There’s something so chilling about the screams of a mother who can’t find her daughter. Even before I ever started having kids, I could always recognize the panicked, blood-curdling sound of someone shouting a child’s name whom they couldn’t find. I remember being at a Victoria’s Secret once and hearing it and feeling my heart nearly stop as a woman searched frantically for her little one among the aisles of push-up bras and lace underwear. Soon enough, she found her precious offspring and left the store, forgetting to buy whatever it was that had brought her in there.
Today, our little family walked in the March for Babies in honor of our beloved daughter Margaret Hope, whom we lost in 2012 to prematurity. John and I walked in 2013 for the first time, just months after her passing, and it was an incredibly healing experience. I recall looking at all the families and all the children who were now much older–those who made it. Our hearts were heavy that day, but our hopes were high and we vowed someday to return with a rainbow baby of our own.
Last year, our wish for another child came true, but because William spent some weeks in the NICU, we were unable to attend the march. We decided we would return this year with him in tow. We would tell him about his sister; we would let him know why we march. And so, we arrived this morning at Tropical Park just as the march was starting, and set off to walk 3 miles in contemplation of Maggie.
I could feel the difference in my approach from the start. During the first march, I was still in such grief that I had trouble going on at times. This time, I was happy to get moving, pushing little Willy B along in his stroller, taking in the sun’s rays. We missed our daughter, but we were still a family, strong and together.
We picked up some bananas from the welcoming committee and took some candids with Sebastian the Ibis, my old alma mater’s mascot. He was kind enough to give Willy a high-five prior to our group shot.
My husband was a bit more solemn than I was, watching all the families, the kids with t-shirts on that said things like, “I’m What A 25-Week Old Miracle Looks Like,” and the parents with signs that read, “We March For Our Son.” I tried to keep our spirits up, to hold our family together. We made it to the Publix tent and decided to take a picture with the Publix mascot, Plato, and picked up a cold water bottle for the trek under the hot sun. It was going well, until it wasn’t.
“Have you seen a little girl? Seven years old?” an older woman with blonde hair asked us. We shook our heads. And then, I heard it. I heard the scream.
“My daughter! Megan! Have you seen her?” another blonde woman, in a green t-shirt, shouted at everyone and no one not far from us. I knew the scream. My heart stopped.
Suddenly, we were in the thick of a search for a young girl who’d somehow gotten lost at a march full of families who had either lost a child or almost had.
The panic set in slowly, rising from my heels up to my head, drowning me in a familiar anxiety I’d fooled myself into thinking had finally left. Nothing mattered at that moment but finding that little girl and stopping the cries of this woman who had now dropped to her knees, sobbing, while a friend reached out to her, “We will find her.”
John left our side for the first time and began searching near the lake. I clutched the stroller and scanned the park, checking between cars and bushes. More friends of the lost little girl asked us if we’d seen her, but we shook our heads and continued to search.
“Let’s keep going and keep looking,” I suggested. We continued on with the walk, still searching for this girl we’d never even met. We checked the parking lot. We checked the playground. We checked the bathrooms. And then, after we’d gone a distance, John stopped.
“Do you think we should go back?”
We were both completely in it. We couldn’t shake the idea of a parent losing their child. We both had the same thoughts. What if some sicko pervert had snatched her up in their car? What if she’d fallen in the lake? What if…? We needed to know she was okay. We raced back to where we’d first seen the woman, and saw the police officer they’d spoken to earlier.
“Excuse me, officer. Do you know if that woman ever found her daughter?”
“Yeah, they just did. Everything’s okay.”
I nodded and said thank you, and turned to walk back to my family. And then, I cried. I couldn’t stop. Out it all came. The little girl was okay. The mother was okay. They were going to be fine. Everything’s okay. Except it wasn’t.
What I wanted to say was, “Excuse me officer. I’m looking for my daughter. Have you seen her?”
And he would asked me about her, and I wouldn’t be able to tell him, because she was nothing more than ashes in a box on a shelf in my bedroom closet. No one had seen her because she hasn’t really been here in years. No one would know how to respond to that. How do you respond to that?
I thought about my daughter. I thought about the moment I knew I was going to lose her, hours before she was born, when the doctor gave me the look that destroyed my life for good. I thought about the moments before we found out she had passed, those moments after we’d woken up and awaited the return of the nurse who was going to take us back to the NICU. I thought about the only moment I saw her face while she stilled lived. I thought about the moment the nurse came back and told us it was too late. Too late.
I thought about that woman, dropping to her knees as she began to lose hope of finding her daughter. I thought about the moment I dropped to my knees when I lost my Hope.
It wasn’t easy to come out of that moment. They don’t come often, those moments, but when they do, they are just so intense and so real and so surreal at once.
John suggested we take a break from the walk and sit in the shade of a tree and spend time with William. Dear William. The rainbow at the end of the storm.
William, of course, didn’t understand any of it. He was a little ray of sunshine when we took him out of the stroller. He smiled, beamed, happy to walk, to run circles around us, his still-grieving, still-panicked parents. He brought us back into the present. He brought back Hope, in his own special way.
We weren’t able to quite finish the march after that. We did the best we could, but we took so much time off the track that when we got back on it, we couldn’t even find our way back to the finish line. We were literally the last participants. It brought some anxiety out for me, some anger at not finishing what I had promised my daughter I would do. But in the end, I knew it didn’t really matter. Maggie would understand.
Most days are pretty great, but some days, it’s hard to breathe. Some days, I am on my knees again, still, asking anyone who will listen if they have seen my daughter. It’s something I will live with for the rest of my life, but every day that passes is a day I learn something new–a new way deal, a new way to be at peace, a new way to Hope.