Every night after work I strap my daughter, Esme, into her aging jogging stroller, wrestle with the 106-pound dog to get his collar on and set off down the street. Every night I walk past Carole Sund's house. She's a mom too, a mom who can be counted on to wave if she sees us, or come out and coo over the baby until heeding the call of one of her teenagers clamoring for pizza.
But for the past month I've walked by Carole's house with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing she wasn't there.
After a month of concern, then panic, then determined hope, then drawn-out fear for my neighbor who took a weekend trip with two of those teenagers and vanished, the charred remains of two bodies were found in the trunk of a rented 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix. On Monday, one body was identified. It's Carole. I try to connect the images I see on TV -- of the burned-out car hidden down a twisty road three hours from Yosemite -- with the woman I knew.
The Carole I knew was a fierce child advocate who founded our local chapter of CASA, which provides children a voice in court. She was the adoptive mom who wrote letters on behalf of children still in the system -- still waiting for families. And she was the mom who could always be counted on to show up at even the lamest potluck with extra paper plates and unconditional support.
"Hey! This tuna surprise is fantastic!" "Did you make those decorations yourself?" "Have you heard from the adoption agency? The waiting is the hardest part."
Waiting is the hardest part. For the past month since Carole disappeared on a sightseeing trip to Yosemite with her 15-year-old daughter, Julie, and their 16-year-old family friend, Silvina Pelosso, those of us tied to Carole through what she loved most, children, have become a community of mothers in mourning.
In Eureka, Calif., population 30,000, a six-hour drive from San Francisco up the coast, there is no Target, no Gap, no Wal-Mart. Our community assets are redwood trees and women like Carole. Strong, sturdy and often taken for granted. Until they're gone.
Every month in the mail I would get Carole's typed-up minutes of the council on adoptable children's monthly lunch meeting. She was one of a handful of wise, irreverent moms at the table, eating pasta salad and taking notes in a long, flowing hand: "Teresa suggests we watch the budget," "Cindy reports six new members joined last month," "Tammie volunteers to do party clean-up." I think of those notes of Carole's now, some of them so simple; they are the recordings of things that had to get done, details that every mother understands as necessary and important no matter how trivial they sound.
I met Carole when, as a childless single woman, I decided to adopt a baby girl from China. I didn't know then that women with different politics, hobbies, food preferences or ways of washing the dishes could become so fervently cemented together through one shared experience: motherhood.
I became a member of that not-so-secret club, and Carole was the woman who gave me its password: We're all just figuring it out as we go. Nervous and insecure? Join the club!
As a mother, Carole was passionate, fierce as a tigress. When I read those tabloid stories about mothers who, in an adrenalin rush, lift five-ton trucks off their trapped toddlers, I think of her.
So when I lie in bed at night staring up at the glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars with Esme clutching my neck, I can't help but re-create that exact moment when Carole realized that she and the girls were in desperate, desperate trouble. And she was powerless to keep them from harm.
It's that unthinkable fear that chips away at the soul of every mother.
I also think about her three adopted children at home, kids who have lost a mother not once, but twice.
Carole's now on the cover of People magazine. On "Dateline NBC" Jane Pauley talks about the tourists who went out to see the best nature has to offer, only to run into the worst of human nature. And Larry King uses Carole's case as the springboard for a TV discussion on "the existence of evil."
I don't know. All I know is that this one small community of mothers will never be the same without her.