Vacation on Captiva Island in Florida circa 2003. My sister had rented a beautiful house for all of us – Mom, Frank, Me, my 3 girls (ages 4,6,8), her (pregnant with Quinn), Doug and her son Riley (also age 6). It was a fantastic place – an open kitchen where Doug could work his culinary magic, a pool, a large screened in dining area and a rooftop deck. Even with 4 kids there, we were relaxed (which was quite a feat for a pregnant lawyer mom and solo-practice physician mom).
We had been there a couple days and Mom and I enjoyed walking on the beach in the mornings before the heat and sandcastles. As always, since I was a little girl, we walked the beach together in silence searching for shells. We had quite a collection from years gone by – conchs, welks, olives, murex and scallops were my favorites. This morning the beach was uncharacteristically devoid of the sea jewels. After 40 minutes or so of our unfruitful quest I prayed silently – “God, I really want to find a beautiful shell this morning!” I had not walked another 20 yards when my big toe bumped into a partially buried something. I stopped, wriggled my toe around the bump and dug up a large, fully in tact conch shell! I couldn’t believe it! I remember thinking at the time that that was the first time I ever remembered a prayer answered so concretely so immediately! I showed Mom and shared my little story. Satisfied with our amazing find (and our amazing God) we started back to the house chatting and planning how we would accomplish nothing the rest of the day.
As we walked up the sandy path to our house we saw Doug approaching in the golf cart with kids loaded in the back. As he got closer I stopped and said to Mom, “I wonder where Noni is?” since the other 3 kids- Riley, Bridget and Natalie were all in the golf cart. Doug pulled up next to us at the back door of our house and stopped. I asked, “Where’s Noni?” He answered, “I don’t know. She ran off and we couldn’t find her.”
My heart squeezed and my mind rushed loudly blank with the panic all parents know when they can’t find a kid. It was quickly ascertained that Doug had taken all the kids on a hike on some trails inland. Noni had been quite adventurous and annoyed that the little kids were moving too slow. Several times Doug had told her to stay with the group. The last time she had run down a path out of Doug’s sight and ignored his order to come back. As he and the other kids rounded a corner they came to a fork in the path. He called to her but no answer and he didn’t know which path she had taken. He had spent 15 minutes going down both paths with the 3 other kids calling for her but she was gone. He rushed back to the house to drop the others off (so as not to lose more kids) and to gather adults to help search for my oldest daughter, Winona Jayne.
Winona is a Sioux Indian name that means “first-born daughter.” We call her Noni and she is a treasure to everyone who meets her. I was adopted as a baby and grew up in a loving home with my parents, Linda and Tom and my sister, Becky. I had a very good childhood with only the usual family problems and challenges and bumps in the road. But when Winona was born she was the first person in the world I had ever met to whom I was genetically related. I cannot describe the secret depth of longing I never knew I possessed until the moment I held Winona Jayne in my arms.
I practically knocked Doug out of the golf cart, threw my shell bucket on the ground and took off down the road with my mother barely in the passenger seat. We sped (as fast as a stupid golf cart can go) down all the roads (no cars are allowed on Captiva, just golf carts and bikes). We stopped at the resort gift shop where you could buy sodas and candy – no one had seen her. We asked every single person we passed if they had seen a little girl with brown hair and big brown eyes in a sparkly tank top and shorts. No one had seen her but almost everyone joined the search – walking or riding bikes down the paths and calling her name. We came to the path where Doug had taken the kids hiking and got off the golf cart. My mom went one way and I went the other. Still no Noni. We came back to the point in the road and by that time there were multiple people gathered trying to help find my daughter. The police man who was there said we would give it another 15 mintues of searching and then they would call a helicopter to join the search. We split up again.
Moms know this terror – a roaring hurricane of fear, deafening and crushing, squeezing out tears that can’t flow freely because every single molecule of energy is being used to search. I stopped walking and started running. I called Noni’s name without ceasing. I ran through sand, pushed back branches of scrubby short bushes, zigzagged across rocky outcroppings to peak into any crag I couldn’t fully see. My legs were rubber, my lungs fire and my brain rocketing from hope to despair to unspeakable horror every second.
I finally had to stop as my body would not keep up with my panic any longer. I crumpled down on the beach alone, still unable to cry but my emotions lurching awkwardly out of my body in sobs. I realized I had been praying the entire time, “God please let me find her, please let me find her, please let me find her!” At this moment of my physical collapse I dug my hands into the sand and prayed it out loud, “God please don’t let anything happen to Noni – please let me find her!!!”
He spoke to me – the quiet still voice in the storm could be no other voice than His. “Susan – do you remember your walk this morning and the prayer I answered?” In that moment I knew. My breathing relaxed, my brain slowed down and the tears flowed. I walked back to the road and the golf cart. When I got there one of the guys on a bike who had helped us search was telling my mom that someone had found Noni and taken her to the resort gift shop. We zipped as fast as the stupid golf cart would go to the gift shop and there she was – in her sparkly tank top and shorts, ponytails askance, smiling with a popcicle next to the garbage man who had found her.