By 9 p.m., I was at my nephews’ house. My sister-in-law, Yelena, and my nephews, had just returned from Staten Island, where they spent the day helping salvage what was left of her brother’s newly finished basement and car. It was an utter disaster and one of many sad stories we’d be hearing in the coming days and weeks. In the familiar surrounds of their 3rd floor condo, a surprise awaited. Neither Yelena nor my older nephew, Joseph, had any idea where my mom was. They’d just gotten home a short while ago and were unaware of any visits by my mom. Of course, it was possible that she had come and gone, but there was no evidence of her visit whatsoever.
I listened to the voicemail a couple more times for any clues. The only lead I had was the unfamiliar number she’d used to leave the voicemail. I took a deep breath and dialed. At the other end of the line, a Russian-speaking woman picked up. She spoke with what sounded like a Central Asian accent, or perhaps one from the Caucuses (regions that had supplied much of the Russian-speaking immigrants to New York City over the past decade). It was her son’s phone and she called him over to provide details. The boy, an older-sounding teenager, described the encounter with my mom, which had apparently taken place at a bus stop. Sometime that afternoon, she had asked him to use his phone when hers ran out of juice. He’d no idea which direction she was going or whether she ever got on the bus.
Things looked bad now. The situation seemed to be unraveling and my emotions were running high. I had never before seriously worried about my family’s well being, but I was beginning to feel dread. My mom was not the healthiest person: hypertension, migraines, a family history of stroke, take your pick. With a breakdown in communication systems, uncertainty took control of the rational parts of my brain.
“Do we call the police?” I asked Yelena. She nodded her assent.
Together, we took up the grim duties of rifling for a recent photograph of my mom. All we kept coming upon were nearly twenty-year-old pictures of my mom from my brother’s wedding, when she had longer, more ginger-colored hair. My brother and Yelena having last been married seven years prior (albeit on very amicable terms to this day), it’s safe to say that looking through a trove of old wedding photos was probably not her favorite midweek evening activity. The universe had a twisted sense of humor.
The best picture we could find was at least 17 years old, but it would have to do. We called the police and the good officers from the 61st Precinct in Homecrest pulled up outside the building 20 minutes later. We recounted my mom’s disappearance and showed them the photograph. They listened patiently only to explain that they didn’t have jurisdiction in Coney Island, where my parents resided. The 70th Precinct would have to look into it. Minutes later my older nephew Joseph and I were in Yelena’s car, which she had lent me, driving to my parent’s building. Despite the nine-floor vertical hike, I was determined to stop by their apartment to dig up a more recent photo of my mom. It didn’t occur to me that she might have preferred the younger picture if she were asked herself. Alas, there was no time for such considerations.
The tiny LED flashlight led me and Joseph upstairs to the apartment, which was now pitch-black. My dad, as expected, was still at the hospital and all the lights were off. I headed in the direction of their bedroom, where I knew they kept the family photo archives in a dresser drawer. Entering the room, my flashlight revealed the most serene of scenes: my mother in her nightgown, dozing peacefully, a mystery novel that slipped out of her hands resting next to her. Smoke from the recently turned-out candle was still in the air. It was the very picture of comfort. There was even something angelic about it. The light from the flashlight startled Mom from her slumber.
“What are you…why aren’t you at work?…Why is Joseph here…what time is it?”
It took her a moment to come to, and a minute for me to explain everything that had transpired. My veins flooded with relief, enough even to drown out the little bit of anger I’d been nursing at my mom for leaving the apartment and turning us all into reluctant detectives. I dialed my dad, who was already worked up from the twin worries of my grandfather’s fate and my mom’s disappearance. He broke down before I could even hand the phone to my mom. I could hear the mix of nerves, tears, and constrained joy in his garbled voice as they spoke. Mom seemed completely shocked that anyone would worry. Mostly, she just wanted to go back to sleep.
I drove Joseph back, parked the car, and took a much-needed shower–something I appreciated more than at any time I could remember. My younger nephew’s birthday was the next day, and I happily accepted Yelena’s offer to stay over and help with birthday prep the following day. There’d be a lot of Spongebob Squarepants.
There were so many ways that day could have gone differently, and been easier. But it didn’t. We were OK, and there was my nephew Mark’s birthday the next day, and most of the family was there–my mom, dad, and brother included. We laughed and drank and talked about how ridiculous the whole thing had been. Mom was amused that earlier in the day, when she was taking the bus to the kids’ house, she saw my dad driving down Neptune Avenue. She knocked hard on the plastic glass but he didn’t notice and kept driving.
Grandpa had been admitted to the hospital and would be transferred to a rehab facility until his apartment was safe for occupancy again. No one could have known that less than a month later, Grandpa would catch something at the hospital, slip into a coma, and join his wife and younger son in the Great Beyond, at the age of 87, while I was off conquering the Inca Trail in Peru. Or that as I was shopping for Mark’s birthday produce with my brother on Kings Highway, I’d be telling my wacky Sandy story to the girl I had recently started dating, whom I would end up marrying in the year of this writing.