On June 14, my mom got lost while taking a walk. It was something my family hoped wouldn’t happen, didn’t want to predict, but feared the day would come eventually. She doesn't drive anymore (and hasn't for about three years, since we found out her memory loss is actually Alzheimer's, and not just a goofy stage of menopause). She has always loved walking, and has a regular route she'll take (sometimes twice a day), just to get out of the house for a while. My parents have been in their home for 25 years, so it's a familiar neighborhood. Unless your brain is working against you and one wrong turn can throw you completely off course.
Dad left for work at noon. Mom was up, showered, and dressed. She was having a good day: did a load of laundry and washed the dishes, keeping herself busy. The weather was beautiful and she wanted to take advantage of the rare sunny afternoon (sunshine has been sporadic this spring). The caregiver arrived at 4pm to an empty house. She started making phone calls to friends, wondering if someone had picked Mom up for an outing and lost track of time. No luck.
My youngest brother came home at 4:30pm and started looking, driving on Mom's usual route and a few miles past that. He called my sister, who got the word to my husband. Wisely, Hubs didn't say anything to me until I was done with my last client of the day. I work for a financial intuition as a loan officer and was wrapping up a busy Monday: an application I loaded that morning had been approved and I was finishing paperwork so my eager client could go pick up his new car. We finished financing right at closing time. As soon as I locked the lobby doors, Husband followed me back to my cubicle (one of the benefits of working for the same employer as your spouse).
He said, "You should probably get your things; you're not going to want to work out tonight."
The look on his face got my attention real quick.
"They can't find your Mom."
My ears rang. I asked him to repeat himself.
I finished my end-of-day routine quickly, stuffed unfinished paperwork into my cabinet, and we headed to my parents' house out in the county. I tried to keep my imagination in check, refusing to picture any worst case scenarios. The scary feeling was physical: my head was spinning and my guts were churning. It didn't seem real. She might be two blocks away, she might be hurt, she might not even realize she's been gone long enough to cause alarm.
When we got to Mom and Dad’s, there were six law enforcement vehicles outside the house: Search and Rescue and several Sheriff's deputies. Dad pulled into the driveway a few minutes after we did, around 6:30pm. The deputy in charge came inside and asked Dad all the appropriate identifying questions: date of birth, height, weight. Any distinguishing features? What was she wearing? What’s her shoe size? Who is her dentist? We collected recent photos of Mom on the kitchen table.
The deputy recommended a radio-transmitting bracelet for Mom, to cut down the time of any future searches. He said, "It's the same technology that was used to track bears and wolves in the seventies." Great. "Don't tell Mom that," I thought. Dad asked for the informational brochure.
The deputy asked about any previous workplaces (we all stared at him blankly, thinking, "She worked here, she‘s always been a stay at home Mom"), friends or relatives she might be visiting, destinations she might inadvertently be headed for. He asked us to search every nook and cranny in the house, just in case. He said to search the perimeter and "outbuildings" to eliminate those options before the search really got underway. He said a border patrol helicopter was on it's way back to the area, available to help if the other officers and K9 search party didn't make any progress.
A search and rescue specialist came inside for Mom's white sweater (hung haphazardly on the coat rack; we knew she was the last one to touch it) and brought it to the search and rescue dog as a scent sample. The deputy explained that human scent is even more individualized than fingerprints. We saw the dog through the living room window on a long leash, RACING in big circles, plowing through the overgrown flower beds, bounding from front yard to back. The deputy said, "He gets excited because he knows this is real; it’s not training anymore. It’ll take five minutes or so for him to get some energy out and then focus."
The deputy described how big the search area was since noon was the last time anyone had seen Mom. "She could have as much as a 6 hour head start. That could mean 12 or more miles in any one direction, depending on how fast she’s walking." He was used to searching for 80 or 90-year-olds who wandered away from home or got lost outside their nursing homes, and stopped whenever their energy gave out. He wasn't sure how far away Mom may be, an able-bodied woman in her fifties.
I said, "Depending on how long ago she left, she may not even be thinking about the return trip yet. She's not aware of the time; probably still enjoying the sun. A two hour walk wouldn't be unusual."
We all took the deputy's business card so we could call when we found her. He went outside to make phone calls from his truck. As soon as he left the room, Husband said, "Let's be sure to drive in pairs, so one person is free to make the calls. Y'know, and not break any laws." We all laughed. Last week the state made talking on a cell while driving a primary offense. Oh honey, always so practical.
We disbanded to start searching. Blanketing the neighborhood were eleven family and friends in seven vehicles. Dad stayed home for updates. Husband and I drove east, since I thought Mom would probably want to stay in the sun. While he drove, I made a few more phones calls. Our friends at the local library hadn't seen her. Our middle brother in Seattle had been notified and he wondered if he should come up. We said no, there wasn't anything more he could do, but we promised to keep him updated.
We drove for about twenty minutes, maybe thirty. Every intersection felt like a gamble. I scanned side streets, trying to see it through Mom's eyes. Could she have thought it would lead her home? I looked closely around every horse pasture, knowing Mom's love of horses and the likelihood she'd want to feed them dandelions. There's very little foot traffic in the county, no sidewalks, and barely even enough room to walk on the shoulder. We only saw a few people on bikes. Someone on foot should stand out.
Then my sister called. "They found her." She didn't know any details, but she was calling our brothers next. "See you at the house."
Mom was 13 miles from home, almost to the Canadian border. A border patrol saw her walking slowly, holding her side. He pulled over and talked to her. An ambulance met them and gave her water. The deputy at home drove Dad to her. When he arrived, she was in the back of the aid car drinking water and resting. I was afraid she would be terrified, or ashamed, or oblivious. But she knew she had walked for a really long time. She was exhausted but appreciated the attention.
When we all got back to the house, in she walked, rosy cheeked and a little wind blown. She didn’t have a hat, no long sleeves, and no sunscreen. Her neck was almost purple with sunburn. She had a big smile on her face, knowing all eyes were on her. We had all just been at my parent's place on Saturday, for my youngest brother's high school graduation. She said, "I didn't know there was another party!"
Her feet were sore so my sister filled a tub with water to soak them in. She pulled off Mom's socks and put them in warm sudsy water. My sister is the kindest person I know. Mom guzzled water and juice, luxuriating in the pampering and enjoying her spot on the couch (you know how good it feels to sit down after a couple of hours on your feet? I can only imagine the relief Mom felt).
The officer gave Dad the brochure about the radio transmitting bracelet. He explained again how it is recommended for folks who are likely to wander off. I thought it was insensitive to discuss it front of Mom, but she listened to his description and piped up, "Do I get to wear one of those?! Oh goody!"
We all sat in my parent's living room for an hour or two, visiting, enjoying each others' company. We bantered and joked and did what my family does best: appreciated each other. As conversation wound down and we prepared to leave, Mom suddenly asked, "am I the reason we're all here?" We looked at each other before responding, not wanting to sound too alarmist, but nodded yes. "We wanted to make sure you were OK, Mom."
"Well," she said, "glad I could help!"