Aliayah Lunsford: A different kind of search

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Yesterday, as my feet sunk in marshy mud and found myself tramping through briar brambles taller than I am, looking for Aliayah Lunsford, I realized it was only the third time I’ve searched for a person who was truly missing.
The first time was in 1986 or 87, when my son was still in diapers and not quite two-years-old. As a mother, I know exactly how it feels to discover a child–and not just any child, but YOUR child–is missing. That’s because I am the person who made that discovery.
We were living in my childhood home at the time, which sat about three feet from a creek that rose and ran fast and swift in places during the springtime. Just on the other side of the creek were three sets of railroad tracks, which then carried several trains by each day, rumbling the windows in our house as they did so.
As a mother, I cannot think of anything that terrified me more than the thought that my child would turn up missing. My first experience, a few years earlier, came inside a J.C. Penny’s store, where I spent about 10 frantic minutes searching for my second daughter–who turned up holding the hand of a neighbor girl who had gone along with us that evening. That daughter was not, however, truly missing.
Aliayah is, and she is just three-years-old. My son was younger than that, and as soon as I realized he had disappeared, I ran throughout our large brick home, yelling and looking and searching frantically. Hoping and praying he was just being an ornery child, hiding under the bed, or behind a door. By the time I realized he wasn’t, I found myself at the creek, screaming–by then–at the top of my lungs.
My screams brought the neighbors running, and they immediately joined my search. Not seeing him anywhere in the neighbors’ yards, or at the water’s edge, I ran toward the bridge over the creek, and couldn’t help but envision him being swept away in the water below. But he was nowhere to be seen. Thank God. It was probably mere seconds, but it seemed like many minutes, that it took my feet to cross the three sets of railroad tracks, and run the length that would allow me to see up and down the tracks, in both directions. No diaper-clad baby boy could be seen.
From there, I broke into a run: up a narrow road to a wider intersection that, while not busy, did carry speeding vehicles past the only official building–the post office–and through our tiny town. I continued praying, and screaming. I can’t remember if Jim Engle, the postmaster, heard my screams, or if I ran inside asking if he had seen my child. All I do remember is the two of us half-walking, half-running, down the road and back toward the tracks, the creek, and the neighbors.
“We should call the police,” he urged.
“I don’t want to bother them just yet. What if he’s not really gone, but is just hiding?” I asked, the fear and my rapid movements simultaneously stealing the breath from my chest.
We had all converged in the backyard seconds later, trying to come up with a plan of attack, and leaning more toward calling the police, when we heard a sound.
A dog’s bark. Coming from the creek. We all ran toward the direction of the barking, which was increasing in intensity. I led the way, running as fast as my legs would carry me. By the time I had stepped into the cold liquid, balancing carefully so as to not fall on the slippery rocks turned tangerine from the coal mines, I could see our family pet.
Then I saw him: a small, nearly nude figure. It was a tow-headed, blue-eyed toddler, slowly moving just as gingerly among the rocks as his mother. Unlike me, he was smiling. Unlike the woman who now had, not tears of terror threatening to fall from her eyes, but a trail of teardrops running down both cheeks. Tears of gratitude and happiness that my child was safe and sound, being led back to us by–of all things–a dog.
The last time I joined a search crew was more than 20 years ago, and we were on rubber rafts at Bull’s Run, searching for three missing Preston County men. I was working that day, covering the ongoing story of those local adults who had, one at a time, gone missing.
Yesterday was the first time I joined a search as a volunteer. It’s different when you do it as a parent, as a mother, and the missing child is yours. It’s also quite different when you do it as part of your profession. I’d always suspected this–ever since May 1, 1994, when I lived not too far from the mountains where Victor Dwight Shoemaker Jr., another little boy disappeared. It seems like the mountains swallowed up “JR,” for–like those three missing men–he was never found, either.
Unlike my son. Thank God!
But unlike Aliayah? That was our prayer, yesterday, that we would find her–our little group of a dozen volunteers that was, not unexpectedly, composed of many mothers. I am sure it remains the prayer of all the volunteers who continue their search for Aliayah today.
Editor’s note: If you are a parent or an educator, or just want to know what all the fuss is about, you can read a few pages of my memoir, which was banned last week at a California high school, online at Amazon. Sister of Silence, which is being used by at least one Bay Area therapist, to help her patients work on healing from abuse, is available in paperback or as an e-book. You can buy it here: Nellie Bly Books


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