Chapter 1: Face the Dark — 1 — Face the Dark
January 1, 2019
Another year, another space in our earthly measure of time. I’m a year older, but I’m also a day further from my life with my daughter. I am always aware of her spiritual presence; our connection. I will never stop missing my little girl. I will never touch another child who is becoming and not have that painful muscle memory. There’s the realization that the other children will grow up, and my baby will not. I want to be out in the community, to meet people. I want to keep stretching outside my comfort zone, my concept of what’s possible. I care less about my professional work, and more about what I see and hear and share. The impact I can make on the world. I pray that God will lead me and I will follow. I will listen and look for the signs of where I am supposed to go, and how my work and my creativity can move mountains.
I was inspired to pursue journalism because representation was important to me, and I wanted to impact how the images of people who looked like me were portrayed. My first job out of journalism school was as a junior producer on the nighttime crime show America’s Most Wanted (AMW). I walked through the vestiges of murders, the FBI’s most-wanted criminals, and other tragedies. It was a job I was proud to have. A job that taught me more than I’d ever expected to learn as a journalist. It was also work that had life-or-death implications. In this first job, my charge was to help connect images frozen in yearbooks and holiday cards with real, live breathing children once again. To help people navigate impossible losses and somehow regain an impossible hope and happy ending. As a young but compassionate television producer, I was thrust into the worst possible nightmares of these families’ lives over and over again. The names and photos used for missing child alerts changed, but the fear and impossibility of the crimes remained the same.
It never failed. With voices shaking and bodies shell-shocked with horror and grief, family, neighbors, and friends would all say those four words over and over again.
“This doesn’t happen here.”
Wherever the “here” was, whatever the “this” was, from natural disasters to evil man-made ones, the shock was always palpable. And I was tasked to sit with it all.
The job was hard, but meaningful. I made $19,000 a year, but that didn’t matter to me—I had benefits and a stage on which to learn my craft. I learned the ins and outs of television production. I learned how to get things done. I also learned what it meant to sit with violence. I read police reports and looked at crime scene photos. I endured the crude jokes of law enforcement officials about the perps and the victims. These jokes, I came to understand, were a way to stay sane and keep their food down after seeing crimes that would have been too horrific for TV. I learned how to produce content that touched viewers and illustrated the victorious nature of the human spirit over devastating circumstances.
By the time I was twenty-three, I had been promoted to the role of missing child coordinator and was responsible for all of the missing children stories on the show. I often found myself behind closed doors with families while TV crews were set up outside hoping to get an interview or a statement. Because the host, John Walsh, had started his work after his own son was kidnapped and murdered, victims’ families would feel an instant connection with us when we walked in the door. As a result, my role evolved into being part television producer, part advisor/counselor, and part victim/survivor advocate.
No matter the season, my days would look like this:
A child would go missing. I would get paged and find a pay phone (hey, it was the nineties!). After gathering the details from our 1-800 hotline, I’d partner with the cops on next steps. I’d then get a public service announcement on all of the local Fox affiliate stations around the country. We knew that after a child went missing, we usually only had hours—literally—that would determine whether or not they would be found alive. Then I would fly to sit with the victim’s family. Over and over again, this was my job. The families were different. The towns were different. The stories were often the same.
My colleagues at AMW, as well as the other places I’ve worked in media, became my tribe. There is a kindred spirit among those of us who rush toward the fire; those of us who want to try to record history. We understood what it meant to have our pagers go off or to have the phone ring and know that, regardless of what we were doing, we had to jump into action. There were always others in the trenches, sweating, crying, trying to stay awake, and making sure that we could do whatever we could to get information out to people.
I loved it. I was an adrenaline junkie, and in a way, I think that’s also what made me a fun and effective mommy and class mom. I knew how to juggle it all. I was always trying to figure out where the story was, how to make it understandable and relatable, and always, always looking for those narratives that highlighted the human spirit.
One of the things I’ll never forget happened early in my career at America’s Most Wanted. There were very rarely happy endings, as you can imagine. But in 1992, when I was twenty-two years old, just a year out of school, we did a missing child story on a little girl named Genny May Krohn. Genny was from Milton, Florida, and as soon as we were contacted about her kidnapping, we got a public service announcement on all the Fox stations. In less than a few days, because of all of the national attention around her abduction, her kidnapper started to get scared. He actually told her that she had been on America’s Most Wanted and bought her a bike at a pawnshop. He then left her at a convenience store near her home.
Getting the call that Genny was alive is still very hard to describe. I wasn’t a mother yet, but it moved me. I remember sitting in the edit room overnight working on the piece. John Walsh flew down to Florida, and he sat down on the grass with little Genny who, with her pageboy haircut and pink T-shirt, seemed oblivious to the miracle she was. She told him that when she got on the bike to leave, her abductor told her that he had a hit man and that if she looked back or told anyone, the hit man would come after her. And she very nonchalantly and sweetly and innocently shrugged her shoulders and said, “If someone says there’s a hit man and it’s the first time you’ve been kidnapped, you believe them.”
Genny got to come home. There were people who sprang into action, as there always are in these cases. Strangers, in addition to family, friends, and loved ones, were looking for this little girl. America was looking for this little girl, and America found her. Volunteers waited alongside her parents on her neighborhood street for her to come home with the police after she’d given them the information she had on her abductor.
Police sirens wailed down the road as family, friends, and strangers stood with their hands clasped, holding their breath. She got a hug from a detective as she stepped out of the police car holding her own missing child poster, very much as if she was coming home from the carnival with a balloon. Her parents embraced her. I watched those images over and over and over as we cut the tapes in the edit room. There was nothing that gave me joy in that stint of my career like little Genny May Krohn getting to come home and feeling that, in some way, the work I was doing—the overnight shifts, the rushing away from friends to come into work—was all worth it. And those friends have stuck with me all of these years. And like colleagues from other places in my life, when everything went away, they showed up again.
Unfortunately, there weren’t very many Hollywood endings for most of those AMW stories. I once spent several weeks in Petaluma, California, home of the movie American Graffiti. By all accounts, it was the definition of small-town America. I was the first person on the scene for the Polly Klaas abduction. I still see her smiling face today as I remember the hundreds of pictures and videos that flashed across the editing room screens as we put these stories together. The same face that graced the cover of People magazine while the entire country watched. I would look at her, looking innocently at a camera, not knowing her smile would one day become a memorial.
There was a candle lit in the Klaas family’s front window the entire time she was missing. That candle burned while people raised money, wore ribbons, made pins with her face on them, and combed every inch of terrain possible looking for signs. One evening I went to the house to see the family, and it had happened. The search was over. The candle was out.
The people I met over the course of my years at AMW overcame odds that seemed insurmountable. And yet, I learned that somehow people survive. They often did so in very simple ways. They managed to crack a weak joke from time to time. I learned that levity was critical, wherever we could find it. They might hang a Christmas ornament with their baby’s picture pasted inside. They got out of bed, combed their hair, and took a shower. People mustered up the energy to stand in front of a television camera, in front of a jury, in front of their families. I was moved and inspired by their bravery. If there is a single, most profound thing I learned during those years it is that the human spirit wants to thrive. Like our physical bodies, it craves strength. It desires to be stretched and moved. We are designed to grow our physical, emotional, and spiritual muscles so that we can carry the superhuman weight that life sometimes gives us.
I was always fascinated by the people who supported these families. The neighbors and friends. The coworkers and church members. No matter how rich or poor, or their ethnic background, a collective village of determination rallied around these people. When “it” happened, they came. And they weren’t always close friends and family members. I was always surprised by who showed up. I learned that people want to help one another—that’s it. There are people who will cry with you, fight for you, and cook for you—give you whatever you need. Somehow people take the few things not ravaged by a tornado or a hurricane or a fire and speak of gratitude. Somehow people offer encouragement to one another and go out of their way to silently and anonymously do what they can. These people in the stories I covered for AMW or later at The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America were ordinary people who in extraordinary circumstances had to reach deep for the best of themselves. They had to find their ground and their God. They somehow instinctively knew that if they didn’t, they would become unhinged and float away. I watched them as they allowed others to take care of them in every way possible. I watched as they created boundaries. I watched as they embarked on various forms of self-care even if it wasn’t natural for them. They somehow went to work, drove cars, asked questions, and took care of children. They fought like hell to survive even when they didn’t want to.
Meanwhile, my life was shaping up to look exactly as I had dreamed.
Or so I thought. It would take more than twenty years before I’d find myself walking into the familiar sights and sounds of another crime scene. Twenty-plus more years before I too would be thinking, “This doesn’t happen here.”
HANK AND I always relished telling the story of our romance: how we first met when he served as my brother’s resident assistant at the University of Connecticut, the instant attraction we felt whenever we saw each other. Just looking at him sent my stomach into full-out somersaults. He was attractive beyond his looks. Always the life of the party, he was a man with a great sense of humor and manners. My mother once asked if he was from the South because he was so polite. This, despite his strong Bronx accent.
I used to jokingly say that our story was the Black When Harry Met Sally. We didn’t begin our romantic relationship immediately. He was still in school in Connecticut and I was working in Washington, DC. But we kept in touch over the years as friends, sharing our lives and relationship woes. A decade later, when I moved to New York, we connected and started dating.
There was a security in marrying Hank. Not because he was my soul mate, a concept I’m not sure I ever fully embraced. It was more about having a friend and partner. I’d grown up in a loving home with stories of my parents’ friendship and romance. That was my norm. Hank and I fell in love because of our mutual love for hip-hop and writing and reading great poetry and literature, and our desire to build a family. We were friends who shared with each other our hopes and dreams. That seemed like enough at the time. And because we met in the early days of my career, when I was making close to minimum wage, my career trajectory did not seem as intimidating to him as it did to other men I’d dated.
Hank and I got married September 29, 2007. We were married at the historic Riverside Church in upper Manhattan. It was a fairy tale come to life. Because I handled bridal segments at Good Morning America, I had incredible relationships with the most exclusive wedding vendors—including the owners of the now-famous Kleinfeld store. When I was trying on gowns, there was even talk of a reality show. The idea had just been pitched and the concept was still in its infancy. Of course, Say Yes to the Dress has become a classic since then.
My wedding day, like most major life events, had a duality. I was excited to begin my new life. The TV producer in me had planned an incredible wedding. I had unbelievable support and love from family and friends. However, my mother wasn’t there. She’d passed away thirteen years earlier, and it was still hard to imagine going through that day without her. Her death became a glaring reminder of the loss that undergirded every major decision of my life. Having to tell associates and wedding vendors that she was gone and would not be able to provide any input devastated me on a daily basis.
On the morning of my wedding, I asked my father and brother to have breakfast with me in my hotel room. I wanted my original family minus the fourth leg of our family chair near me. Their love would stabilize me. Calm my racing heart and mind. I’ll never forget that perfect crisp, blue September morning. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. I could not have asked for a better day. Despite the typical wedding jitters, the ceremony was beautiful and was followed by an amazing honeymoon in Italy.
It is complicated and heartbreaking now to look back at those photos. I cannot deny that the day happened. I cannot deny that all of it was real. I cannot deny that the joy on the faces was real. I can’t even deny that the love was real. But what I do know is that he is no longer real to me. As part of my own grieving process, friends and loved ones have helped me sift through those photos and carefully cut him out in order to preserve other friends and family in the pictures.
Hank was charming and charismatic like my dad, but the comparison ends there. Hank always had anger issues, but it wasn’t until our relationship evolved into a romantic one that I saw the first glimpses of that. I worried about many things in our relationship. I worried about him finding a steady career path—something that was a pervasive struggle for the length of our marriage. It wasn’t until years later, during our divorce proceedings, that my physical safety ever crossed my mind. And even then, the one thing I thought I knew for sure was that he would never do anything to hurt our baby. In my mind, it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.
It couldn’t happen here.
When I was pregnant, we mutually decided that we would wait until the baby was born to find out its sex. Because we didn’t want to refer to the baby as it, we called Gabrielle “Baby Bear” before she was born. We would jokingly call each other Mama Bear and Papa Bear during that time as well.
Gabrielle was due on August 3, 2009. Because of my high-risk pregnancy at the age of thirty-nine, I was told the doctors might induce labor a few days early. I used every old wives’ tale in the book to try to induce it before they had to. I was literally swimming the day before Gabrielle was born. On August 1, the contractions began. We followed them at home, nervous and excited, and then, in the middle of the night, we headed to the hospital. With no anesthesia, I gave birth to Gabrielle on August 2 at 9:59 p.m. She was eight pounds, two ounces. My miracle baby was here. She was a dream come true.
Like most little girls, Gabrielle loved her dad. Between dancing with him on Saturday mornings, playing video games, and watching our favorite family shows, they had a bond. Planning her birthday was such a thing for us. Hank loved it. Despite the deep fault lines I grew to see in his character as his insecurities began to reveal themselves, the safety and well-being of our daughter was never a concern.
On the outside, our lives were a model of the American dream. Many women ponder if they can have it all—the career, the man, the children. From the outside, I had it. On the inside, though, there were cracks in the foundation of what we were building. Mostly from Hank’s inability to stabilize himself in a career path. In 2012, I made a few phone calls and he began working on the Obama reelection campaign. I was so proud of him. I was also relieved that he seemingly had found his place in the sun. When we later found out that we would be able to attend two of the inaugural balls, it was an amazing dream come true. My heart swelled with pride. We took tons of pictures on that cold evening. It was one of those brag moments to post on social media. I kept treasures and souvenirs from the events for Gabrielle. It was historic, and when she was older, I wanted her to know that her parents were part of this great moment.
AS A JOURNALIST, I was always drawn to the stories of resilience. Stories that highlighted the triumph of the human spirit over all sorts of adversity, from school shootings to hurricanes. These stories taught me that even in the darkest moments, there’s still beauty in the ashes. This is what I try to remember on a daily basis now.
It’s hard to know in this moment just how strong you are, how strong you’ve been, how strong you will continue to be. It’s a little like The Wizard of Oz in that “Dorothy, you had it in you all along” kind of way. Hope is there. Strength is there. I remember sharing with my therapist recently how shocked I was that I still had hope. When I sat in the abject darkness, reading through my early journals, I was surprised to see myself trying to find some hope, in spite of where I was. Even if you’re seeing nothing but darkness, know there is still light emanating from you that others are capturing. And while it may not be clear to you right now, you’ll see it too, someday.
When I sat at the table with Polly Klaas’s mom, I understood this at only a superficial level. I still wondered, How is she talking to me? How is she even dressed? How is she asking me smart questions? It’s only now, at a more visceral level, that I understand. In that moment, it is as if an animated version of yourself appears. The avatar version of you goes out into the world. Propped up by necessity. This is the version of you that talks to police. The one that picks a dress for the funeral. While your heart and your guts stay behind collapsed in a puddle on the floor. But you do it, and the simple act of getting through it is your proof that there is steel in your veins that will keep you going.
Even in the dark, when it feels like you’re stumbling, know that you’re still moving. Know that there are people who can see your progress. You may not feel it, but you’re developing muscles, faith and resiliency muscles. Even if the victory of the day is you took a shower. Or, frankly, the victory of the day is that you didn’t take a shower because you really needed to stay in bed under the covers all day. You are demonstrating strength even if it doesn’t feel like it.
People will say things to you like “I can’t imagine,” and they are right. But what I also know for sure is that you will always find what you need to get you where you need to go. God, the universe, nature—whatever works for you—will bring people and experiences in from the most unexpected places. It might be a coworker who has never crossed the threshold of your house but ends up bringing you food every Friday. It might be the neighbor you’ve only said “hi” or “bye” to over the years who starts to cut your grass every week. The hard truth is that it may not be the people closest to you who become your true strength village. It may be the people who have their own experiences with grief and have a backpack of supplies they can bring you. They are equipped in ways that your bestie may not be. And that’s okay. Everyone has a different capacity.
Pay attention to the people who show up for you during this season. Have the humility and vulnerability to ask for what you need. They may not be able to imagine, there may not be words, but there is dinner. There is “Can you make this phone call for me? Can you run interference here?” When something unimaginable happens, people are so grateful to be able to do anything. It’s a gift to give them a way to share your load and alleviate your pain. For those of us who spend most of our lives trying to be Superwoman and taking care of others—the ability to not only sit in your pain and discomfort but have the courage to invite other people to sit in it with you is powerful.
There were a lot of moms who had been in my house, ate at my table, and whose children had been a part of my life. But they couldn’t all hold this level of pain. Everybody’s capacity is different, and I don’t hold any animosity against them. Not everyone has the emotional or psychological capacity to hold that level of trauma in someone else’s grief. But there were others who showed up, ready to dive in.
Cindy is a mom from Gabrielle’s school who I would see in passing every so often. We were class moms together, but we didn’t know each other especially well. And yet, she was there for me when everything happened. Sometimes it was a last-minute invite for a drink or happy hour. Other times it was a chat to share her own mothering challenges with me, but first asking if I was “okay” to have these conversations. Sometimes it was running interference or mere comic relief. Gabrielle attended an elementary school called Ward, and we would joke that Cindy was the “Ward Warden” who could help push away any politics or drama so we could focus on honoring my daughter.
People see my armor and are astonished and hope-filled by my resilience. It’s only because they don’t understand that being armored does not mean you’re immune to pain or fear. It doesn’t mean you are immune to questioning yourself and this world. Sometimes when the unexpected or unimaginable happens it is hard to reconcile your reality now with your reality before. How could I have been healthy last week and have a fatal diagnosis today? How could my spouse promise to love me forever and now walk out the door? How could I go from being financially healthy to dire straits? No, things are not always black and white. Life is not linear. Yet becomes the turning point between past chapters and a future still to be written. It doesn’t say “if this was true in your before then it will also be true in your after.” Yet says “what once was true remains in that past space, yet something else is true now.”
It is normal to have a sense of denial or disbelief at our unexpected life circumstances. Whether, like me, your entire life changes in an instant, or whether you slowly and incredulously watch it morph before your eyes. Give yourself the grace to be angry, to question, to be shocked. But then you must pivot. You must admit what is true and then mourn what once was, before you can even begin to turn your eyes to a new reality. It’s critical to eventually be able to say to yourself, Things are different now. I have to make different choices now. My reality changed and I have a new reality now. I may not like it, and it may not be fair. It may not be what I ever would have wanted or imagined, yet I am here now. Grappling with the duality of what once was and what is will be one of the first steps to slowly moving toward what may be possible in the future.
Perhaps what you are facing has made you question your faith. Or maybe you left an organized religion behind years ago with disappointment and disillusionment. If you once believed in a higher power or a loving universe… if you are tethered to beliefs that suggest there is more in the world than what we see… it is okay to be angry. It is okay to question your God or your universe. Just know that what you hold deep in your bones and your muscle memory will quietly and patiently wait for you to return.
Every day that hope feels just beyond my reach, grief requires me to keep grasping for new hope. You also must continue to grasp. I believe in having a defiant faith. A faith that refuses to bend or break, despite the ways it is tested. A faith in a God or higher power and a higher purpose. A faith that says even though I don’t know what is happening or why it is happening, I know that this “insurance policy” of confidence and emotional fortitude still exists. It has nothing to do with me. It is God. It is His strength and my surrender that let me free-fall and expect safe landings.
Like an aerialist, as I go from one trapeze bar to the next, there is a split second where I’m suspended in air with no safety net below. At that moment, I’m afraid. Yet I continue to reach out for the swinging bar. I somehow know that I will be met at this yet intersection with hope.
While I was writing this book, I saw a video from a horrific accident in Lebanon. A fireworks factory exploded and killed at least a hundred people, injuring over three thousand. The mushroom clouds that filled my television screen looked like something out of a nuclear war. This particular news segment featured a woman who was in labor when the explosion happened. You saw her in the delivery room and then suddenly the lights went out. You could hear the explosion and realize that everything had been shaken to the core.
Then, in the dark, cell phones were pulled out. People were putting light where there was darkness. They were literally giving light to birth.
These moments remind me of the best of the human spirit. I was reminded that even in our darkest moments the human spirit will fight for a pregnant moment of possibility. In the end, we are truly all in it together. Wherever one shines a light, the path lights up for all. We share the same goals and fears and desire to be loved. We share the fear of loss. And when we’re called to task, we will fight like hell for life wherever it springs up. Hope is like the little sprig of miraculous green that shows up between the cracks in the concrete. That is where faith lives. That is where hope happens.