On the Road: The Case of the Missing Minivan

I am a busy working mother. I have 3 boys, the oldest of whom, Ryan, is severely affected by autism. I suffer from working mother guilt. I always feel like I should be home more with Ryan or with my youngest son who is still in kindergarten, or with my middle child who is probably starved for attention. But I love my work, because I have the extraordinary fortune of being a professional advocate for the autism community. I spend my days, as the New York Times once put it, “barnstorm[ing] the country in an effort to get [autism insurance] laws passed.”

My friends who are familiar with my family life, work demands, and travel schedule often say, “I don’t know how you do it. How do you keep it all together?” Today, I will answer that question.

I don’t.

I don’t “keep it all together,” and this week’s column will prove it.

The Stolen Minivan

Allow me to share the somewhat embarrassing story about my stolen minivan. In May, my husband and I realized that our 10-year-old Toyota Sienna minivan was missing from our driveway, where we kept it parked. Upon discovery of the missing van, we did not panic, like a normal family might do, because our house and our lives are just chaotic enough that a missing van could be innocently explained in any number of ways. Maybe one of the dozen people who routinely work in our home (ABA therapists, STs, OTs, babysitters) had borrowed it. We’re laid-back people and the therapists, who are now like family, very well could have borrowed our van without asking.

As days went by and the van did not reappear, we became suspicious, but scarcely had time to think about it. Finally, one weekend, my husband and I sat down to discuss whether we could figure out what happened to our van and determined there was no explanation. Slowly, we began to realize and accept that our van must have been stolen.

Now, let me digress for a paragraph and explain that I had experienced the unusual good fortune a few months earlier of winning a new car. As the recipient of the NASCAR Foundation’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award for 2012, I had won not only a $100,000 contribution to the charity of my choice, but also a new Toyota. So this minivan with 200,000 miles on it had become a spare car for our household.

We tried to explain that to the police officers when we finally summoned them to our house to report our stolen vehicle. “Yes, we still have all the keys; it must have been hot-wired.” “No, we didn’t notice any suspicious people in our neighborhood.” “Yes, we think it’s been gone for a few weeks but we didn’t bother to report it until tonight.” The police must have thought us mad, and simply explaining that “we’re autism parents” didn’t work in this context.

The Revelation

Over the summer, we came to terms with the loss of our beloved van, in which we had made many memorable Unumb family road trips. And we dealt with the feeling of violation that accompanies theft from your home.

What does all of this have to do with Lorri Unumb not keeping it all together? Fast forward 6 months. A few weeks ago, I was returning from a multi-city trip that began with my flying to Washington, D.C. and ended with a 2-day meeting in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is only 90 minutes from my home, so I rode home with a colleague rather than flying after the meeting ended on Friday. The colleague took me to my hometown airport to pick up my car, which had been parked there since Sunday. As I pulled out of my parking spot, I noticed that the vehicle parked beside me had the same bumper sticker as my car (for my sons’ school). Then I noticed that it had another sticker in common with mine. And then I noticed that the vehicle beside me was a Toyota Sienna minivan.

I stopped my car and jumped out. I circled the minivan and peered in the windows. It was my stolen minivan! I pulled out my Blackberry and started frantically taking pictures. I called my husband but couldn’t get through. I wanted him to rush to the airport to offer support, because the thieves could come out at any minute to drive the van away. Should I call the police? Should I camp out by the van? What should I do to protect the stolen van?

I kept circling the van and taking more pictures. Wow, the van was dirty. Whoever had stolen it had not taken good care of it. I noticed cobwebs on the mirrors and around the tires. They must have driven it from my house that night as a getaway car – flown off from Columbia Metropolitan Airport and left it here for the last 6 months.

As I looked further in the windows, I marveled that it looked just like I had left it. My scrunchies were still on the seat. My box of granola bars was still on the floor.

Then, like a scene from a bad movie, the scenario began to unravel. A revelation crept slowly into my mind. This was my van alright, but I bet it had not been stolen. No thieves had escaped with it and left it at the airport, right on the row where I usually park. I bet I had parked it here 6 months ago and forgotten it!

I was still a little afraid to leave the van, but I drove home to get my husband and the van key. Back at the airport, the van would not start – dead battery – but, while in the driver’s seat, I found the parking garage ticket under the visor, right where I always put parking garage tickets. The van had entered the parking garage at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 21st. I whipped out my calendar to determine if I had flown anywhere on April 21st. Sure enough, my calendar reflected a 7:40 a.m. departure from Columbia to Atlanta to Salt Lake City to San Jose, where I spoke at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies autism conference on Monday, April 22nd. I scrolled through the next few days on the calendar and pieced it together. While in San Jose, Autism Speaks North Carolina lobbyist Jimmy Broughton had called to ask if I could be in Raleigh for some legislator meetings on Wednesday. I rebooked my Tuesday return flight to end in Raleigh instead of Columbia. It was perfect, because -- in another travel story that merits its own column -- I had unexpectedly left my car in Raleigh a month before, asking Jimmy to “hold on to it” and promising I’d pick it up “sometime. “ Now, the travel gods were smiling on my hectic schedule: I flew into Raleigh, met with North Carolina legislators on Wednesday, fetched my car from Jimmy, and then drove 4 hours home in my car, pleased that I had made good on my promise to Jimmy to eventually retrieve my car from him in Raleigh.

Apparently, I never had another thought about the minivan, parked in the first row of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport parking garage since Sunday at 7:00 a.m.

As if this story is not embarrassing enough, consider that I have flown thousands of miles in my work with Autism Speaks over the last 6 months. How many times, I wonder, did I walk right past our old minivan without noticing it?

So . . . as a busy mom with 3 young kids and a demanding full-time job, how do I get everything done I’m supposed to get done? How do I remember everything I’m supposed to remember? How do I keep it all together?

Clearly, I don’t. :)

“It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village”


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