Day One

Two years ago I wrote about the day we realized Austin was missing. It was actually the day after his last known whereabouts, but we didn’t know that for a few more months.  I’ve already forgotten many of these details, and even what some of it felt like.  Remembering is painful, but remembering is good.  And since writing this I’ve come to understand how much sharing can help.  Both myself, and others who may need hope.  Thanks for taking this journey with us, all five years of it. 

Day 1
I often don’t remember details well.  I remember emotions, and I remember the overall feel of things, but not all the details.  But this day is different; this is a day I remember the details of. 
I went to work and had a normal day, nothing special.  I was wishing I was at the beach with my Mom and Drew, but was so glad he was spending time with family and knew he was loving it.  I missed him terribly, it was after all his first time away from us, but I was relaxed, knowing he was safe and I had a quiet house to head to.  But then my cell phone sounded with the ring tone of an unknown number.  I usually don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t know.  But something prompted me to pick it up- maybe it was the ease of the day, or maybe God prompted me.  
Later learned it was June 26

It was a voice I had heard once before, a voice to a face I had never seen.  But her voice, that call, would change everything.  It was Austin’s friend and co-worker (and more I would later learn), Kelly.  She was panicked sounding and said that Austin hadn’t shown up for work that day, and wouldn’t answer her calls.  She told me he had called in the day before and she hadn’t been able to get in touch with him since.  She said it was unlike him.  She said he had never just not shown up for work.  This was after all, a job he loved.   She said that I needed to call the police.  I told her I’d think about it, and would probably call.  I wasn’t sure I would, but wanted to calm her.  

I took it all in, with my mind quickly making up reasons why there was no cause for concern.  Sure I hadn’t seen him the night before or that morning, but he was an adult, I didn’t check in on him.  There was one moment of panic, that maybe he was in his room and was “gone”, the image of him with a gun flashing through my mind.  Michael was home, so I called him immediately.  I didn’t want him unprepared for what he may find, even as strong as he is.  So, I let him know about the call, and asked him to please check in the room.  I stayed on the phone, not breathing, but still driving down I-10 until he said “he’s not in there.”   But he also said that Austin’s computer was there.  Austin didn’t go many places without that.  His things all seemed to be there, no clothes missing, all 25 pairs of shoes in place (possibly an exaggeration, but he did love shoes).  
I called my mom, while still driving down I-10 and heading home, sure that I could piece the puzzle together and all would be fine.  I just needed to get home.  The closer I got, the faster I drove.  When my mom picked up, I quickly told her about the phone call.  It was another moment where I thought that it would become less real instead of more, after all, Mom solves everything.  Even when she doesn’t solve it, she brings rationale and helps you solve it.  I wish Mom could have solved this.  She stayed calm and asked questions, wanting to know all that Kelly told me, all that anyone knew.  There is a somewhat unfounded- okay, completely founded up until that time- thought in our family that I can’t handle difficult things.  It’s not that I can’t so much, as I just don’t.  I’ve always lived by a thought that if you ignore the issue, it may just go away.  Tasks and jobs I handle great, just once the decision of how to handle the issue is out of the way.  This is one of many things that has changed since Day 1.  
Mom and I discussed calling the police.  I had a strong belief that if I called and reported Austin missing, that he would come home in the middle of it, or shortly after, and be mad about it.  He would be mad that I thought he wasn’t responsible enough to handle himself, mad that we had looked through his things, mad that I had talked with Kelly.  Or laugh.  He laughed a lot.  I also had the completely untrue belief that most of the country has, that you need to wait 48 hours before law enforcement will take a missing persons report.  I have one other memory from years past, of a missing persons report trying to be filed on a loved one.  I recall police saying that it hadn’t been 48 hours, if they weren’t back by then, to call them (thankfully, they were found safe).  
Regardless, it was decided that we should call, and since he lived with me, I needed to be the one to do it.  I did some quick checking online as soon as I arrived home, and saw on the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office website that the person didn’t have to be gone 48 hours.  I also read that being suicidal was one of the possible reasons to get action quicker.  While I still wasn’t convinced, I called and said I needed to file a report.  
While waiting, I decided I needed to bite the bullet so to speak, and call my Dad.  I let him know what was going on, and he was immediately concerned and looking for something to do, something to help quickly solve the question of where he was.  I called my Mom back as well, letting her know I had called the police and would let her know what they said after.  She tried to stay calm, but I think it was tough.  I believe that they both had a similar reaction as I did- a bit of concern, but a belief that he would walk through the door shortly.  We all felt there was no real need to panic.  
The house was oddly quiet without the sound of the television or constant chatter and noises of Drew that normally filled the house.  There were no distractions, the house was very clean because we had just put it on the market to sell and had cleared all the clutter away.  I just waited.  
A uniformed officer arrived about an hour later.  I can clearly picture him standing, he refused the offer of a chair, which meant I stood also.  Michael paced around the house.  The officer stood at the end of my kitchen counter with his laptop turned away from me.  As soon as I gave the basic info, he pulled Austin’s information up and got wide eyed.  That alarmed me.  I remember telling the officer that I was aware that he had some outstanding tickets, and had a court date coming up for his recent arrest, but that it was all misdemeanor things.  I hoped I was right, hoped there wasn’t more we didn’t know about.  He confirmed for me that nothing serious was on his record, and nothing from the past week.  He had just been surprised at the number of tickets a 26 year old could accumulate, with several of them yet unpaid.   While the officer was nice, I instantly felt like he was being nice out of respect for me, while writing Austin off as a troublemaker.  
It was in the moment of the officer giving me the unsaid impression that he had no real concern, that it hit me- this was real, there was real reason for concern, Austin was gone.  I turned from being the passive report filer who thought there ‘may’ be a problem, to serious about it.  I gave the officer details of the recent discussions Austin had with Kelly, intent on convincing the officer that Austin was suicidal and they needed to take this seriously.  I gave him details of Austin’s life over the past three years, from breakup to job changes, to constant physical pain, all in an attempt to get the officer to understand.  As I convinced the officer, I convinced myself too.  Looking at just the facts, this could be bad.  Looking back, I had no idea how bad, no idea where this would lead and how our lives would change.  But at least I finally understood that it was real.  
The officer left after telling me that it would probably take about 10 days for a detective to be assigned to his case.  He emphasized that our family should take the lead in looking for him.  He suggested calling everyone we knew who he could have been in contact with, but not much else.  When he walked out of the door, while I still thought Austin may just show up, I knew we needed to start taking action.
Calls to the few contacts of Austin’s we had yielded nothing.  So Day 1 ended.  No one slept much in our family that night, or for many nights to come.  But, being the one person in the world who can sleep anytime anywhere, I did eventually drift off.  I woke repeatedly, always hoping I’d heard the lock turning, but never actually hearing it happen.  Michael stayed mostly quiet, but didn’t sleep much either.
The Early Weeks 
I won’t try to detail the steps and actions that everyone took.  There is so much that I won’t remember, or do justice.  I only know for sure, what happened from my perspective.  There were so many people involved, so many people that we will be eternally grateful to.  They may think they did no good because they didn’t find him.  They are wrong.  If you’re reading this and you helped in any small way, you did us a world of good.  You gave us hope.
By the morning after the report was filed, my Mom and a few family members from the Mexico Beach area (who had been gathered together for vacation) were on their way to my house.  By that morning, I also later learned that my Dad was tromping through woods all around my house.  Since Austin had been wandering in those wooded areas just days before, we all felt that if he had taken his life, that’s where he would be found.  No one wanted my Dad in the woods alone, his physical health wasn’t suited for it.  Thankfully, he had wonderful friends who stepped in and made sure he wasn’t alone after those initial hours.  We all knew that regardless of his health or physical ability, he would be there.  I loved him for that.  
Michael and I went to work, but he stayed as close to home as possible.  I tried to work, but I’m sure I wasn’t very productive.  I didn’t know what I should be doing, but I knew it wasn’t at the office.  But since I didn’t know what I should be doing, and I wasn’t comfortable asking for time off to search, I stayed.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing that I was able to continue on, or maybe it shows my previously mentioned pension for ignoring issues.  But it’s what I did, right or wrong.  
My Mom, two aunts and two cousins arrived that evening.    It was so nice to see them, that for a few brief moments, I almost forgot why they were there.  These are women of action though, so they got to work.  A flyer was designed quickly and taken to a print shop for copies to be made.  Every taxi company in town was called since we believed he may have planned to take a taxi to take care of the tickets.  His room was searched.  Boy was that a mess.  I was actually pretty mad with him over that since we had just put the house on the market and his room was not ready for prime time, or even close.  So not only was it searched, it was cleaned.  Homeless shelters were called.  Hospitals were called.  Media outlets were called and sent flyers.  
Speaking of the media…. Ah, the media and the misconceptions that the public has about the media and how missing persons cases are presented to the public.  We quickly learned, much to our naïve surprise, that it was all about the ‘story’ and not much about the person.  Austin was a 26 year old male, and though he had a sweet baby face with dimples, wasn’t too much of a story.  So getting any coverage was very tough.  There are cases that the public becomes wary of, with children or young women constantly shown.  They may have interviews on all the national networks.  They may have signs made and displayed at businesses and churches.  Their family members may turn down requests for interviews because so many come in.  That wasn’t the case with us.  That isn’t the case with most missing persons, but especially men.  Our family, and so many more we’ve met, had to beg for coverage.  We literally begged reporters and producers to show Austin’s face.  Because we didn’t give up, we did get a few interviews and did get his face shown a few times.  We were fortunate, so many don’t.      
We weren’t getting any information from the calls being made, so we decided to start getting flyers out.  Austin’s friend Kelly stayed involved and got a friend to make many more copies of the flyer than we thought we’d need.  In those early days we thought this was a sprint, didn’t realize it was a marathon.  Oh how I laugh at our innocence now.  While Dad and others continued foot searches of the wooded areas, we took to the streets with flyers. 
We actually had fun, which I know sounds odd.  At one point, I was in a vehicle with my cousin Mark driving, and friends Bart and Jason with us.  We had grown up spending time together in the summer, playing till all hours of the night.  So we laughed together about old times, about funny memories, and more.  I spoke earlier of irrational fears, and another surfaced with the flyers.  I had a real fear of going in places and asking to hang a flyer.  It makes no sense, I have no idea what ‘terrible’ thing I thought might happen, but the thought of doing it made me queasy.  Thankfully, we had Bart with us.  Bart knows no stranger and I’m pretty confident, has no fears.  Our differences can be listed out for miles, but I appreciate that quality in him.  While we went one direction, others in mom’s family went other ways.  
While we did that, others were organizing more ground search help, primarily friends of my Dad.  Word was also starting to spread and friends had started to venture out into areas on their own.  Often, we didn’t even learn about that until much later.  Everyone who knew about it wanted to help.  For some reason, I kept it quiet with our circles, and I honestly don’t know why.  It might have been a belief that if I started telling people it would become more real.  I think it had more to do with being confident we’d find answers quickly somehow, and didn’t need everyone involved.  (Here’s another spot to laugh at my ignorance, I won’t count them, it would be too self defeating).  
I did pray a lot through these early days.  Probably more than I had in years, even though my faith was active and strong I thought.  It was strong; it had just never been tested quite like this.  It was during this time that I started to think that I needed to redefine hope for myself.  It had always been a lightweight word, conjuring images of things I wanted and prayers answered in very specific ways.  The hope I had in my life was more about a bright sunny spin on life, a belief that ‘it will all work out’ than something real that had depth and meaning.   I wasn’t yet sure that I knew fully what was blooming, but I started to have a change in my heart.