The Day My Teenage Son Ran Away

My 14-year-old son left a note no mother wants to find

Photo: P. Carlson

Photo: P. Carlson

6 a.m. on Saturday morning is not my favorite time of day. O.K. — 6 a.m. on any morning is not my favorite time of day, but particularly on Saturday because I think I should be allowed to sleep more. My husband, John, however, always wakes up that early and it was his loud voice that awakened me less than two months ago at that ungodly hour.

“Mish!” he called.

I did not respond. I may have grunted, but I doubt it.

“Mish!” he called again. “Is Matthew in his room?”

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“Probably,” I said and then nestled back into my pillow.

“You better check,” he said.

“Oh for Chrissake,” I thought, as I pushed myself out of bed and went to look in his room. I pushed the door open quietly and peeked around the corner. No Matt. Hmmm…I thought. Did he go to a buddy’s house and not tell me?

“No, he’s not up here,” I called down to John. “Is he on the couch?”

“No,” John said. “You better come here.”

I walked downstairs and was presented with a lengthy note, written by my son. I won’t reprint the whole thing, but in essence — he needed a “vacation”. He wanted to ride his bike “around” for a week — or “Maybe ’til the end of the summer.” I was not supposed to worry or try and find him. He would “call and write often.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. I ran to the windows and looked down at our garage — I was looking for his bike. It was gone. As was a hundred dollars.

I started to shake. Where would he go? What was wrong? We hadn’t had a fight of any kind. He was being punished for wrecking two of our cars — yes, two — he backed one into the other. What made that scene even worse is that he’s only 14 and we weren’t home when he did it. But we hadn’t fought over that punishment. He admitted to the “crime” and we didn’t quibble about the punishment.

This was absurd. Why would he run away? I know the life of a teen can be hard, but I was lenient. I let him do a lot of stuff.

Needless to say, I freaked. I called my daughter from her room and asked her if she knew anything about Matt’s plan. Through sleepy eyes, she said she didn’t but had heard him walking around early in the morning.

John immediately called the police, hospitals and everyone we could think of that might have heard from him. I shakily poured myself some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, trying to see in my head where he might have gone.

I was ready to go after him. But John said, “no.” He thought I was too shaky to drive. I sat for a while longer — hoping that Matt was really hiding in someone’s barn and would come back.

After a half an hour or so — I really have no idea — I had an image in my head of the route he must have taken. Matt doesn’t like Vermont. He talks constantly about leaving — about going to a college far away. So I knew that the road north out of town was not the way he chose — it only goes further into Vermont and it’s all uphill. The second road out of town is also uphill, so I nixed that one. I just knew he had taken the southern route out of town — he rode his bike on it once before. It was flatter, and it went towards a road that ran parallel to the interstate and out of Vermont.

I got ready to go. John said I was insane. I said I didn’t care. Maybe I was.

“But I will find him.”

John ranted at me as I went out the door. How will you know where to go? What if you don’t find him? How far are you going to travel alone? Blah, blah, blah. I didn’t care about any of that. I had to find my son and I was going to.

Using Lydia’s information, I figured he had about 4 hours on me. If he rode at 10 miles an hour (he’s very athletic), he could be almost in White River Junction – which is the closest large town and home to a bus station, train station and many routes out of Vermont. I knew that if he made it there, I could lose him.

And so I drove. I also smoked — a lot. I drove fast with tears in my eyes, wondering what kind of horrible mother I must be. I was angry with him and angry with myself. Was life with his family really that bad? And then I thought, how dare he? We may not have everything, but I’ve always tried to give him everything I could. He has all kinds of crap. I let him go to his friends’ houses. I pay for his weekly weekend basketball tournaments. I’ve driven him two to three hours away to play football. What the hell? What do you mean you need a vacation? I need a freaking vacation!

I continued to drive — alternately crying and seething. After 30 or so minutes, I came to a crossroads. The interstate or continue down the road? He has to be smart enough not to go on the interstate, right? Hell, who knows — he’s not smart enough to remember to turn his light off at night. And then, for the first time since I was in my early 20s, I prayed.

I prayed that he would be OK and that if you are up there God or Goddess, would you forgive my atheist self and please point me in the right direction. And then, I swear, two older women on bicycles pulled into a country store. They came from the direction I was heading.

I pulled over and rolled down my window. I didn’t want to freak them out, but I wanted to talk with them.

“Hi,” I said. “Did you happen to see a teenage boy on a bicycle, wearing a blue sweatshirt and a backpack?”

“Yeah,” one of the women said. “He’s a ways down there — we saw him maybe ten miles ago, so he’s a lot further along now.”

“Thank you,” I gushed. “Thank you so much.”

“You know,” the other woman added, “he’s not wearing a helmet.”

I tried to be polite, but this was really the least of my concerns just now.

“No, he wouldn’t be,” I said. “He’s trying to run away.” They called good luck to me as I pulled away. After I cleared the intersection I drove my poor Volvo about 80 miles an hour down the twisty country road. Ecstatic that he was down here somewhere, but suddenly terrified of what I would do once I caught him.

Would he put up a fight? What was his state of mind? Would he try and get away?

I couldn’t think about it. I just had to find him first.

And then, after what seemed like hours of squinting between trees and looking around bends, I saw him. Riding along, probably singing to himself.

I decided to take him by surprise. I pulled ahead of him and parked in the shoulder right in front of him.

“Hey!” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Vacation’s over.”

“Man,” he said. “How did you find me?”

“I’m a mother,” I said. “I know everything. You do know that a 14-year-old can’t just take off and go on vacation, right?”

“Why not?” he asked. “I would have been fine.”

“I’m sure you think that,” I said, opening the back of my car for his bike. And he put his bike in. Just like that. No argument. No nothing. Just got in the car.

I hugged him and kissed the top of his head, but tried to hold back the tears (tears are not cool in front of a teenage son).

“If you thought it was so OK,” I said. “Why didn’t you just ask permission? Why did you have to sneak out in the middle of the night?”

“Because I knew you wouldn’t let me go.”

After a short lecture explaining why I wouldn’t let him go, I made him a deal. I offered to buy his ticket to Europe when he graduated from high school if he promised never to do anything like that again.

He agreed. Happily.

He really did think it was all “no big deal.” He really did just want a vacation. Of course, I didn’t let him out of my sight for almost a month and toyed with the idea of chaperoning him at school in the fall, but I decided to let my guard down and try and trust again.

And I do try and laugh about it with him now — but it’s hard. That fear, that absolute horror of not knowing where your child is will never leave me. I had never experienced that before, so anal a parent I am about knowing the whereabouts of my children. And every morning my heart races just a bit as I peek into his bedroom, on my way to make coffee, just to make sure he’s still there.

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