Photo by KevinT3141 via Creative Commons

I walked the tightrope for 24 hours, balanced between two undesirable outcomes: the sharp rocks of grief and despair on one side and a bubbling lava pit of anger and frustration on the other.

“We haven’t heard from (insert name of family member) in five days,” my mother said to me over the phone.

Family Member, or FM, left his home state on a Wednesday. His trip included a brief stopover in a state somewhere halfway between Point A and Point B. Between Wednesday and Monday, I called FM and left a voice mail message.

That I hadn’t heard from him didn’t give me pause. He can be like that. Plans are always lightly written in pencil.

But my mother thought something was wrong.

“It’s not like FM to be so silent on the road,” she said. “FM usually keeps in touch if there are delays.” I took her word for it. I heard the concern in the spaces between her words. I felt the tightness in her voice become a tightness in my throat.

I considered the situation: A person traveling alone across the country doesn’t show up on his arrival date. No one who has called FM has been able to reach him. Voice messages have not been returned.  I discussed these concerns with my husband and a close friend. What to do? We are not talking about a teenager or even a young adult. This is a middle-aged man who’s been trekking around the continent alone for decades. This is a person who has a history of disappearing and living off the grid on occasion.

I also considered two recent deaths of people we know who were about the same age. The most recent case involved a single man who lived alone. Through circumstances we may never know, he somehow became entangled in live electrical lines that had fallen in his back yard. The crazy part? He was an electrician. He would have known better than to pick up a live wire. Or, maybe because he was an expert he was overconfident. Either way, these tragedies played through my mind as I considered FM’s lifestyle.

Even veteran solo travelers and outdoorsmen and women run into serious trouble. To ignore our concerns meant precious time would be lost if something had happened.

Suddenly this thing took on a life of its own. Other family members and friends became involved. Two relatives made a drive to the family cottage to see if he was there. Calls were made to the state police and to his hometown police department. The more calls we made and received, the more this thing felt like a situation.

I walked the tightrope. Were we inviting trouble by flirting with its possibilities?

  • He’s fine. This is typical behavior. My mother worries so much about FM. I needed to ease her fears. Taking action felt empowering.
  • He’s an inconsiderate jerk, self-absorbed, probably met some hot young thing at a campground and has lost all sense of time and propriety.
  • He’s dead in a ravine.
  • He’s been robbed and beaten by roving criminals.
  • He’s at home watching movies.

I started thinking about the last time we saw each other, our parting words, if we were kind to each other.

The next day, as I worked my way across the taut line, sending dark thoughts to the background and focusing on the day ahead,  my cell phone buzzed.

“He’s OK,” my mother announced.

The outcome? FM’s phone service was spotty to nonexistent during his travels. Oh, and he decided to stay a few extra days at his stopping point. By his calculations he is only one day late. He is upset and embarrassed that we called the police. He thinks we overreacted, created drama.

Maybe. We had the best of intentions.

As for us, the worry warts? We are on FM’s shit list right now.  Likewise, FM is on our list, too. We think what he did was totally insensitive. One phone call could have prevented all of this. I know it’s tough to find a phone if you don’t have a cell service. But, it can be done. You ask. You offer to pay for the call. You get a roll of quarters and pump them into a pay phone.

In 24 hours I cycled from the brink of grief to a frustration so profound I had to disconnect myself from the remainder of FM’s visit.

How in this life do we balance caring enough about others to make sure they’re OK with respecting personal space and independence?

It’s a thin line.

4 thoughts on “Tightrope

  1. Something very similar happened to me when I was traveling through Europe when I was 19 YO–pre-cell phone days. I was sick as dog in a basement in an Italian Hotel. The most awful part was not being about to talk to my parents and tell them I was okay. I knew they were freaking out, but unable to get to a phone. Literally unable. I think you all did the right thing by “over reacting.” It’s strange he can’t see that.
    I love the way you tell a story. I have missed reading you. I’m going to catch up 🙂

  2. Suz: Your story raises a scenario I hadn’t thought of: illness. I think these days since we are so connected, even a day without communication can suggest trouble.

  3. Meleah Rebecca: I know, right? It’s hard not to because my biggest fear is that I won’t act and then it will be too late to do anything.

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