Lost at SeabyFrancisMacomber©
When the doorbell rang, they had just finished dinner. Lori, the twelve-year-old, jumped up to answer the door before either her father or brother could rise, but she quickly returned to the dining room with a quizzical look on her face.
"It's a policeman, Daddy. He wants to talk to you," she reported.
A jolt of fear shot through Frank, but he tried to hide it from his children.
When he went to the door, he saw the caller was actually a Georgia State Trooper. "Are you Frank Parker?" the trooper asked.
"Yes," Frank confirmed.
"Are you the husband of Meredith Parker?"
When Frank nodded, the trooper looked at the two children and said, "May I speak with you in private, Mr. Parker?"
Frank felt his throat constrict, and he had to clear it before he could speak. "Bobby, Lori, please go to your rooms. I need to speak with the officer alone."
Both kids began to protest, but when their father barked "Now!" at them, they jumped and hurried to obey. They weren't used to hearing that tone of voice.
Once the children had left the room, the officer turned back to their father. "Mr. Parker, I've been asked to give you some bad news. Your wife's airplane is missing and presumed down. It dropped off the radar tonight approximately halfway between Miami International Airport and Nassau. A Coast Guard ship is in the area now, looking for survivors."
The facts were straightforward enough. In her role as regional sales VP for a major multinational corporation, Meredith had set out to visit their Caribbean headquarters in the Bahamas, accompanied by the region's chief financial officer. She was an experienced small plane pilot, so the 180-mile flight to Nassau should have been routine. As a result, Frank had thought nothing of it when Meredith had called to let him know her plans. Now, he was distraught. This had to be his worst nightmare: his wife's plane had crashed at night in the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The officer provided a few additional details that did nothing to give Frank any encouragement before he left, promising that the Coast Guard would call with updates in the morning or earlier if there was any news..
No sooner had the door closed behind the trooper than both Bobby and Lori came running to his side, anxiety written on their faces, asking questions that their father couldn't answer. Frank knew they had been listening; he would have eavesdropped too if he'd been in their shoes.
The three of them clung to each other, each trying to find encouraging things to say to the others. Lori began to cry and although he was trying to be brave, Bobby's eyes were red as well. Frank did his best to keep it together for his children's sakes, but inside he was frantic.
There was no thought of cleaning the dishes or doing homework; their anguish kept the three of them within arm's length of each other for the rest of the evening. It grew past the children's normal bedtime, but still no phone call came. Finally, exhausted by the lateness of the hour and their fears, all three gravitated to the master bedroom, and the children slept with their Dad for the first time since they'd been little and afraid of thunderstorms.
They were up and trying to eat breakfast the next morning when a representative from the Coast Guard called. The slim hope stirred by the call was quickly dashed when the officer told Frank that the cutter searching the area had found nothing.
Frank called the principal at the middle school the kids attended to let her know why Bobby and Lori would be absent that day. Then he went to check on the two of them, only to find them in front of the television watching a report on the missing plane on CNN. Frank wasn't sure whether to let them keep watching or turn the set off, but before he could reach a decision, the phone began to ring again, and from that point on, whenever Frank would hang up from one call, another would come in. Not surprisingly, the first calls were from Meredith's parents and his own. All were frantic with worry while still trying to project a false optimism that she would miraculously be found. Frank promised to call back immediately with any news.
Next came the calls from their friends and colleagues of Meredith. All wanted to say or do something to help, but none of them had any idea how to do so. The conversations were short and awkward.
Most difficult of all were the calls from the media. He should have expected those, but Frank was caught off guard when the first reporter phoned, and he talked to the reporter from the Journal-Constitution much longer than he wanted. Then representatives from other media began calling, and when Frank realized what was happening, he began screening all the calls and returning only those from people about whom he cared.
Sometime during all this activity, the procession of neighbors and friends began, each set coming to their door with condolences and with food. At first their generosity was appreciated because Frank had no energy for preparing meals, but soon he and his children had more food than they could hope to eat in a week. It was an old Southern tradition to express concern and condolences with food, but while Frank appreciated the gesture, every roast and casserole was a bitter reminder that his wife of twenty years was almost certainly dead.
The next few days were horrible: the Parkers were virtual prisoners in their own home, kept there by their desire not to have to deal with other people and by their hope for some news from the Coast Guard. Frank made daily calls to the office in Miami for updates, but the reports were always negative.
Then, five days after the state trooper had arrived on their doorstep, came the news they'd been dreading. A Coast Guard officer called to tell Frank that wreckage from his wife's plane had been found. There were no signs of any survivors. "I'm sorry, sir," the officer concluded, "but we're going to have to cease search and rescue operations at this time."
Frank wanted nothing more than to hide away and mourn in solitude. But that option was not available; instead, he faced a seemingly endless list of responsibilities, all painful. The worst, of course, was having to tell Bobby and Lori the sad news and trying to console them. When they had finally calmed down, he had to phone relatives and close friends to let them know. Next was a call to their church to arrange for a memorial service, followed by one to the newspaper to submit an obituary. Then came more calls to share the time and date of the service. By the time he was done, Frank felt physically and emotionally exhausted.
Somehow the family made it through the service and began the slow, painful process of trying to resume a normal life. The following week the kids returned to school, and the resumption of their routine seemed to help a little.
Frank was not so fortunate. Now a whole new set of duties fell on his shoulders. At the urging of a friend, Frank contacted an attorney to find out what his legal responsibilities were. He was shocked to learn that he would have to petition for a death certificate. "But her plane crashed at sea!" he protested. "How can there be any doubt?"
"I know," the attorney commiserated, "but in the absence of a body and a physician's certificate, the court must make a formal declaration."
"Am I going to have to wait seven years?" Frank asked in distress.
"No," the attorney assured him, "in a case like this where an individual has been lost at sea, there's usually no significant delay. After the attack on the World Trade Center, death certificates were issued within a matter of days even though some of the bodies were never identified. You may have to answer some questions, but typically such cases are resolved very quickly."
"I can get the petition started for you," the attorney went on. "I can also help you get all your other documents changed."
When Frank looked confused, the attorney said, "You know, like any joint bank accounts, your mortgage, your insurance, car titles, your will -- anything like that. While I do that, you need to contact your wife's company to see about any benefits to which you may be entitled, as well as to claim any personal belongings."
Frank shook his head in weariness. In his grief, he hadn't never stopped to think just how complicated it would be to untangle the life he and his wife had shared.
Now he faced another chore that he dreaded: calling on the widow of John Collier, the financial executive who had been on the plane with Meredith. Frank had met Collier only a couple of times at his wife's company functions, but he had taken an immediate dislike to the executive. In Frank's eyes, Collier was one of those egotistical types who thought he was smarter than everyone else. In the brief time Frank had spent with the man, Collier managed to drop enough names and boast about his accomplishments enough to leave a bad taste in Frank's mouth. But that wasn't his widow's fault, Frank reminded himself, and he felt he had a duty to call on her.
Frank had phoned ahead, so Amanda Collier was expecting him. As the two exchanged condolences, Frank realized that she was probably the only one who truly knew how he was feeling.
When they'd been seated in her living room, she asked kindly, "So how are you doing now, Frank?"
"It's hard, Amanda, it's really hard. I just can't accept that she's really gone. So many things keep reminding me of her."
He shook his head helplessly. "You know what's the hardest thing? When I'm out on the street or in a crowd of people, I keep thinking that I've spotted her. The other day, I must have scared some poor woman half to death when I chased her down because I thought she was Meredith." He looked at the floor, recalling the memory and his emotions when he had realized what he was doing.
Amanda watched him with sympathetic eyes; she knew there weren't any words to help.
Finally, he looked up at her. "And how about you, Amanda, how are you doing?"
"It's not easy, Frank, but I'm going to make it," she told him. "The truth is I'm probably doing much better than you. John and I didn't have any children, so I don't have two to console the way you do. Also -- and I wouldn't tell this to anyone else -- John and I weren't getting along very well before all this happened. I'd caught him having a couple of flings in the past, and I think he was in the middle of another affair. If this hadn't happened, we'd probably be headed for divorce before too long."
"I'm so sorry to hear that, Amanda," Frank told her sympathetically. "I can only imagine the conflicting emotions you must be feeling."
"Yes," she agreed, "one moment I'm relieved that I don't have to deal with his cheating any more and the next I'm filled with guilt because I don't feel sadder. And despite everything, there's a part of me that still misses him."
"Are you going to be OK financially?" Frank asked, trying to change the subject.
"I'm not sure," she admitted. "The good news is that the company provided life insurance on Frank, and because he died while on business, with the double indemnity clause I'll receive twice the face value. The bad news is I'm going to need every penny of that money because I've learned Frank had made a series of bad investments in the futures market and severely depleted our net worth."
What Amanda had said about her late husband did not surprise Frank. It took no stretch of the imagination for him to believe that an egotist like John Collier would not prove a faithful husband. For that matter, the idea that Collier would fancy himself a wheeler-dealer in the market was entirely in keeping with Frank's mental picture of the man.
What did grab Frank's attention was Amanda's mention of the company-paid life insurance. He remembered his attorney's advice and made a mental note to contact the benefits department of Meredith's company right away. If Collier had been covered, surely Meredith would have had a similar policy, and until he could find a job, those funds might come in very handy.
After chatting a few minutes longer, Frank arose from the couch. "Amanda, please forgive me, but I'm going to have to cut my visit short. Billy and Lori will be getting out of school soon and I've got to go pick the two of them up. But please stay in touch, and if there's anything I can do to help, even if you just need a sympathetic ear to bend, please don't hesitate to call me."
When Frank drove up to their home after picking up Bobby and Lori, he was surprised to see a car parked out front. Frank got his children into the house through the garage, and a minute later, the doorbell rang. Outside were a man who looked to be in his fifties and a younger woman, both dressed in business attire.
"I'm Special Agent Harold Barnes," the man introduced himself, "and this is Special Agent Celia Murray. We're with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. We'd like to come in and ask you a few questions in conjunction with your wife's disappearance."
When she realized the two were law enforcement officers, Lori wrapped her arms around her father's waist and buried her face in his side. Frank could feel her tears dampening his shirt, and he held her tightly.
"What's this about?" he demanded angrily.
Before the first agent could speak, Agent Murray interceded. "I'm so sorry we've upset your daughter, Mr. Parker. All we're trying to do is complete a routine check in connection with your petition for a death certificate for Mrs. Parker. If you'd like us to come back later, we'll try to do so at a time that would be better for you."
Frank ignored her and turned to face his daughter. "It's alright, honey. Nothing bad has happened."
The female agent abruptly bent down on one knee, reached into her purse, pulled out a tissue and handed to the girl. "Here, honey," she said in a gentle voice. Lori hesitated and then shyly accepted the tissue, wiping her eyes and then blowing her nose.
When Frank saw that his daughter had calmed down, he put his arm around her and spoke to her. "These people need to talk with me a while about your Mom, Lori. Why don't you go get started on your homework? I'll be right out here in the living room if you need me." With that, he gently pushed the twelve-year-old toward her room. Then he turned to face the officers.
"If it won't take too long, let's go ahead and try to get this over with."
The three of them stepped into the living room and seated themselves around a coffee table. "We just need to get a little background information on your wife, Mr. Parker," the male agent began. "How long were the two of you married?"
"We got married in 1990, right after we both graduated from the University of Georgia," Frank replied, thinking back to the beautiful brunette coed he had wooed and won so many years ago.
"And she was employed by International Marketing Corporation up until . . . well, until her disappearance?"
"That's right," Frank confirmed, "she was Sales Vice President for the southeastern U.S."
"If her region was the Southeast, why would she have been traveling to the Bahamas?" the younger woman asked.
"At IMC," Frank explained, "the Southeast included Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as well as the U.S. Their Caribbean headquarters are in Nassau, so it wasn't uncommon for Merry to fly down there."
"Merry?" the woman asked.
Frank felt his voice grow husky. "Merry was my pet name for her."
Agent Murray reached across and patted his hand sympathetically. "That's alright, Mr. Parker. I know this is hard for you."
The older agent decided to change the line of questioning. "Was it normal for your wife to fly her own plane on business trips?"
"Yes," Frank replied, "Merry's Dad was a pilot and she got her license as soon as she was old enough. She took every opportunity to fly herself because she said it made her independent of commercial airlines' schedules. She used to say she could get where she needed to be, complete her business and be back home while the competition was still stuck in the terminal. She felt like it gave her an edge, especially when she was starting out."
The two agents made notes; then Agent Murray looked up at him. "And what about you, Mr. Parker. What do you do?"
Frank managed a smile. "I'm a house husband." Seeing their looks, he went on. "I was an aerospace engineer up until three years ago, when my company cut back and I was laid off. The only prospects I could find for a new job would have required me to relocate out of state. But in the meantime, Merry's job was going great. She'd gotten a couple of major promotions and was earning a great salary plus big bonuses. It didn't make sense for her to quit, so we agreed that I'd manage the household and take care of the kids while she worked."
"And how did this change affect your relationship with Mrs. Parker," Agent Barnes asked.
"Why is that relevant?" Frank asked irritatedly.
"Please bear with us, Mr. Parker," the younger woman interceded. "We're required to check to see if there could be any factors that might have played a role in your wife's disappearance. It's all routine."
Somewhat mollified, Frank looked at the two of them. "Of course it was a big change for me, but I'm an engineer. I'm trained to measure and assess all the factors in a design. It was easy to see that my changing roles was the right thing for our family at that time. I made it possible for Merry to devote herself to her career, and I made sure that Bobby and Lori always had a parent there for them at all times."
Neither of the agents said anything, and Frank felt as though the question was still hanging in the air. "I don't mean it was easy," he went on. "She was always calling on customers or attending meetings at corporate, so I didn't see as much of her as I would have liked. Sometimes it felt like her job came first and . . ." He suddenly realized what he was saying, and added swiftly, "But that's pretty much par for the course in corporate life. Besides, it's worked out well" -- he caught himself -- "until now."
"Just two more questions, Mr. Parker," Agent Barnes said. "Did you notice any changes in your wife's behavior in the time prior to her disappearance?"
"Not really," Frank replied after a moment's thought. "I know she was under a lot of pressure in the last year or so, and her travel schedule was heavier than ever. But Merry said she was in line for a major promotion. When she got it, she promised the new job would cut down on her travel as well as come with a high-level title and a big bump in her salary."
"Last question," Agent Barnes said, writing on his pad. "Are you aware of any changes in your finances that your wife might have made in the last few months?"
"No," Frank replied with certainty. "I keep up with all our finances, and I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary."
The young woman glanced at her partner. "I think we've taken enough of your time, Mr. Parker. We should be able to wrap all this up pretty quickly, and we'll let you know as soon as we've concluded. In the meantime, if you think of anything you feel we should know, please call me at this number." As she spoke, she handed him her card, and the two agents headed for the door.
Frank headed back to his children's bedrooms to make sure they were getting their homework done. Both looked busy when he peeked in their rooms. "They're strong kids," he thought. "They've been through hell and they're holding up well, all things considered."
The next day, Frank drove to IMC headquarters to pay a visit to the benefits department. The head of the department met him and, after expressing her condolences, handed over a box filled with Meredith's personal effects from her office. Frank had to swallow hard when he saw the framed family portrait she had kept on her desk.