Excerpt from Loving Natalee: A Mother's Testament of Hope and Faith
It's early morning, and the house is quiet. I'm still lying in bed, eyes closed. I don't want to open them, because when I do, I'll have to face the day I've dreaded the most for the past twenty months. Today I have to pack up Natalee's things for the last time. Today I will have to say the final good-bye. And I'm not ready.
Eyes still closed, I hear an occasional car pass in front of the house. Another one stops across the street, and I hear the car door open, letting music and cheerful muffled voices escape for a moment. Then close again. The stillness in the house is interrupted by the harmonious tapping of little paws as Macy the dog and Carl the cat move across the hardwood floors. Stopping for a moment. Then tapping again. The cold morning brings the sounds of life's activities as people step into another day of their routines. Maybe if I don't open my eyes this day will just pass, and I won't have to face what I have to do. The painful inevitable chore that has been looming over me since my beautiful daughter, Natalee, disappeared on the last night of her senior high school trip to Aruba. The day has come to take her room apart and box it up. I have to go through her belongings, which have remained untouched since she left home on May 26, 2005. The movers will be here day after tomorrow. Nothing from my life before Natalee disappeared in Aruba has remained intact. Not my career. Not my home. Not my marriage. My husband, Jug, and I are divorcing after six years. My son, Natalee's younger brother, Matt, and I are moving in two days. I have a lot to do. I manage to swing my legs off the bed and sit up. Reluctantly, I open my eyes and sit on the edge for a few moments. I feel like concrete. Heavy. Very heavy. Finally I stand up and slowly walk a half dozen steps or so down the short hall and turn right at Natalee's bedroom doorway.
The morning light shines in through the wall-length windows at the far side of the room illuminating all her neatly organized things. It used to be in disarray most of the time. But today everything in here is in order. It's cheerful and sad at the same time. Light purple—her favorite—and delicate greens. A crisp white bedspread. Pillows with special sayings about friends and love and life. In the corner a purple-painted curio cabinet with four shelves holds all of her treasures. Her collection of Wizard of Oz memorabilia is prominently displayed in the tall narrow cabinet. To my right I see her white high-school graduation robe hanging on the outside of the closet door, the honors cords still around the neck. Inside this closet are two beautiful sundresses we bought for her to take to college, the tags still on them. And behind those is the little black dress she wore to her proms, both junior and senior. Photos of friends and certificates of her many achievements are visible everywhere. A bulletin board over her daybed is covered with reminders of meetings and events and parties coming up. She had big plans.
Natalee and her younger brother, Matt, were born in Memphis, Tennessee, where my first husband, Dave, and I had moved after college. Natalee was three years old and Matt was one when we left Memphis and moved the family to Clinton, Mississippi. Dave and I divorced shortly thereafter. It was a long arduous battle, but I was finally awarded sole custody of both children.
The three of us were tight-knit. Matt and Natalee were very protective of their mother. One night when they were elementary-school age I was going to go out for dinner. I discovered my escort sitting on my front porch with his head buried in his hands. I looked up to see my two children pounding his car with Matt's metal cleats. I was so embarrassed! And very surprised—shocked—that they would do such a thing. They apparently didn't want anybody at their mama's house. They were punished accordingly, and I had to repair his paint job. I don't remember that guy ever coming back. The story must have gotten around, because I dated rather infrequently in the years that followed.
After I had been divorced from the children's father for about seven years, I met George "Jug" Twitty while he was on business in Mississippi. We dated for about three years before marrying in 2000. Matt and Natalee absolutely loved his two older children, Megan and George, and looked forward to moving to the lovely bedroom community of Mountain Brook in Birmingham, Alabama, to join their new family and start their new life. Mountain Brook is about as stark a contrast to where I grew up as one could imagine. Back in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I was the only white girl in my ninth-grade study hall, and one of about three in my history class. Many of my friends were black in this small, unassuming town. All my life, including seventeen years teaching in Mississippi and Arkansas, I have lived in culturally and racially diverse communities. So have my children. It never occurred to me that it wasn't like that everywhere, because I simply never thought about it.
Natalee was entering the eighth grade when we moved to Mountain Brook in Birmingham. It was about this same time that she developed a true love affair with the movie The Wizard of Oz. She began to collect any and all memorabilia she could find pertaining to that movie including posters, a piggy bank, a clock, and even a little purse with Dorothy on it. Once she said that if she had to be stuck on an elevator with anyone, she hoped it would be Judy Garland! Natalee would continue adding to her special Oz collection all through high school.
From the time she was three years old, Natalee looked forward to her weekly dancing lessons. She loved to dance and continued working on her talent throughout her childhood. She was prepared to try out for the high-school theatrical dance team in Clinton. They called it a "show choir." When we moved to Birmingham, she set her sights on trying out for the dance team in her new town. This meant she had to learn a few new routines to be ready for the highly competitive Mountain Brook High School "Dorians." She spent her entire eighth-grade year preparing for the ninth-grade tryout. It was hard work, but that was not a new concept for her.
Natalee did everything on her own. She was totally independent. I never had to wake her up for school. Never had to get onto her for not doing what she was supposed to do. Except when it came to cleaning up her room. It always looked as if the same tornado that lifted Dorothy's house may have passed right through Natalee's bedroom! Clothes and books and notes were always scattered everywhere—the typical teenager's bedroom.
Natalee applied to colleges and applied for scholarships on her own. She arranged for housing and roommates. From the time she was a little girl, she took charge of her own responsibilities. Because her expectations were so high, she was challenging to rear. Sometimes I feared that she was independent to a fault. I used to joke with her, saying, "Natalee, just ask me some questions, so I can feel like I'm your parent. Humor me." She never needed my help with anything. Except in one area of her life—her clothes.
Thank goodness there was something Natalee needed me for, something she and I could do together. For some reason she appreciated my opinion regarding her attire and trusted me to help her find the things that looked nice on her. She even trusted me enough when I told her that her junior prom dress was so gorgeous on her that she should wear it again for her senior prom. And she did. We went shopping together almost every Saturday morning. She would appear in the kitchen in a fleece jacket with her hair tied up in a ball. Face freshly washed. No makeup. We would head out to spend most of the entire day together. Those were our bonding times. In the car between stores we would talk about important things and silly things, just anything and everything. Those are the memories I cherish most. To this day I still think I may see her across a makeup counter or catch a glimpse of her between the aisles of clothing racks. I still listen for her to call out to me on Saturday mornings to tell me she's ready to go.
The source for this personal inner strength and faithful determination can be traced to my parents. They were stern and as fiercely devout as they were demanding. Raised in the Methodist Church, we never missed Sunday school and worship on Sunday. The foundation of my faith that was established in my childhood was nurtured all through my teens as my whole family participated as active church members. Mom and her brother sang in the choir. We attended youth group and other fellowship activities. Then I went on to teach Sunday school and vacation Bible school for many years as I raised my children in the Methodist Church.
I remember my mother always proclaiming, "God is good." She lives by those three words and taught us to as well. My parents were very faithful and reverent people, yet my father in particular was a tough man. He could slice you up with words. When it came to dealing with my brothers, it was physical. He never laid a hand on my mother or me, but he shook an iron fist. There were no crybabies in our house. No quitters allowed. When I became a teenager, my father decided that I should be driving on my own. Way before I turned sixteen that's just what I did. No license. No driver's ed. He was ready for me to drive, and that was that. My parents' answer to dealing with any crisis was, "Suck it up and get over it. Press on." We were simply not supposed to cave in. I suppose these traits were passed along through me to my children. So Natalee sucked it up and, limping to the tryouts with her leg taped up, she earned a spot on the Dorian dance team.
It was only a couple of months after this beach vacation, in October 2004, that Natalee came to me to ask about the senior trip that everyone was talking about. Many in the senior class had signed up for the exotic four-night trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba. Senior classes before hers had taken the trip. It was a tradition. Her stepbrother, George, had even been on it. And this year her stepcousins, Jug's nephews, who were also seniors, were going on the Aruba trip. Natalee really wanted to go, and if I could manage it financially, I really wanted her to have that experience, because she deserved it. She had worked very hard for so long. She was awarded the President's Scholarship at the University of Alabama, as well as a couple of others, for her outstanding academics. I decided that if I could swing this trip for her, I would do it.
As plans were being made, I attended two parent meetings with Jodi, the travel agent who organized the Aruba trip for this class as well as in the past and whose own senior daughter was also scheduled to go this year. At the meetings roommates, payments, and other details were discussed. The position of the chaperones was made clear. They would be there for emergencies such as lost passports, missed flights, and so forth. They would not be conducting bed checks and roll call. More than one hundred of Natalee's senior classmates were going to be on the trip in addition to the seven adults. It was comforting to know there would be safety in numbers.
As spring blossoms started to peek out from the azaleas in our front yard, Natalee began working on her graduation plans. May would be here before we knew it, and there was a lot to do. As expected, Natalee handled all of the graduation requirements and arrangements herself. She ordered her invitations, her cap and gown. Family and friends of Mountain Brook graduates have to have tickets to attend the ceremony, and those are always hot commodities around here. Typically, each family receives only six tickets because of limited seating, but Natalee worked hard to acquire enough for her entire family to be present. It mattered to her that everyone be invited. She called around to other seniors to find out who didn't need all of their tickets and collected as many as she could. This was going to be her big night, and she wanted all of her loved ones around her.
Natalee was ranked twenty-fifth in her class of approximately three hundred, and that's with a 4.17 on a 4.0 scale. Even with all her good grades and advanced placement classes, the competition within the school meant there were still twenty-four students with grade point averages above her 4.17. And she never let anyone forget the ".17" part! For her academic achievements she received three honors cords to wear around her neck with her graduation robe: a gold one for the National Honor Society, a blue one for Mu Alpha Theta, which is the Math Honor Society, and a red one for the Spanish Honor Society.
Only partly joking, I always told Natalee she could be anything she wanted to be as long as it was a doctor or a lawyer. Postgraduate work was already a given. Because she was so driven and hungry for achievement, she expected Matt and me to be the same. Sometimes we didn't measure up. I knew it was pointless to argue with her when we got into disagreements. There was no yelling involved, but it might be best described as passive-aggressive behavior on her part.
She could be tough, and very strong-willed. Matt and I always joked with one another about knowing when to stay out of her way! But in my eyes she always made good decisions. There were never drug, alcohol, or boyfriend issues with Natalee. It sounds too good to be true, but that's just who she was. She was unique.
In the weeks leading to graduation and the trip to Aruba, we also shopped for dresses for her to wear for sorority rush at the University of Alabama. Greek life is a big deal there, and Natalee was excited about getting into the sorority scene. We found two beautiful little sundresses that would be perfect for her to wear at the social parties. I vividly remember one afternoon about two days before she left on her trip when we were out shopping. I was looking for the opportunity to have a woman-to-woman talk with her about the nature of this trip, and our outing provided the perfect chance to remind her of the things that all parents tell their children as they transition into young adulthood. These are the same lessons parents teach their children all their lives: stay with your group and don't go with people you don't know, don't leave your drink unattended, and don't get into a situation or condition where you can't choose your free will and make your own decisions. Students Natalee's age are somewhat caught between that healthy fear of danger their parents teach them about as they're growing up, and complacency. They're too old to be guarded by adults all the time, but too young not to be reminded that there are dangerous people and dangerous places in the world. Natalee was almost grown. She was about to leave home. But I still reminded her to keep her personal safety as her first priority.
She acknowledged my warning with the typical teen reply, "Mom, I know. I know. I'll be careful..."
Natalee had never had a boyfriend per se, as in going steady, or "going out," as it's referred to these days. But she had plenty of "friendboys," as we called boys who were just friends. At Mountain Brook High School it seemed most of the boys and girls were part of big groups. Only a very few had actually paired up as couples. Natalee and I always talked very openly with each other about sexual matters. She confided to me that she was a virgin. And I let her know that I was very glad about that. I continued my lecture and explained that some men might try to engage her. "People who go on these exotic trips are generally there to have fun, but there are others who may have another agenda. You could be a target. They might try to get you drunk and take advantage of the situation. You need to be on your guard at all times and stay with people you know." It would be very difficult to identify a time when Natalee was not with her friends. She was always with her group. We joked about how they all traveled in a pack. She promised to be careful. And I had absolutely no reason not to believe her.
Parents teach children about the dangers of the world not to make them live in fear, but because it's just not safe anywhere anymore. It might not be safe in your own home on the Internet in a chat room, and it might not be safe on an exotic island trip with a hundred friends. I made sure Natalee heard me when I warned her to guard her personal safety.
A former Mountain Brook student had returned from his senior trip to Aruba two years prior and told about an experience he had in the popular nightspot there called Carlos 'n Charlie's. Some locals were trying to get a couple of his female classmates to leave with them when this young man stepped in. He said he believed that he had helped abort a potentially dangerous situation. My recollection of his chilling account of this experience gave me my first feeling of apprehension about the trip. Natalee and I discussed what happened to this former student, and I felt better after reminding her about the possible dangers she could face. She had proven to be very responsible all of her life. I trusted her to be able to take care of herself.
As the countdown to graduation and her senior trip ticked down, the time moved very fast. On Friday night Natalee danced at the senior prom. The following Tuesday night she walked across the stage and accepted her high-school diploma. Two days after that she left for Aruba. And by the next Monday morning she was missing.
While Natalee was going to be out of town, Jug was going to his lake house to visit with his family and friends. In our marriage, the second for both of us, we rarely vacationed together. My son, Matt, had made his own plans with friends for the weekend, so it was the perfect time for me to take a much-needed, overdue trip to my family's lake house in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I had not been there in a very long time. Birmingham is about nine hours away, so it was just too long a drive since moving here to make the trip on a regular basis. I was very much looking forward to visiting with my family. Everyone's plans were made.
In the wee hours on this Thursday morning Natalee and I loaded her things in the back of the car and headed off to her friend's house. It was very dark at that hour, and we were both only half awake. But we did talk some. Small talk. We reviewed what she had packed, going through a mental checklist of passport, cash, camera, sunscreen, and the like. When we arrived at her friend's house, she came to life. The adventure she had been excitedly awaiting for months was finally about to begin. She jumped out of the car and bounced to the back to get her bag. I got out and walked around the car to help her. She gathered her things and looked up long enough for me to kiss her on the cheek.
"I love you! Have a great time!" I told her.
She replied, "Bye, Mom! Love you!" and slung her purple duffel bag over her shoulder.
The bag made her walk slightly bent to its opposite side. I got back in the car as she made her way up the long walkway to the front door. Turning the car around to leave, I stopped and looked back over my shoulder to see her go inside. The front door of the house opened just wide enough for her to slip in. I saw her silhouette in the beam of light that shone from inside. The light narrowed as the door closed, then disappeared completely. It was pitch-black again. I drove away not knowing that would be the last time I would ever see Natalee.
I'm glad I'm alone to recount the events that have brought me to this place on this morning, preparing to pack up and leave this house and Mountain Brook. Standing in the doorway of Natalee's room, I unwillingly step inside to the center of it, look around slowly, take it all in. In what feels like slow motion, I bend my knees until they touch the floor, rest my hands on the light cream-colored rug in front of me, and roll over onto my right side. Curling up in a fetal position, my head tucked down, arms crossing over my chest, I close my eyes again. And the cry I have fought off for almost two years finally comes. The final good-bye cry. And it comes hard. From somewhere deep, deep inside me. And it feels as if it will never stop. As if the pain can never be contained again.
What does Beth think happened to Natalee?