On an ordinary day of shopping for life's boring necessities in Ukiah, even when punctuated by more enlivened pursuits, not a whole lot happens that could be called excitement or drama. So I immediately noticed the ebullient, thirty-something woman walking at a fast clip through Long’s with the bear-like sheriff, their heads turning in tandem to look down each drug store isle. They came about like a sailing ship, again visually covering the store floor. The woman's face bore an expression of controlled panic and apprehension. It soon became clear she was searching for her ten-year-old daughter who had suddenly disappeared. The possibility of foul play loomed, opening a Pandora's box of conjecture.
Outside, several minutes later, she was sobbing in uncontrolled anguish. As I walked to the car, I could hear behind me the slap of her sandaled feet on the pavement as she dashed from shop to shop, looking for life itself, asking if anyone had seen her,
She stood in the cumulus-ridden sunlight and began to cry out her child's name, her voice strained yet forceful, at once a scream and a wail. Calling, calling. She projected her fright and alarm to the far ends of the mall as a diva in an opera house, left to sing the tragic aria alone. Shoppers and street people were caught up in the throes of concern, roaming the mall like ghostly supernumeraries on a dark stage of foreboding, The sheriff remained in the wings, attentive, as helpful as one can be in such a helpless predicament.
I encountered friends from Boonville. We were so distraught we could not carry on a conversation as normally we would. From the car, I watched the quivering, shaking woman, wondering how I could help. No use joining the commiserating crowd gathering around her. Instead, I prayed. And decided to hit the surrounding streets in my car, to look for a ten-year-old kid. I had a strong hunch.
Four blocks from the mall I saw her, calmly walking toward the scene of her mother’s terror. Wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, a blue jacket, with Dutch-cropped dark hair and the innocence of an angel’s face, she was the size of a typical fourth grader.
I made a sharp U-turn, rolled down the window and asked if her name was Tara. There was some confusion at first because I did not yet know with certainty her name, translating close as I could the earlier sounds of her mother’s cries to the skies. When she shook her head in the negative, for a moment I feared this was not the child in question. Until she stammered and said her name was Kara.
That was my queue. “Your mama is at the mall, frantically searching for you.” Shadows of worry clouded her little face. She jumped unafraid into the passenger seat of my car — into the car of a stranger.
Because we live in a warped social stratosphere which has to question the motives of adults who try to help children, I realized I would have to gently coax Kara out of the car, reassure her and tell her to start running in the direction of the mall. I would go to get her mother; I felt she would be safe until our return.
I found Kara's mother, now talking to the Ukiah police. I laid on the horn to get her attention and shouted “I found your daughter.” She thanked the cop and came running, got in the car without hesitation and said “Take me to her!” Her expression of relieved ecstasy was combined with a nervous impatience to see her child.
She fidgeted, could not sit still, explaining that she is continually torn between being over-protective or allowing her child some freedom, always afraid such granted independence will put her daughter at risk. Then she warmly embraced me, grateful beyond words for my little bit of help.
Kara bolted around the flower bed, past the bushes and into glorious view. Her mother (I do not know her name) hugged me intensely once again, leapt out of the car, pounded her hand hard on the auto roof in a gesture of farewell and ran, wildly sobbing to wrap her daughter in the arms of safety, the two collapsing into each other, limp with emotion, strong in the power of unfathomable love.
At this point, I was a little limp myself. I stopped to fortify myself with a strong double espresso to go, then headed home over mountainous Highway 253, driving across the peak of a beautiful day. I wept a while as I went, overwhelmed with joy for a mother and daughter reunited, rescued from the brink of a life of endless nightmares and dreadful daydreams. I wept also for memory, for another family whose child, kidnapped 30 years ago, never came home alive. My little sister, finally found, but lost forever.
The violent loss of a child in the family produces a profound pain for all that never ends, propels you into a unique state of living unassuaged by any comfort, particularly not by the lies of pride or selfish acts of empty revenge. Closure is a silly, cruel concept to me, a myth as useless as the contemptible notion that capitol punishment acts as a deterrent to crime.
On this day following fright, I am looking out the kitchen window upon a meadow of nibbling lambs, bordered by lush lilac groves, euphorically grateful Kara and her mother have been spared.