Lost in the Rain
June 15, 2014
I am certain the photo on my computer screen is Cheryl, my sister Linda’s daughter. In some ways she looks the same. Her mother’s eyes, her father’s full round face, her thick hair like mine. But her eyes are empty, unfamiliar. What do I expect from a police mug shot? The important thing, I tell myself, is that I’ve found her. Even if she doesn’t know she’s been found, surely she knows she’s lost.
My sister’s birthdate popped up in my Google calendar this morning, though she’s been dead for five years, and I felt compelled to look again for Cheryl. I almost wrote, Linda made me look.
What exactly am I trying to do? Locate a better future? Heal the past? Or am I just trying to keep my last promise to my sister to keep her daughters safe? When I type in Cheryl’s name, I have three other windows open: Facebook, a travel site, and a search for Hillary Clinton’s new book. It occurs to me that these threads of my online life—where I search, with whom I engage— form a kind of fabric of my unfolding story. On this warm June day, I stare out my window to watch neighbors walking dogs and babies in strollers.
For the last two years I’ve imagined Cheryl living on the streets—or dead. Shocking though this mugshot from an Ohio jail may be, I’m terribly relieved. Also overwhelmed by how much I love her. Whatever trouble she is in, she is still mine.
Cheryl has been lost, found, and re-lost many times. When she was using, she removed herself from the family. Once, when I found her in a motel, her mother frantic to find her, she yelled, “I don’t want you to see me like this,” and slammed the door in my face. At times she returned to our lives, only to disappear suddenly, usually taking money or jewelry. Understandably, many people judge addicts as unworthy of our help.
Remembering how Cheryl helped her mother and grandparents when they needed her, how she doted on a collection of dogs and cats, I hold on to my belief that she is compassionate and caring at her core. She’s funny and open and loving—the girl I miss.
Now, Cheryl’s dark eyes stare at me from my computer, calling me to take some kind of action. Because there is no one else. Her mother is dead, her father has mostly given up on her, and her younger sister, Debbie, has her own problems right now. For a long while, I was afraid to find her. I tend to look away from things I don’t want to see.
The caption under her photo posts the date she was incarcerated, her age at 40, and the charges:
Possession of a controlled substance (heroin); false identification; escape; loitering with intent of prostitution.
A vision of Cheryl at age seven in pigtails, wearing her red jumper is suddenly in my head.
I slap my laptop shut.
When I re-open it, she’s still there, pleading.
I address an email to the Ohio prison.
SUBJECT: Inmate #1532234.
This is an excerpt from Judy Mandel’s book, White Flag. To purchase the book and learn more about Judy’s work, visit her website. Also, be sure to check out our conversation with Judy here.