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From the day she learned to walk, my daughter Kylie wanted to live in a bigger world. Even as a toddler she pushed against any confinement, always trying to enlarge her territory. Every time my wife, Lisa, and I turned our backs, we'd hear the screen door creak open, then slam shut, and Kylie would be outside and on her way. We'd see her half-running, half-stumbling into the backyard on chubby toddler legs, grass-stained diaper slipping off her butt, all of her as brown as a pecan from running around shirtless in the sun. Then she'd wear herself out romping with Dooley, our chocolate Lab, a gentle dog, but so large and lumbering that without meaning to he kept knocking Kylie down. And every time it happened, Kylie reacted as if being knocked down was the funniest game ever invented. She'd roll around in the grass, laughing, and Dooley would join her, wiggling on his back, kicking his legs in the air and snorting.
 
After those toddler years came the bicycle years. Kylie rolled out of the garage on her first bicycle before I could put the training wheels on. She wobbled a bit for a day or two, but off she went, all over the neighborhood at first, all around town when she grew older, and finally on a three-week bicycle tour of the Adirondacks with a gang of friends one teenage summer.

It seemed we were always wondering where Kylie was or waiting for her to come home. One summer afternoon, during a family vacation at a lake in Minnesota, she scared us to death when she disappeared for hours. We
had the local police and volunteer firefighters looking for her, the year-round residents and summer people. Finally, toward evening, with Lisa in tears, Kylie came strolling up to our cabin hand-in-hand with Sam Whitcomb, the white-haired old gent who'd found her. She was smiling and carrying a big stick, and had daisies tucked into her hair above both ears.
 
She'd been hiking in the woods, she said. "Then I took a nap behind a rock. When I woke up Sam was yelling my name."

I gave her a scolding about becoming lost, falling and injuring herself, being bitten by a snake or attacked by a bear.

She raised her stick. "I'd hit the bears, Daddy."

"Well, that's a big stick, but not big enough."
 
"I'd hit them really hard. Like this," she said. She slammed her stick into the ground. "Croom! Right on the head."

"I'm sure you would. But it wouldn't be hard enough."

"Better take a picture," I told Lisa, because from that hour I knew we'd never hold on to her, knew she'd be gone as soon as she grew old enough to follow her heart wherever it might lead her.

That's one of my favorite photos of Kylie: our precious, pint-sized explorer, seven years old that summer evening, smiling, sunburned, and bright-eyed, gripping a stick so tall it rises out of the frame, her hair a windblown, daisy-laced puff of dark curls.
 
++
 

On Kylie's 27th birthday, I met her for lunch at our favorite café on the North Shore, with a view of Lake Michigan. I arrived first and chose a table indoors, out of the sun, but when Kylie came she insisted we sit
outside on the terrace. She looked prime-of-life fabulous that day, long black hair wavy and glossy in the sunlight, blue eyes quick and bright in her lean, pretty face.
 
She started with her bad news: She'd ended her relationship with Troy Empson, whom both Lisa and I were convinced she'd eventually marry.
 
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "I liked Troy a lot."

"I know," Kylie said. "But he kept painting this domestic picture for us - the house in Arlington Heights, the three kids. The riding lawnmower, the golden retriever." She drew a deep breath, then exhaled sharply.
"I don't know. I just don't see my life heading that way. So things got ugly. Both of us frustrated. Resentful.
We had to get away from each other."
 
Then her good news: A major corporation, with a well-known brand of food products, wanted to add organic,
fair trade coffees to their lineup, and Kylie, a graphic designer, had an interview for a job with the product development team. Earth-friendly farming, fair treatment for growers, lots of world travel. Perfect for Kylie.

"When's your interview?"

"Next Tuesday, in New York, at the World Trade Center. Starting with breakfast at that Windows On the World restaurant. Pretty cool, huh?"
 
"Certainly appropriate," I said. "You've always had a window on the world."
 
I reminded her then how as a little girl, during the cold months, she used to stand at the narrow floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of the front door, yearning to be outside. And how one rainy, chilly spring day I glanced out one of those windows and saw her in the middle of the street, chasing a warty, brown toad that kept hopping away from her every time she stooped and reached to try and capture it. Soaking wet and laughing, she ran splashing through the slick, oily rainbows on the asphalt, thrilled by the world, even by its cold rain and its most
unattractive creatures.
 
"I ran faster than I'd run since my high school football days," I said. "Strange, though part of me was laughing with you. At your innocence. Your joy. I didn't want to spoil that. But part of me was absolutely frantic about the danger you were in."
 
Kylie laughed. "Poor you," she said. "A conundrum."

"Exactly," I said. "The parental conundrum - how do you let your kids go, but somehow keep them safe, too, at the same time? You never figure it out, really. If you ever decide to have children you'll know exactly what I mean."
 
"I may have a family someday, Daddy." She leaned back in her chair and looked out toward the lake, squinting against the sunlight and tearing tiny pieces off the edges of the paper napkin in her hands. "Not now, though. This is such a big, amazing world. You know?" She looked back into my face.
 
"I understand, sweetheart," I said. "Listen - I'm not upset or disappointed with you, not in the slightest. Go wherever, do whatever you need to do. Your life is your own. I love you."


 ++


Kylie kept her appointment at the World Trade Center, and she died there that morning. At a stroke she was gone, our precious, grownup explorer lost to the dark continent from which no one returns. No trace of her - not a shoe, a tooth, a sliver of bone - has ever been found, or ever will be, now that the search has ended. And Kylie's not alone. Eleven hundred victims disappeared without a trace.

Lisa and I visited the WTC site a few weeks later. Confronted with the full horror of what had occurred there, we were emotional wrecks, blind with tears half the time, raw with a grief still so personal and particular it left us feeling utterly isolated and alone. We saw other people grieving, of course, but no one, we felt, could understand our grief, and no one's grief could possibly equal ours.
 
One sight stayed with me, however, from that visit: a crew of forensics people, in white coveralls and respirators, shoveling rubble into a screening device of some kind, which they then rocked side to side, rocking that dust somewhat the way you might rock a child's cradle. But their rocking had about it a rapidity and desperation that told you this was rocking of a very different kind, designed not to calm fitful children but to find lost children - or lost husbands, wives, sisters or brothers - whose families waited, hoping for some word of them, some piece of them, something that would allow each wounded family to close the book on a life they'd loved and to feel at ease with having done so.
 
One of the men paused in his work, took his respirator off, and sat down, slumped and exhausted, against the wall of a building. Lines of moist, caked dust streaked his face, and his neck glistened with sweat. I studied his face and read his name - Donelson - on his coveralls.
 
Two years later we went to New York again, for a memorial service at Ground Zero. Before the service, with the families of other victims, we met with the city's Chief Medical Examiner, who filled us in on the efforts, still ongoing at that time, to find and identify remains. Afterwards, Lisa and I had a moment to speak with him privately, and we thanked him for the work he and so many others were engaged in. Then Lisa, in her typical straightforward manner, voiced the simple but nagging question shared by all those whose loved ones had disappeared.

"Where did they go?" she asked, her voice breaking to a whisper before she managed even those four words.
 
His eyes flicked wide for an instant, and he took a step backwards, as if we were enemies who had him cornered, the question a spear thrust aimed at his chest.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't answer that."
 
We didn't press him, but to this day I'm struck by the ambiguity of that response. Could he offer no answer because he didn't know? Or because he knew and couldn't bear to tell us?
 
Later, during the memorial service, I spotted a face in the crowd I recognized: Donelson, from the forensics crew, the man I'd seen two years earlier. He wore civilian dress and stood off to the side among a group of his co-workers. He looked haggard and couldn't seem to find a comfortable stance or figure out what to do with his arms. Then, to my astonishment, he knelt down and stood back up with a handful of dirt. He held it out in front of him and inspected it, rocking it back and forth on his palm. Two years this man had been searching, yet there he was, still looking for Kylie and all the others, unable to let it rest, as bewildered and haunted as Lisa and I were by the complete disappearance of so many people. Contrary to what Lisa and I had once felt, we were
not alone, and never had been. And in that same instant I knew where my lost daughter was. I didn't need a tooth anymore, or a bone. Kylie had moved once again into a bigger world.

I turned to Lisa, standing beside me. "Kylie's here," I whispered. I knelt down, scooped up my own handful of dust, and held it for Lisa to see. "Right here."
 
Lisa looked up at me and smiled. "We'll take her home," she said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a pill bottle containing Valium she'd been using to help her sleep. She dumped the remaining pills on the ground. I put the dust in the bottle, and Lisa closed it and put it back in her purse. I wrapped my arms around her, and she laid her head against my chest.
 
When I looked at Donelson again he was glancing around at the crowd, checking to see, I think,  if anyone had noticed what an utterly mad thing he'd just done. I happened to catch his eye, and as best I could I mouthed the words "Thank you."

He nodded and returned the smile we all recognize, the ever so slight smile of human sorrow and commiseration. He sifted the dust a moment longer, letting some fall between his fingers. Then he turned and tossed the rest away behind him, where it broke into a brief cloud before vanishing on the wind.
   


Douglas Campbell's fiction and poetry have appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Litsnack, and Jabberwocky. He loves to tell stories, and that's what he does when he isn't playing his guitar. He grabs the guitar, however, as soon as he stops writing. It's a good life, and Douglas lives it in southwestern Pennsylvania.
     
 




 





  


Copyright 2009