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I set the supper table for five, as usual. But Mark wasn't home, so we waited. A few minutes passed before I finally called my husband and my other two sons. As we prayed and began the meal without Mark, I felt the first tinge of apprehension.
His absence at lunch hadn't concerned me. A college sophomore's days are often busy and unpredictable. Besides, he had ridden his new motorcycle to campus that morning and the sunny November election day warmed to a gorgeous afternoon for riding. But it was out of character for Mark to skip supper without leaving a word.
by the time we had finished the meal and I had cleared the table and stuck a plate of leftovers in the oven to stay warm, I couldn't help indulging in a little motherly worry. When I left a few minutes later for an evening sewing class I was thinking to myself, I hope he hasn't gotten hurt on that motorcycle.
I hurried home after class with an anxiety any mother of a teenage motorcyclist could appreciate. "Is he home yet?" I asked as my husband met me at the door. Ralph shook his head and led me to a seat on the couch.
"Mark won't be home tonight," Ralph said. "He left this morning for Florida." Ralph went on to explain that he had talked to a friend who had learned Mark's plans that morning, just before Mark left town on his heavily loaded Honda. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
He's gone. My mind churned over the implications of that thought. Florida? Why? Why didn't he tell us? He has probably turned around by now and is heading home. He could be back anytime now. Of course it's going to be all right-isn't it?
Hours later we went to bed. And there, between my husband's racking sobs and my own prayers for Mark's safety and return, I listened to the stillness of the night. Finally I heard it. The sound of that approaching motorcycle was joyous music to my ears. Close:. Closer. Then no. Just the roar of another cycle passing.
I dozed fitfully through the long darkness, waking often to the sound of continued silence. When the morning sunlight finally broke through the bedroom windows, we rose and went through the motions of a day.
Night fell again. We placed a call to one of Mark's old friends at Georgia Tech. Yes, the friend told us, Mark was there. He had stopped on his way south.
What a relief it was to hear Mark's voice. He wouldn't say much. We were glad to know he wasn't depressed. But we were distressed to learn he was going on with his trip.
When we hung up, the questions again filled my mind. Why wouldn't he explain? What had we done? What had we said? Oh, God, why?
We checked his desk, under pillows and dresser scarves. We sorted through wastebaskets. But we found no note, no answers. Of course, I knew thousands of teenagers leave home unannounced every year. But why an independent nineteen-year-old like Mark? We called the bank; he had only withdrawn a small sum from his savings account. Why did he leave in the middle of a college term? Were there grade problems? Was he in trouble on campus? Dozens of questions had answers of no. But most of our questions had no answers at all.
Time passed. Each new day brought renewed hope and added disappointment. Every morning I waited anxiously for the postman, then flipped quickly through the mail, searching for a card, a word. Days soon added up to weeks. Still nothing. Thanksgiving Day came and went.
One mid-December morning I rifled fruitlessly through the mail. Then, as I opened a credit-card statement, I saw it-Mark's signature where he had bought two dollars worth of gas. Three-and-a-half weeks before, he had been alive in Florida.
When Ralph came home for lunch, we pulled out a map and pinpointed the spot. A carbon copy of a credit-card slip wasn't much. But it was something. And it bolstered our spirits.
Hope soared again a few days later with an early morning phone call. An old family friend reported that his daughter had seen our son near West Palm Beach. Mark had told her he was working in a motel there and asked her not to contact us. But when she had told her father, he had insisted on telling us.
A motel. Near West Palm Beach. Again the news wasn't much. But it was enough. Someone had seen him and actually talked to him. He was okay.
Months before, our family had planned a holiday vacation at my parents' home in Florida. And in questioning Mark's friends we learned he had said something to one of them about taking a bike trip to Florida and meeting his family for Christmas. So we continued with our plans.
I carefully wrapped our presents with more than the usual holiday anticipation. This year Christmas would hold extra meaning for our family; we would all be together again.
Every mile down the interstate brought us closer to that reunion. The why of his leaving didn't seem to matter much anymore. His return would be enough, I told myself. If he could only know that. But we had nowhere to send the message. Oh, God, make him realize how much we love him.
If he was indeed working at a motel during this peak tourist season, we probably couldn't expect him at his grandparents' until Christmas Day. But once we were in Florida we were content to wait a few more days.
When Christmas finally dawned into a beautiful Florida winter day, the family agreed to delay the gift-giving and the turkey meal until late afternoon. We wanted Mark to have plenty of time to cover the two hundred miles that still separated us.
Again we listened for the sound of the bike. We heard nothing, however, but passing cars and the laughter of young children playing in the sun with their brand new toys.
Inside it was quiet. Midafternoon we reluctantly agreed to open our presents. And later, after a tearful Christmas prayer, I tried to force myself to eat a tasteless turkey dinner. When the long, draining day came to an end, a half dozen packages remained unopened beneath the tree.
Three days of heartsick waiting followed. It was time to head for home. But we determined not to leave Florida without one last desperate try at contact. So instead of starting north, we journeyed south and east across the state toward West Palm Beach.
But one stop at a roadside telephone booth dashed most of our hope. West Palm Beach was surrounded with yellow page after yellow page of motels. We didn't even know where to begin.
Excerpted from The Hurting Parent by Margie M. Lewis Gregg Lewis Copyright © 1988 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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