Whenever the Oshkosh Area School District shows up on caller ID, my pulse quickens, and I swallow hard as if to summons strength. Five children divided by five school days per week is not a promising ratio. It’s a whole number, as in we get a whole lot of calls – nine years’ worth and counting:
Irie once plummeted from the monkey bars. She cried so hard, she wet her pants. An X-ray confirmed her arm was broken. Other times, the kids were in trouble like when Irie illustrated her observation journal at Sullivan’s Woods with vampire bats and other vicious creatures she espied only in her dark imagination. Last year, Leo pegged somebody’s face during dodgeball with a playground-ball fast pitch across the gymnasium. The year before, a specialist called because Leo could not pronounce the letter “R” and was being referred for speech therapy. Fern once (or twice) vomited up her lunch. Never mind hours spent in the counselor’s office. Frank fed inappropriate lines to other kids, like he was an understudy off-stage. He enjoyed watching other children embark on trouble-making he’d secretly instigated. “Fart in the dark” was funny; it rhymed, but not so, according to the principal.
This past Wednesday at five minutes before 3:00 p.m., my phone rang; it could have been anything. A voice from Oakwood Elementary School asked, “Laura Jean, did you pick up Fern from school today?”
No, I had not. “What’s going on?” I asked. My confusion turned to fear.
“Fern is not on the bus, and we don’t know where she is,” the teacher said. In other words: Fern was missing. My fear escalated to hysteria in just one breath. Such calls eclipse everything else. I was in my car, and the windows went dark.
“Well, was she in class at the end of the day?”
“Yes, she was, and she got in line for the bus, but Frank told us she isn’t on the bus now, and we’re having a hard time tracking her down.”
“Oh, God. I’m so panicked.” I said the word “panicked” repeatedly, defaulting to one of my worst habits, labeling and announcing my emotions out loud. I don’t just wear emotions on my sleeves. Instead, I verbalize them, jewelry of the tongue, completely unfiltered and embarrassingly transparent.
“I know,” he said. “We are too.” We decided to touch base in a few minutes, as he swept the school again, and as I made phone calls. By the grace of all gods, Ryan answered on the first ring. He reassured me: she is probably on the wrong bus.
“She’s smart enough not to get in a stranger’s car,” he said. “And think of all the adults supervising that line to the bus.”
My gut settled to the sound of Ryan’s voice, but my mind rocked back and forth between October (now) and September (then). Fern’s disappearance was ominous not just because we’ve spent a lifetime understanding vanished children through John Walsh’s lens – his son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in 1981 before he debuted as the host of America’s Most Wanted.
Fern’s disappearance also rattled me because two weeks earlier, our neighbors had lost their son, and so far, he had not yet returned.
As the friendly neighborhood lawyer, Ryan received that call – a panicked mother on the line. The Winnebago County Sherriff’s Department had pulled her son, T, from his classroom, another plot twist in a years-long custody battle spanning four states.
I’d initiated our friendship, waving gregariously when they moved into the neighborhood. “Are you the new neighbors?” I hollered, and within ten minutes, T and Frank merged into a set of seemingly conjoined twins. They frittered away the hours catching frogs, spelunking, and riding bikes to the footbridge, where they’d climb under the crossbeams in slick, muddy feet, bickering and laughing like brothers. T spent hours at our house, helping himself to popsicles and ice cream bars. He didn’t tell us much about his past, though at one point he blurted out, “My mom went to the highest court in Alaska to fight for me” – an impressive statement that turned out to be true.
Our knowledge of his litigious familial background was limited, though Ryan tried to counsel T’s mom, referring her to local attorneys that might specialize in interstate custody battles. We didn’t know how precarious T’s life was until he was escorted from Oakwood Elementary School by a uniformed sheriff’s deputy, his father having flown in from far away with a new custody order obtained in a different state and without T’s mother’s knowledge. Ryan had some background in this area of law, and he was prepared to help represent her at an emergency custody hearing Friday morning when he received another call from the Winnebago County Department of Human Services.
“Attorney Ulrich?” a DHS case worker asked. “Are you representing the mother in this case?”
“I’m not sure,” Ryan replied. “I have been calling around trying to find her a lawyer, but if I have to, I will.”
“The child is going to be placed in foster care until this can be straightened out, and I can place him with you, but not if you are the mother’s attorney.”
“I understand. I will take him, and I will find her other counsel.”
For 36 hours, with the Temporary Physical Custody arrangement, we became T’s foster family. We evolved, ever so briefly, from parents of five to six children. T rolled down Garbage Hill at Leo’s cross-country meet. He was hungry for dinner at bedtime and vowed to eat an entire pizza at 9:00 p.m., and just like our own kids, he dragged his feet upstairs and goofed off too late. He and Frank wanted to share a bed, but Ryan said, “This is not a slumber party, boys,” and really, it wasn’t.
T’s mom packed him clean clothes in gallon-size Ziplock bags, having tucked handwritten notes inside. “Listen to Ryan and Laura.” “Pay attention in school so you can tell us something new you learned.” “You’re a smart, funny, and loving kid.” She seems like a good mom to me, I imagined telling a judge. When was the last time I packed a note in an overnight bag? Usually I forget the toothbrush.
In the morning, I drove T to school with a grocery bag into which a staff member had dumped the contents of his desk, assuming he might not return, which ended up true on Friday. The Wisconsin court decided in favor of T’s father, and off he was whisked, much to our shock. I was instructed by 10:00 a.m. to pack up the boy’s things, everything from his stuffed doggie and sleep-breath scented quilt to his dew-soaked tennis shoes. T’s mom was allowed a brief visit at the DHS building, where she reassured him they’d text and talk using his cell phone.
But later that day, a social worker called T’s mom to let her know, at the father’s insistence, T had left his cell phone behind.
By the time Frank disembarked from Bus no. 848 on Friday afternoon, T was sky-high, in an airplane with a father we’d never met, headed toward another epoch of his volatile life. Depending on the lawyers, the judges in four states, and the laws of something called the UCCJEA (the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act), Frank’s best buddy might be back in a few months, or he might never return at all.
I spent days afterward imagining what it’s like for a mother's own child to be here, then gone. With T, I'd experienced only a faint outline of his mother's anguish. I envisioned a red light blinking in his bedroom window, two doors down, or over his desk, in the classroom across the media center from Frank’s – VACANCY. Is his mother eating? Is she sleeping? How hard will she fight the system? She’s a “Mama Bear,” she told me. Sometimes at night, with the windows ajar, I listen for her snarling sounds and clear my own throat in solidarity.
Where was my own little bear cub now? I was panicked. I was panicked. I was panicked.
“You call the school,” I told Ryan. “I’m too hysterical.” We were caravanning at record speed toward the west side of town. He would turn off at Oakwood, and I would head home to meet Frank. Maybe Fern’s brother could help us to understand how a girl goes missing between a classroom and a school bus. I called friends’ parents, and I racked my brain, willing myself to think and not feel. In T’s case, his mother and father were enemies, but in Fern’s case, Ryan and I were thankfully allied against some adversary we could not yet name.
I alternated between calling friends’ parents, without answers, and calling home. Perhaps Frank would beat me there. On the eleventh ring, a nonchalant voice answered, noshing on an after-school snack.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Fern,” she answered brightly but slightly flummoxed that I did not recognize my own daughter’s voice.
“Where the hell were you?” I said, queasy and light-headed with relief.
As T reminded us much too starkly, there are two sides to any story, competing forces always at play. Fern claims she was slouched down near the back of the bus. She never heard the bus driver, the principal, or teachers calling her name. This is the story of obliviousness.
Others among us – namely we adults running red lights or desperately seeking a missing nine-year-old girl in bathroom stalls and other hiding spots at school, after hours – believe she may have been hiding. For what reason remains a mystery.
When I was little, I’m sure I wanted to know: What do my parents look like when they miss me? How much do they really love me?
What Fern may, or may not, know is that one mother answers for us all. When I jogged past T’s house on Saturday morning, his mom sat hunched over by the empty playset, chin on fist, blanched by grief. Was that T’s cell phone in her hand, and did he know his own number, or hers? If so, what kind of maternal magic might make the phone ring?