It was a sleepy Saturday morning as I waited outside of my elementary school to be picked up after the third-grade lock in. Late as usual, my mother or my father (I can’t remember which) rolled up in our grey station wagon. I dragged my overnight bag to the car, relieved to be in familiar company. It was one of very few nights of my childhood that I spent without my sisters. We drove away from the school exchanging small talk.
-Did you have fun?
-Yes. (Was it ever okay to say that you DIDN’T have fun?)
-Did you stay up all night?
It wasn’t until we rolled up to the gas station that he or she (I’m leaning more toward my mom) broke the news to me. “Lisa is missing,” my parent explained while searching my face for any sign of distress. I don’t remember what I said in response, but I do remember feeling calm but confused. What did it mean to be missing? Probably that she had walked to the store without her mother’s permission, or stayed too late at a friend’s house. Words like kidnap and murder certainly didn’t enter my mind.
She was four years my senior, and the girl I knew as the pretty and energetic grand-daughter of an elderly couple at my church. We had spent the last year and a half singing in the children’s choir and playing in groups at church functions together. The memory of her that always sticks out in my mind happened one day while all of the children were playing in the church yard. The older kids were giving us younger kids piggy-back rides and swinging us around in circles as laughter exploded through the air. Being a chubby kid, I knew I wasn’t invited to these games. I retreated to the sidelines and watched, knowing that I was too heavy to take part in this sort of fun. Suddenly, Lisa ran to me and grabbed me by both hands swinging me round and round until the entire outdoors swirled into one big spinning blob, and all I could focus on was her smiling face. When she let me go and gave a laugh, I smiled; happy that for that instant somebody in the world saw me as the shy little girl that I was inside.
The thought of a living, breathing person who I had laughed and played with being missing was fathomless to me.
What I wish I had known at the time was that that car ride home was the only peaceful, quiet time that I would have to process the information. The days following her disappearance felt like an eternity in my nine-year-old world. Shortly after her disappearance, my sisters and I sat around the TV with our father watching the news as her picture was broadcast throughout all of the households in the small Indiana town. “Coming up next, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” exclaimed the news caster as we looked on with wide eyes. Once her story was over, we walked away from the television with a weird sense of excitement. Seeing someone we knew on the news felt like being friends with a celebrity. Our father sensed this, and scolded us saying that this “wasn’t a joke, it was serious.” He was so right, but I still didn’t understand.
My mother joined a team of church, community, and family members in searching for Lisa over the next several days. They swept through the corn fields, and even looked in garbage dumpsters (a detail that made me physically sick upon learning it). They went door-to-door probing all of her friends for information – for the secrets that adolescent girls pass along in origami-shaped notes in school and whisper into the telephone receiver at night. I thought that time would last forever. Somehow, I had made it up in my mind that as long as Lisa was still missing, that meant she was alive and well. Days that felt like an eternity later, I found out that I couldn’t be more wrong. She was found in a trash bag outside of the home of her molester and murderer. She was dead.
It was as if I had been holding Lisa’s hands through the search process spinning and spinning and not focusing on the world around me. Suddenly, when I found out she was dead, she released my hands without warning. When I focused my eyes and realized the gravity of the situation, I unknowingly embarked upon years of grief and fear. An innocent child was brutally murdered. That child happened to be someone I knew. Her family would never see her again. I would never see her again. The pressure to understand and accept all of this ignited a terror within me that was far worse than the horror films that plagued my dreams at night.
My parents made the decision to keep my sisters and me from attending Lisa’s funeral, and I am extremely grateful for that until this day. We loaded a rented van and traveled to our hometown of Chicago the weekend of her funeral to tend to some family business. Those days in Chicago were such a blessing. I felt normal for that brief moment.
Upon our return, I found myself in a conversation with Lisa’s aunt before church. She was a small woman with a wild look in her eyes, but getting to know her revealed that a heart of gold was hiding behind those eyes. “You didn’t make it to the funeral, huh?” she asked. I explained that we had to travel to Chicago, feeling that it was my responsibility to provide an absence excuse for my entire family.
You didn’t get to see her? Do you want to see the body?
In that moment, I felt like that stupid cartoon character that makes you scream at the TV while he stands motionless and shocked as a fallen tree collapses onto his head. Inside I was screaming “NOOOOOOOO!!!!,” but on the outside I just swallowed and stood in silence. My lack of response must have meant yes to her, because she whipped out a picture of Lisa lying stiff in her casket and forced it in front of my eyes. That terror that I felt when I learned of her death was nothing. THIS was the worst, most horrifying moment of my life.
That moment deposited a spirit of fear in me that followed me for almost two decades. My once playful, innocent fear of the dark became a full-blown phobia. I saw that picture in my mind every time I closed my eyes, and even at times when my eyes were open. I spent my nights sweating, crying, and begging God to make the sun come out so that my fear of death could stop tormenting me. My parents were aware of my fear, but wrote it off as a typical child having a fear of the dark. I never told them how I suffered at night. As years went by, the thought of admitting that the death of a girl years ago was causing me such strife was embarrassing.
The fear that I felt at night even crept up on me during the daylight at times, and finding myself in a room alone became my worst nightmare. I found myself adopting these strange habits, many of which I am still trying to break today. I never turned off the lights when I was leaving a room. When I was forced, I would walk out of the room leaving the door cracked, reach only my arm in to flick the switch, and move away without looking back into the darkness. I hated sitting in chairs and couches with open space behind me for fear of the unknown sneaking to attack me from behind. I ran up the stairs at home like my life depended upon it, convinced that an invisible force was chasing me.
As if the haunting memory of Lisa’s lifeless body wasn’t enough, there were the rumors and the whispers that crept across the town and into my ears. There were moments when I was sitting at lunch at my elementary school, and I overheard other kids, who may or may not have known Lisa, discussing the gruesome details of her death that my parents tried so hard to shield me from. I picked up on bits and pieces of conversations from adults who tried to speak in code, and wove them together into a grotesque and horrifying tapestry. To this day, I don’t know how much of what I heard was true. Honestly I have no desire to know – the things that I do know to be true are horrible enough standing alone.
As I grew older, my fear decreased but never went away. I was relieved to finally have my own room in college so that I could sleep with the lights on without inconveniencing anyone. Here I was heading into my twenties and still afraid of the dark. I did have some days when I didn’t think about Lisa, but there were so many when I did. By the time I graduated from college, I could go maybe a week without that picture of her lifeless body entering my mind, but never more.
When my husband and I initially moved in together, I had to explain my fear and rules to him. As long as he was out of the room, the light would remain on. I refused to walk up the stairs in the dark, and yes I’d rather pay a ridiculous electric bill than spend even one second in the dark. He eventually adapted to my habits. Oddly, I felt it was better to tell him that I was “just afraid of the dark” than to explain to him how it all started. I had told Lisa’s story to people a few times over the years, but I never told anyone how fear had consumed me daily as a result. I didn’t plan to start with him.
Eventually as we were lying in bed one night, I had one of those vulnerable moments that you can only have with your spouse. Before I knew it, my entire face was soaked in tears as I recounted the story of Lisa’s disappearance and death. I told him about the terror of seeing the picture, and all the sleepless nights. I told him how silly I felt for being over twenty and still unable to sleep at night because of someone who died when I was nine. He hugged me and dried my tears, which I both expected and appreciated. What I didn’t expect was what he told me in response. There’s nothing wrong with you. You were too young cope with murder.
All of those years, I had operated under the assumption that there was something wrong with me. I felt that I was weak in a way that didn’t allow me to process death the way that everyone else did. Those words from my husband were like music to my ears. I still experienced the fear, but now that fear was coupled with anger. I was a victim, and Satan had tormented me with fear for much of my life. Finally, I knew that the source of my fear wasn’t me, and I got fed up.
I was sitting in church one Sunday when the pastor issued an altar call. I knew in my spirit that God had plans to deliver me from my years of fear and anxiety stemming from Lisa’s death that day. When the call was given, I boldly walked to the altar. As I waited my turn for prayer, beads of nervous sweat escaped my forehead. I prayed that the preacher wouldn’t ask me what I needed prayer for. What would I say? All of my options sounded pretty ridiculous to me:
I’m afraid of the dark.
A girl died when I was nine, and I never got over it.
I saw a picture of a dead person when I was little, and I can’t shake it
I was happy when the preacher came to me and immediately laid his hands on my head shouting fervent prayers without asking me a single question. I lifted my hands as tears dripped from my eyes. After about a minute or so, he stopped praying, looked me in my eye, and said “I don’t know what it was, but I just felt it leave!” With a smile, he moved down the line and I returned to my seat.
Since that day, I have slept peacefully each night. I still don’t care for dark rooms (not sure if that will ever go away), but when I think of Lisa I smile. Despite the tragedy of her death, she is exactly where we all want to be: in heaven with our father. One of these days when I cross the pearly gates, she will be there smiling and congratulating me for handing my fear over to God.
In closing, I would like to remind you all that our heavenly father loves us more than we could ever imagine. It truly hurts his heart to see us suffer. There is no pain too small, silly, or embarrassing to hand over to the kingdom of God. I thank God for turning my trial into a testimony, but I’m here to hopefully prevent someone else from being consumed by fear.