I never wanted children. He and I agreed before we got married that we weren’t going to have kids. But accidents happen — as I counted the pills in the package in one hand, and the number of days I was late on the other, I was filled with equal parts dread and awe.
I lie. It was mostly dread. This was not what I wanted.
But he was thrilled. So I pretended to be happy.
We named her Joy. I think I picked that name not because I felt joy at her impending arrival but because I wanted to feel it. I wanted to speak joy into this. I wanted to want her.
I wasn’t prepared. Her father was. Dear God, he was amazing. While I wandered around in a fog of “What the hell are we doing?” he turned our home office into a nursery. When she was born, whole and healthy, he took half the load. He was the practical and emotional pillar. I supplied milk and the occasional diaper change.
I fell into the new rhythm, discovering I was in love with this squirming, needy, little thing.
We were so normal. She was a B student, we were B parents. She was never in any serious trouble as a teenager, just enough to be suitably aggravating. I felt guilty for being relieved when she went off to college. Her father was heartbroken.
We finally adjusted to the empty nest her sophomore year when she said she wasn’t coming home for the summer, instead taking an internship at a non-profit not far from school. Something about a community farm, feeding the homeless, service with discipline and integrity…that sort of thing. Unpaid, of course, but they’d cover room and board — we sent her enough for incidentals. A great opportunity, I thought, but still felt a sting of disappointment that she wouldn’t be coming home. Her father distracted me with a Caribbean cruise surprise.
I came back remembering why I married that man. We made the whole summer a second honeymoon. As our daughter was taking steps toward adulthood, we were finding our way back to couple-hood.
Joy came home for a week before classes started. We noticed a change, but put it down to her newfound independence, or maybe the pseudo-communism she’d picked up from the co-op at her non-profit. We let it go with knowing smiles; 80 percent of all liberal college students are communists for at least a semester.
We took her out to dinner on her last night with us. She seemed to thaw a little, showing teeth when she smiled instead of the polite, tight-lipped approximations she’d given us all week. I found myself wishing we had a few more days together.
She’d done all her laundry and we shopped for a few necessities. We’d start the 6 hour drive to her university after breakfast. I got up a little early to make pancakes; something nice to send her off before she had to face dining hall food again.
I’d put bacon on to fry and mixed the batter before shouting upstairs for them to come down. Something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I was flipping the first batch when he came down, yawning. He pulled the juice out of the fridge and went to get the plates. He stopped, turned, and went back to the hall.
“What?” I asked.
He didn’t answer but called up the stairs.
“What?” I asked again.
“Her bags are gone.”
I turned off the stove and we both ran upstairs. He knocked on her door and didn’t wait for an answer. The bed was made and there was a note on the pillow. Just a page pulled out of a college-ruled notebook.
Please don’t be mad. And please try to understand. I’m not going back to school. I got a job where I interned. You won’t hear from me for a while so don’t worry. I’m going on a wilderness retreat with the leadership program and I can’t take a phone with me. I’ll let you know when I’m back.
We sat on her bed and re-read the letter. Of course we were angry, disappointed, and worried. We had no real idea what was this organization was about.
He, my rock, calmed me. For now, we had to accept that Joy was an adult, and that this was her choice. We tried to catch her by phone before this retreat, but the line went to voicemail.
“Honey,” her dad said, “we’re upset, but it’s your life. Please just let us know you’re okay, and when we can look to hear from you.”
He put the phone down and I wrapped my arms around him.
“And there we were,” I said into his chest, “thinking we got through this parenting thing easy.”
He kissed the top of my head. “Come on. I’ll make coffee.”
It wasn’t until late that day when we realized the credit cards were gone.
What happened next, well…everyone here went through something similar. Getting no answers from the co-op, finally calling the police, hearing the word “cult.” Months of waiting turning into years.
My husband couldn’t take it. Oh, we’re still friends — sometimes more than friends. He accepts that the child we knew is gone. Funny that the one who didn’t want her at first is the one who won’t admit we’ve lost her.
So here we all are: the parents of those for whom deprogramming hasn’t worked. Yet we refuse to give up. Who’s to say we aren’t as mad as our children, holding on to something that’s not really there?
Claudia Wair is an American technical writer and editor by day and a fiction writer (mostly speculative) by night. There’s an almost-finished fantasy novel glaring at her, reproachfully, from the bookshelf. She enjoys camping, supporting peace and social justice endeavors, and she’s planning to build a tiny house in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @CWTellsTales
The Mother is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @worldsbetweenlines