The long flight home landed well after dark.
I had been in Manhattan as part of a political delegation from the Western states, representing a civil rights organization at a public event before the United Nations.
It had gone well, and the tumult of the past two days was still fresh in my mind as I collected my belongings from the baggage claim and headed outside to passenger pickup.
There was no ride waiting for me as expected. My wife was nowhere to be seen.
I called home. There was no answer. I kept dialing without result. There was only the ringing of the line, over and over.
Not even the answering machine picked up.
Annoyed, I called a friend. She agreed to come collect me and drive me home.
During the ride I expressed my frustration. It was irritating, but not unfamiliar, that a commitment was unfulfilled or a responsibility forgotten by my wife. My friend was circumspect, aware of the tension that was present in my marriage.
We arrived at the apartment complex just before midnight. As I walked from the car with my bag I let out a breath and purposefully relaxed. My young son was inside, and he was a bright and beloved part of my life despite all of the dissonance and tension between his mother and I.
The first sign that something was gravely wrong was the dogs.
They barked and whined at the sight of me, standing on their hind legs and trying to reach me from the below-ground concrete patio.
I could immediately smell the dog waste and spilled food, and saw the tipped over water dishes. They had knocked it over and tracked through all of it.
I realized instantly that they had been penned out there for several days.
I went down the stairs, my friend behind me, and unlocked and opened the door. Inside the apartment was dark. I saw that things were missing, furniture in disarray, pictures gone.
It was clear there was no one there. I let the dogs in and they were nearly frantic with excitement and relief. The water I quickly gave them was lapped furiously without pause as I walked down the cluttered hallway to my son’s bedroom.
It was empty. His bed was there, and his car seat, but no little boy who would run to me with the thumping delighted steps of an excited toddler.
I walked back to the living room and spoke shortly to my friend. Her eyes were wide and her face pale.
“He’s gone,” I said.
She handed me the note that had been left on the kitchen counter.
It was full of disjointed, odd, hastily scrawled words. Informing me that the marriage was over, that she was not coming back, that I was not to try to find her. No word of where she had gone, nothing about our child’s well-being.
“Let’s let the dogs out,” I said.
We walked outside under the stars that glimmered in the thin air and I lit a cigarette, watching the two dogs run and sniff in the field. My brain was spinning and my heart was aching; there was no denying that massive life changes were underway that I had to accept, and handle with competence.
But first I had to find my son.
“Take me to the police station,” I said.
Law enforcement was sympathetic but helpless. No crime had been committed, for there was no order of custody or divorce in process to prevent it. That would soon be remedied.
The judge was angry but equally helpless up front. The first emergency custody hearing was held within days. When my attorney asked what I thought would be an appropriate division of parenting time, I had barely started to respond before the brooding magistrate cut me off with a wave.
He curtly announced, “She is not to have visitation with this child until she has appeared in this courtroom and explained herself to me.”
But first I had to discover her whereabouts.
Any order of the judge was worthless until she was located and served.
I had to find my son.
The United States is a big place, and when you and your son are dual citizens and your wife has a foreign passport, the potential geographic range of a kidnapped child expands quickly.
It was weeks before I was able to rule out a disappearance overseas.
In the interim I moved in with a neighbor, a man who I had met only a few times in the communal park as he walked his own dog. An older gentleman of good humor and charismatic personality, he had traded just a few words with me before this. But he was quick to see that there was something wrong, and there was a reassuring bond of mutual interest when I told him what was taking place.
He’d been through a similar situation and offered his home as a place to stay. The apartment where my marriage died was too painful of a place to rest, too silent and lonely in the middle of the night when I would lie awake in anguished worry for my three-year-old son and his future.
It was after a month of loss and agony that he sat next to me one afternoon as I laid there on his couch in absolute misery and defeat, and spoke to me the words that I never forgot.
“You need to hear this,” he said.
“It is going to get worse before it gets better.”
I could feel my mouth turn down, knowing he spoke the truth.
“It is not going to get better for a long time.”
He waited, looking at me, ensuring that his words were fully heard.
There was a glint in his eyes as he delivered the last of his advice:
“It is going to get better.”
Somehow that gave me the strength to endure.
I knew truth when I heard it.
I felt that truth, and the grave experience behind those words; and knowing that there was not a way around it, I decided then and there to endure the unendurable, and push through.
Within a week I had moved to a place in the mountains, preparing a room for my child.
Within a fortnight my hired bounty hunter was on the trail, searching for my stolen son.
Six weeks after that terrible night of shock and loss my child ran at last across the courtroom lobby into my arms. I vividly remember hoisting him up and turning away from the audience of court officers and attorneys and special advocates and taking several quick steps away as tears poured out of my eyes.
My little son held my face in his hands, and his own was full of happy awe as he brushed the tears away and hugged me tightly, the smile on his face one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen.
He never left my custody again.
Today he is a young man, entered into his own adult life, and that day is probably long since vanished from his memory.
But I will never forget it, nor the words that my friend spoke directly to the crushed and bleeding heart of a man who had lost his only child, perhaps forever, and lay there in the collapse of emotional defeat.
I have shared those words with other men, in moments when they needed to hear the power of them.
They are true, and they are resonant, and they are real:
It will get worse before it gets better.
It will not get better for a long time.
It will get better.
Remember that, in the darkest hour.
It will get better, and you will endure.
This excerpt from The Nine Laws must be taken to heart.
Endurance is there, when all seems impossible.
The immovable spirit is yours if you choose it.
Much love, honor, and respect,