated with pain and I glanced down at them like they were my enemy. I looked up slowly, breathed in slowly, looked the young man in the eyes and spoke clearly with emphasis on each word, “He’s my son.”
The gaze of the leader softened and his posture slackened. I imagined he sensed that beating me or even killing me wouldn’t accomplish anything—I lived it with each passing moment. The truth was that they couldn’t hurt me anymore than I already hurt. Or maybe he felt a sudden compassion or saw something in my eyes or… He held out his hand. “Gimme some more of those.” I handed him some more posters. He slammed them into the chest of the smaller boy on his left. “Keep an eye out for this kid,” he said assertively. He turned and looked at the others and said, “You see him, you let me know!” Then he pushed at the closest boy and they all started sauntering away from me. The boy looked over his shoulder and pointed to his eyes with the peace sign and then at me while pulling his baggy pants up with the other hand.
In the mall I went to the food court to check out the kids gathered there and make certain all the posters were still where I left them. I asked the usual questions of the kids there. Last week, with the help of an ex-FBI Agent, I tracked down an older boy—perhaps twenty—who was rumored to have harbored some of the boys who ran with my son at his apartment. He was tall and lanky. His eyes darted like a cat’s. His sister was with him and she told him in a firm voice to tell me what he knew. He constantly pulled at his jeans and squirmed in his tight black leather jacket, which made a squeaking sound like tennis shoes on linoleum. His story was sad—I could see it written in his eyes and etched into his acne ridden face and smeared in his dirty short black hair. I looked at his sister—the strong one—and I felt an empathetic shiver. He recognized my son he said but hadn’t seen him for over a month. He said he recognized the other boy’s picture that the ex-FBI agent showed him—said he saw him the day before yesterday. He wanted to go. He could barely sit still—calmed only by the firm grip of his sisters hand upon his shoulder and her intense stare that said focus. I knew he was lying about my son but maybe not about the other boy—I saw some truth in his eyes and it went with what a store clerk told me the day before about the other boy.
The other boy, along with my son was still missing. The latest kid to be caught was found after being checked into the hospital for overdose. The others were in police custody. I agreed to put up the last boy’s picture up while searching for my son. It was through his mother that I was introduced to the ex-FBI agent, who now worked at a grocery store as the Security Manager. The mother’s son and the boy that ended up in the hospital were caught on camera making a beer run at the grocery store. The agent, a humanitarian, took up the cause of finding the missing children on his video. During the third week, I spent the entire weekend with him following leads. He even got me into the Police Station to talk to an investigator who begrudgingly gave us some information about a man rumored to be using the boys to get beer in exchange for shelter. This man was a meth dealer and everyone who knew him or of him warned me that he was a bad person.
With the police tip we went to the last known address of this man—a dilapidated building that now served as an apartment complex. The peeling paint of the three story building attempted to cover the assault of time upon the exterior. Outside, the street was speckled with broken down rusted cars, couches, shopping carts, broken fences. The windows of the building displayed bed sheets of different colors and varieties and cleanliness. We found the manager and he took us through the building to knock on doors and we made inquiries and showed the residents pictures of the boys.
The manager, a man in his upper sixties, who wore worn jeans and a dirty tee shirt stopped at one point, pulled his pants over his extended belly, ran his thick fingers through his wild gray-white hair. “You know,” he said. “There’s a girl upstairs,” he motioned up the narrow staircase and began taking the steps slowly. “She moving out today…” he said, shaking his head in disgust. “Evicted,” he went on. “If anyone has seen these boys around here, she’s your best bet.” He stopped, turned, looking down at us, “She’s always having parties,” he almost spat. “Lots of kids hangin’ around her place—comin’ and goin’.”
As we neared the apartment I could hear the sound of a crying child and a woman’s screaming. We knocked on the door; once, then again, and then a third time so hard that my knuckles hurt. The door opened and an extremely beautiful young woman opened the door. In her early twenties she still displayed the wonder of youthful attractiveness but around her eyes the story of her hard life was etched ever so lightly. Her brown hair was clean and shiny. Her big brown eyes were deep and concealed a life of anguish and broken dreams. She was tall and slender, not skinny. In another life, she could easily have been a movie star or a super model. I was taken aback and the expression of perturbed anxiety and surprise written upon her face gave me an uneasy feeling that descended into sadness as a small child with a dirty face and snot coated lips meandered toward his mother. Her eyes fell onto the building manager and her surprise turned to anger. She turned toward the child, “go into the kitchen,” she said vehemently. The child, less affected by her tone than I was, turned and walked away. “I’m getting my stuff together…don’t worry, I’ll be out today.” She said with controlled rage, as she looked at the Manager. Her eyes shifted to me and the ex-FBI agent. I couldn’t find my voice.
The agent simply said without emotion, “have you seen either of these two kids around?” Then he handed her the two posters.
She looked at me, our eyes met, and her expression softened a little. In her eyes I saw her pain and she saw mine. “No, sorry, I don’t recognize them.” She shut the door before we could say anything more.
We turned and headed down the stairs. “Trash,” said the ex-FBI agent with disdain.
The Manager nodded, “poor kid of hers doesn’t stand a chance…” he trailed off.
I felt as if someone had ripped my insides out. I wanted to curse God. Scream until my lungs exploded. Die. That night I couldn’t push her image out of my head. I faded to sleep with the question “why” on my quivering lips.
On my way back to the Motel, as I walked down the sidewalk and through a soot blanketed tunnel, I remembered the Eleven year old girl I ran into the week before at 2:00 a.m. Startled to see her on the streets, which belonged to the street walkers, drug addicts, alcoholics, I asked her if she was okay. As I neared her, I could see that her innocence was still intact—a rarity in this part of town. She told me she was looking for children’s shelter. I knew where it was, I had been there a hundred times. I walked her to the shelter. She told me she was from Minnesota. I wondered what drove her away from home at such a tender age.
As I looked toward the shelter, my eyes looked beyond the building to the place where two weeks prior I had an encounter that had a profound affect on my life. I stopped a woman. She was at least ten years younger than me. Pretty once, now worn and tattered by a life of drugs and prostitution. She thought I was looking for a “good time”. “Excuse me,” I said. “Have you seen my son?” I handed her a poster. I mentioned the name of the man rumored to be harboring the children.
Her eyes widened, “I know that guy,” she said with an edge of fear in her voice. “If your son is with him, find him as soon as you can. He’s bad news…” She studied the picture of my boy. “How old is he?”
“Fourteen,” I responded quietly.
She looked up and through me into some distant memory. Her eyes met mine and to my surprise her hardened face was soft and there were tears in her pale blue eyes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen your boy,” she said with emotion. Tears rolled down her face and over her scarred lips. “I wish someone had cared enough to look for me,” she released with subdued sobs. “God bless you,” she said, “God bless you.” I watched her walk away. My tears flowed as free as hers. She wasn’t a hooker, a drug addict, a loser, she was a compassionate person hidden under the layers of a sad story.
My stepson and I searched the area and the hang outs until our feet felt swollen and heavy. We went back to the Motel for a break. I said I wanted to take one more walk around the area. As I left the parking lot a black rabbit appeared in front of me. I stopped and looked on in amazement. I looked around to see if there was anyone nearby. A rabbit, clearly well fed and healthy, here where there was hardly any grass or vegetation of any kind except in spotty worn patches was weird. I felt a shiver go up my spine as the rabbit stared into my eyes briefly then hopped away with no worries or cares. I looked around again then back but the rabbit was gone. I felt strange and it was strangely quiet for a Friday night. I walked a little further as if in a dream. When out of the corner of my left eye I spotted a dog. The dog walked confidently without looking in any direction except forward. He stopped at a crosswalk then walked directly down the middle of the crosswalk. He walked another thirty feet to another crosswalk, stopped, turned and walked directly down the middle of that crosswalk as well. Again, I looked around. It was eerily quiet, not even a breeze or stirring of leaves. I looked back toward the dog but he was gone. I walked for awhile, in a daze of some sort. I felt a little off. Then my cell phone rang.
I answered my phone. A woman’s voice told me excitedly that they found her son. She went on to say that a convenient store clerk recognized him and called the police. I knew the store. I gave posters of her son and my son to the cashier two weeks prior and checked in with him everyday I was in town. She quickly told me that the police took the boy back to the drug rehab center and that she gave them permission to let me talk to him but warned me that he wouldn’t tell the police or the people at the rehab center anything about the whereabouts of my son.
I ran back to the Motel and picked up my stepson and we drove to the rehab center and knocked until someone finally came and turned on the office light and opened the door. It was late but they were expecting me. Again, they warned me not to get my hopes up.
A tall thin boy with short brown hair that was making a come back after a buzz cut a month prior sat with slumped shoulders on the couch in the office waiting room. My stepson and I talked to him for only a few minutes before he told us where the last place he saw my son was. After promising that the people he was staying with wouldn’t get into any trouble and after assuring him that my son wasn’t going to juvenile detention for a long time as my son believed, he told us that he hadn’t seen my son for about three weeks but he gave the best description he could of the location of the apartment building. He told us the names of the people whose apartment he was at the last time he saw him. His directions turned out to be poor, mostly landmarks. A sports bar and a thrift store were nearby. We drove up and down the street he gave directions to over and over. We were about to go back to the Motel when a picture came into my mind.
“I know where he is,” I said out loud.
My stepson looked at me, “really, how?”
I didn’t answer, my mind was racing, my pulse was quickening, my heart was pounding. I was sure. I drove directly to the apartment building that I visited last week. I parked the rental car and quickly walked to the building. I had no idea what apartment these people lived in. At that moment, a Native American couple walked out of the apartment building entrance. “Excuse me,” I said raising my voice. I told them the names of the people and asked what apartment they lived in. I said nothing about my son.
“They live down around the back of the building,” the man said pointing toward the back of the square building.
“Thank you,” I replied, an adrenaline rush washing over my body. I took a deep breath, tried to calm my racing heart. My hands were shaking. Sweat beaded my forehead. We walked around the back of the building and there cut into the concrete wall of what was once a basement was a door. The wooden door opened to the outside, unlike the other apartments which opened to the inside of the building. We would have never thought to look for an apartment there. The door had a peep hole.
I told my stepson to pull up his hood and stand in front of the door. I stood to the side, out of sight, and knocked on the door. A rough smoker’s voice, a man’s, shouted out, “who’s there?” My stepson shouted out the boy’s name who gave us the names and poor directions.
Thunder exploded in my chest. My arms and legs twitched. I didn’t know what to expect but I had no intention of leaving without my son, whom I was certain was inside. The door opened. I sprang into the doorway, ready to fight Satan himself.
The small woman who opened the door stepped back in fright. She was in her late fifties. Her husband, also small and harmless, sat up straight in his tattered armchair to my right. Directly in front of me, lying on an old couch, my son looked at me with eyes as big as saucers.
“Who are…” the man started.
“I’ve come for my son,” I said sternly, still shaken.
“How did you find me,” my son interjected his expression a mixture of amazement and shock.
“I’m his father,” I replied. I turned toward my son. “I promise you are not going to juvy nor are you going back to any rehab centers.” I said softly. “I just want to take you home.”
My son began crying, got up from the couch, and came to me. I held him for a long time—both of us releasing tears of relief, joy, hope.
For a long moment, all of us in the small apartment shared in something beautiful, something beyond description, something filled with wonder as we cried together.
After we left the apartment, during the drive back to the Motel, my son said, “Dad, you want to know something strange?”
“What?” I said softly. I was numb and felt as if I was full of ether.
“Earlier tonight, this couple—they’re Blackfoot Indians—chanted a prayer for me to find my way.”
“That’s a trip,” my stepson said.
“Lot’s of people have been praying for you,” I replied. “I’m eternally grateful to all of them.”
Two days later while at a close personal friend’s house, I told her about the Rabbit and the Dog. She looked at me in wonder and handed me a book on Native American Medicine Animal Totems and told me to look up Rabbit and Dog.
I read the poem for Rabbit, “Scared little Rabbit…
Please drop your fright! Running doesn’t stop the pain,
Or turn the dark to light.”
I read the poem for Dog, “Dog…
You are so noble,
Until the bitter end,
Your medicine is the teaching,
Of true and loyal friends.”
Angels come in many forms and disguises. To all the Angels out there…lost, sick, homeless, blessed, compassionate, empathetic…thank you for being…