You don’t know me. As far as I can surmise, we’ve never met. I know you don’t know me, but I’ve thought about you every day for the past month. And I’m not unique in that regard – a lot of other perfect strangers have thought about you, too.
I’m writing to you because on some level I feel compelled to do so. I live in the same city as your family and work in the same industry as your parents. Their offices are only a couple of blocks away from mine.
At some point in the past few years I’ve no doubt crossed paths with them, though unwittingly; or have maybe even spoken to them on the phone.
I’m also a mother, Nathan – and that’s what this is really about. I’m writing to you because as a mother I can’t help it. Because I’m a mother, I know that from the first moment your parents held you, they were forever changed, just as I know that they love you immeasurably.
For a parent, this love is so monumental, so powerful, that it permeates one’s being. And when a parent is away from their child, it hurts.
I know this because there have been many nights that I’ve laid awake, longing to be with my own daughter. It’s the closest thing I have to genuine empathy. In these moments I wonder if she’s okay, if she’s happy. I wonder if she is safely tucked in bed.
I wonder if she’s acquired any new scrapes or bruises. I hope that she’s brushed her teeth, that she’s been bathed and has had the tangles combed from her hair. Did she read a story tonight? Is she sleeping now? I hope that she is happy, healthy, safe and warm. I hope that her dreams are peaceful and sweet.
Many nights I have spent like this, a persistent ache inside me knowing that she is not in her bed across the hall. It’s a ghost that follows me around, the yearning I can’t quite shake to gently brush away the wayward strands of hair from her little forehead, to kiss her softly and say goodnight one more time, as I had done every night since she was a tiny baby.
Unlike your parents, though, her father and I are divorced. We share custody, and although it’s not even remotely the same scenario, I am away from her a week at a time, every other week.
The other night in the midst of a particularly intense pang, I thought of you. I thought of you and it struck me – is this somewhat akin to what your parents feel? Albeit an exceedingly miniscule point of comparison, it’s the only real-life experience I have to draw from.
Lying there, I thought of my little girl and continued to think of you, of your family. I’ve always been an over-empathizer. Too sensitive, and overly concerned with other peoples’ feelings – or so I’ve been told.
I know that I have to be careful about how I focus my energy; my feelings can eat me up inside if I let them. But they can’t threaten to consume me if I bring them to the light. And it is a dark thing that has happened.
All of us here have experienced a wide array of emotions over the past month – though certainly a fraction of an iota, a mere microcosm of what your loved ones must be experiencing still. I’ve heard other parents say over and over that they can’t imagine.
I’ve wondered why not. Why can’t people imagine? Is it that going to that place in their minds makes them afraid that the same nightmare will be unleashed into their lives? Is it strange that some mechanism, some part of my constitution persisted and arrested me in contemplation of this?
Nathan, I did try to imagine. And what I imagined was truly horrifying. Entering that psychological rabbit hole filled me with dread, with fear and desperation; a hollowness that overwhelmed me simply in imagining.
It was then that it occurred to me, that it isn’t that people aren’t able to imagine – it’s that not knowing where your kindergartner is, day after day, is just too painful to willingly try on for size.
I’ve been thinking about how people have told me to let it go, that these things happen all the time. But the thing is – they don’t. People who work in an office down the street from me don’t have their five year old vanish from their parents’ home in the night. That sort of thing does not happen every day. It’s deeply upsetting.
And I write to you because writing is a tool I use to sort through troubling thoughts, so they don’t pool and churn under the surface. I know it’s not possible to achieve true empathy because no two people can experience things in the exact same way, no two situations are the same, and what I’m talking about is a grain of sand where a mountain stands.
But I felt distraught lying there, unable to emerge from the sadness I had immersed myself in. So I did the only thing I know.
On those nights when I feel painfully disconnected from my daughter, I reconnect. I’m not a religious person, not in the strict sense of the definition. I don’t go to church or count rosary beads; I don’t pray at an altar or identify with any particular dogma.
But I do believe in something – and I believe in it with all that I am. I believe in energy and a lattice that connects us all.
And so I concentrated on you, Nathan. I found you in my mind’s eye. I focused on you and surrounded you with light. I gave you that energy and held it for a long while, to let you know that you are loved.
I hoped that wherever you were, you were free of pain. That you were safe and surrounded by light and love. I hoped that the many good people searching for you could return you to your family. I hoped that your dreams were peaceful and sweet.
I hope now that other people are giving you their light too, and that even more will. I hope that it helps.
Writing to you is the only thing I can really do. Thank you for returning me to the present, Nathan. Thank you for the reminder that each moment is precious.
You’re on our minds and in our hearts. Know that, wherever you are.
A Perfect Stranger