**I have changed most of the names in this story. I left Mel and Beth with their real names because I have blogged about them in the past.**
In the spring of 1998, I came home from school to find my aunt and uncle at my house and they were both upset. Because I’m a pessimist with an anxiety disorder I immediately thought the worst: there was a car accident and one or more of their kids or grandkids died. I quickly learned there are things worse than death. Maybe, I’m putting the cart before the horse here… because while this is where this story starts, there is some information that needs to be known.
I am the youngest of my generation of cousins on my mom’s side (my mom and her siblings’ children and my mom’s generation had 6 kids, so there are a lot of first cousins in “my generation”). My cousin Mel is 2 years older than me. My cousin Kevin is 6 (I think), but with these two exceptions all of my cousins are in the 10+ years older than me category. So while I am 17 when this story begins, most of my cousins are in their late 20s or early 30s for it. I am not close with most of my cousins, there are 2 exceptions Mel and Beth. Beth is in this group of first cousins and she is 12 years older than me… this age gap and my closeness level with some of my cousins will be important for this story (it should be noted that Beth and the age difference is a big part of why I am who I am – my parents divorced when I was young because my father was an alcoholic [some nine years after their divorce my parents would remarry] and eventually Beth would “adopt me” as a little sister when she was in college and take me to see Disney movies at the theater because she wanted to see them as I grew up this ‘little sister” dynamic continued and I began to enjoy the same sorts of books and music that she enjoyed and our relationship went from sibling-like to friendship. Mel and I were close because we were both girls and considerably younger than our siblings and other cousins, for example we both have siblings more than 10 years older than us).
Anyway, I get home and my mom’s sister and the sister’s husband are at our house and both are visibly upset and my uncle a Navy veteran was crying. I had never seen my uncle cry, he was one of those “men don’t cry” types. But he was crying and obviously been at it a while. At this point, my grandparents were dead already, so it can’t be one of them that died and if it was my uncle’s parents that had died they wouldn’t be with my mom and dad. That only leaves one of their children or grandchildren. Oh man… I like both their children and I know their grandchildren, I’ve even done a lot of babysitting for their oldest grandson. Please don’t let it be him, he was only 8. I get ready to cry as they sit me down. With four crying adults and this being a huge gathering of family (mom, dad, aunt, uncle) this is going to be bad. They don’t tell me someone has died, they ask me if I’ve heard from my cousin Natalie. When was the last time I saw her? Uh, what? Natalie and I are not friends, she’s nearly 30 and has a kid (the above mentioned 8 year old boy), she’s friends with my sister, not me. I point this out to the questioning adults.
They tell me they know all that and my sister will be there soon, but I have a cell phone (this was a novelty in 1998 – I had it because I had a adult paper route which required me to deliver papers at 2 in the morning from my car) and Natalie knows the number, so maybe she tried to call me. This was even more possible given my dad and uncle’s stances on family – they came first. If she called me during the day and said she needed help with something, I would have ditched school to go help, so did she call me? No. I haven’t heard from her. What’s going on? The school called my aunt, Thomas (Natalie’s son, who I have babysit for often) needed to come home because he was sick and they couldn’t get in touch with Natalie. My aunt went to pick him up and take him home and found Natalie’s car on the side of the road on the way to their house, but no sign of Natalie. Oh shit! My uncle went to look over the car and found it had a flat tire, there was a convenience store about two miles back from her car, so he stopped in there and asked if anyone had seen her come in (Natalie did not have a cell phone). They had not. Thomas was with Natalie’s boyfriend at their house. My aunt and uncle went out looking for Natalie after I told them I hadn’t seen or heard from her in quite a while and after they spoke with my sister who also hadn’t seen or heard from her in a while. My parents joined them. Natalie lived in a rural area – not just rural as in out of town but rural as in 20 minutes to the nearest town of more than 100 people. So, I also joined the search there were a lot of back roads and it will go faster with 5 people. My uncle thought when the tire blew, she may have started walking home and gotten lost and been uncomfortable knocking on a random stranger’s door to get assistance. [Being me, I was certain she’d been abducted by the I-70 serial killer and her body would discovered in another state along the side of the highway in a couple of weeks because I am a pessimist].
The five of us, each in our own car, drove around until nearly midnight looking for Natalie. We checked in with her boyfriend a few times and he hadn’t heard from her and she hadn’t shown up. He was okay with looking after Thomas for the night though (he and Natalie were living buying property and had built a house together at the time, so it was Thomas’s home). We regrouped at my house at midnight. We had not found a trace of Natalie. Damn! I didn’t sleep much that night. The following morning, both my parents stayed home from work and I stayed home from school. My aunt and uncle filed a missing person’s report. It was late spring, so if she’d spent the night outdoors, she would have been fine (not froze to death) and she had camping and survivalist experience, she had also been a Marine, until she got pregnant with Thomas. I felt her experience as a Marine made the theory she’d gotten lost silly, but maybe not. Now we had the sheriff’s department helping look for her. Another day passed with nothing. We were now searching off road, because maybe she’d decided to take a shortcut through a field or wooded area and gotten hurt.
Then another day. On the evening of Day 4 of her being missing, I had to take my sister to the ER because the stress had triggered a migraine and anxiety attack; Natalie was her Beth. My sister was taken to the back and I waited in the ER waiting room. There was just myself and one other woman in the waiting room and the news was on and the top story was Natalie’s disappearance. Reporters had interviewed my aunt, my uncle, and Natalie’s boyfriend. The woman piped up the end of the story “I bet the boyfriend killed her and they just haven’t found her body yet.” I find that unlikely, Natalie’s my cousin and I introduced her to her boyfriend (he was a relative of a friend).I told the woman in a flat voice. She looked like she’d just swallowed a whole platoon of roaches and apologized. It was a thoughtless comment. But I understood the sentiment; usually when someone disappears it’s because their spouse or someone else they know did something to them. I was starting to feel pretty sure Natalie was dead myself and we just hadn’t found the body, but I didn’t believe the boyfriend was involved, not just because I’d introduced them, but because I knew him and he didn’t have a propensity for violence… sure I could be wrong, but he was sappy and I was sure if he did something to her, he would have immediately confessed because he couldn’t live with it… that was just the kind of person he was.
Day five my aunt and uncle began coordinating searches without the assistance of the sheriff’s department. They contacted things like EquuSearch and looked into hiring a helicopter to search from the air and then one of my cousin’s offered to hire the helicopter instead and then that fell through. It was a long five days. I had returned to school by then and my parents back to work. Five days slowly became ten and then fifteen and then a month. Nothing had been found… a big fat nothing. She had literally disappeared from the face of the Earth.
At the 1 year anniversary, I realized having a family member missing was worse than having them die in a car accident. I know it doesn’t sound like it should be worse, but it is… because you just don’t know. It’s been a year, is she dead at the bottom of a well that she fell into because she didn’t know it was there? Had someone abducted and murdered her and managed to hide her body well enough that she hasn’t been discovered yet? Or has she been discovered, but somewhere far enough away that she’s stuck in a morgue with a Jane Doe label on her? I could think of all sorts of things that could have happened to her. Thomas was placed in the custody of his grandparents (my aunt and uncle). The boyfriend was investigated, but nothing came of it because as I said before, he if had killed her intentionally or by accident he would have cracked the first time my uncle spoke to him.
Life had to continue moving forward for everyone. My aunt and uncle hired a private investigator. Then they replaced that private investigator with a different one, because the first one was costing money, but not providing results of any kind. It was almost the 2nd anniversary by this time and the second investigator had a result. Well, sort of had a result. He had found a truck driver that thought he picked up Natalie hitchhiking the day she disappeared from I-70… 5 miles from where her car was found. So she was probably alive… What the actual fuck?! I was glad she was probably not dead, but it brought up a lot of questions for me. Why had she abandoned Thomas? Why had she decided to just up and walk out on her life? I knew her relationship with my aunt and uncle was occasionally difficult, but that’s all familial relationships, I loved both my parents very much, but on at least one occasion my father and I nearly came to blows – no let me rephrase that, I nearly punched my father for being an asshole, my father wouldn’t even discipline me when I was growing up because I was a girl, and due to my gender, it was my mother’s job to discipline me – so yes Natalie and her parents didn’t always see eye to eye, but that wasn’t reason enough for her to just leave.
In 2010, my aunt passed away from N1H1 (Swine Flu). Shortly after that my uncle showed up one day at my house. My parents had separated again and I was going to college and living with my mom and helping her raise my own 2 nephews at that point. Anyway, my uncle showed up and he looked both angry and sad. I honestly thought it was about the loss of my aunt. It wasn’t my aunt, he’d gotten a call from a Sheriff’s Department in Georgia. They’d responded to a disturbance the previous night and taken the names of everyone there, when they were running them through the computer the next day searching for outstanding warrants, a missing person’s notice had popped up on one of them… Natalie. She was alive! She had been found! Now, since she was an adult, it was up to her whether to contact my uncle or not, but the Sheriff’s Department was required to notify the Sheriff’s Department where she went missing as well as the contact person listed – my aunt and uncle – to let them know the Georgia Sheriff’s Department had made contact.
It took a few months, but Natalie did eventually call her dad and reunite with the family. She had bipolar disorder as well as a TBI and when her tire blew she had a psychotic break from reality and disappeared. This story sounds like it has a happy ending, but really… it just has a less than tragic ending, not a happy one. Thomas had to deal with the trauma of being abandoned by his mother. My aunt died before Natalie returned. Her disappearance nearly broke my aunt and uncle; physically, emotionally, and financially. Natalie had a daughter who was living with her father during all this and after her disappearance my aunt and uncle rarely got to see their granddaughter. But she was alive.
I tell this story because unless you’ve lived through the turmoil and horror of having a loved one disappear, you can’t imagine how awful it is. However, this story was triggered by a recent event. I found out on New Year’s Day that my niece’s mother hasn’t been seen or heard from since December 27, 2021. And just like Natalie, her mother’s car was found on the side of the road. The difference is cell phones are prevalent these days, hers was found dead in her car. It’s hard not to think the worst, but my family has some experience with this and a not as tragic outcome as usual. I am less pessimistic about this disappearance, simply because I know sometimes people disappear voluntarily. Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing the missing person’s information on my blog. I would appreciate it if people would share it on social media.