Holiday heartache: Harringtons face Christmas without Morgan
"Today," says Dan Harringon, "I'm imagining that she did decide to leave, that she just started a new life somewhere."
His wife, Gil, gently chides him, calling the idea that their daughter, Morgan Harrington, could have voluntarily disappeared October 17 after attending a Metallica concert at UVA's John Paul Jones Arena, "impossible," and Dan manages a grim smile.
"It makes me feel better," he tells his wife, before turning to a reporter and admitting, "I don't really think that's the case."
Sitting in their comfortable living room in their Roanoke home less than two weeks before Christmas, the Harringtons say the last two months have been "hell on earth." And with no sign of their 20-year-old daughter, a Virginia Tech student who'd come to Charlottesville to attend the show and vanished after getting stuck outside the venue without her friends, there is no end to that earthly hell in sight.
They are coping, they say, in different ways.
While Gil, a nurse, is home, Dan, a psychiatrist, has gone back to work at Carilion Clinic, but only in his capacity as vice president of academic affairs.
"I can't see patients," he says. "It's like I'm crawling out of my skin."
The distraction of the part-time administrative work is welcome, he says, but it keeps the ongoing nightmare at bay only briefly, and the agony of not knowing where his daughter is–- if she's alive at all–- hits again and again, a merciless staccato of pain. The aftermath of Wednesday-evening meetings, during which he and his colleagues discuss the various young medical students and professionals they oversee, is particularly difficult.
"I break down and sob in the car on the way home," says Dan, as he imagines what may never happen in his own daughter's life: finishing college, pursuing a career, finding love, having her own family.
"Morgan," says her father, choking up, "had not fulfilled her potential yet. It's such a waste."
Gil, a slip of a woman with strawberry blond hair in a ponytail, dressed in black, her face drawn, is also finding ways to cope, as well as ways to ensure that whatever happened to Morgan doesn't destroy the rest of her family including the couple's 22-year-old son, Alex, who lives in New York.
"We are being made into something different," she says softly. "But I don't want it to be something sour."
As she talks, Christmas music plays softly in the background. While joyful melodies are typical household music in mid-December, here they underscore an internal struggle.
"I don't want to celebrate," says Gil, "but I want to acknowledge tradition, if nothing else."
There is no Christmas tree here, but a plain green wreath hangs on the front door, adorned only with a yellow ribbon. It's another compromise between a family tradition of making elaborate wreaths and an impulse to do nothing at all.
"We're establishing a tradition of our new life," says Gil. "I don't want it to be that we batten down the hatches and say we won't celebrate holidays ever again."
With no new information in the case over the past several weeks, the national media spotlight has moved to other stories. But according to Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, Morgan's case remains "very active" as police continue to follow up on approximately 600 tips, but none so far have allowed them to extend the official timeline past 9:30pm, when Morgan was seen by multiple witnesses with her thumb out, hitchhiking on the Copeley Road bridge.
Dan and Gil say they remain mystified by what could have happened to their daughter and by descriptions of her behavior, which reportedly included falling and injuring her face, kicking someone outside the Arena, and–- in a new detail that Geller now confirms–- repeatedly dropping her purse.
That last detail may help explain why various of Morgan's belongings were found in a separate location near the place where the purse was discovered in the RV lot. "It was like they'd spilled out," says Geller, maintaining that the intact purse showed no evidence of struggle.
"What happened in the bathroom seems critical," says Gil, noting that when Morgan last saw the two friends with whom she attended the show, she told them she was going to the ladies room. "We don't know if she took something or was given something. None of this makes sense," says Gil, adding that Morgan had no history of getting in trouble for substance use or abuse.
To some, the silence of Morgan's friends, who have almost entirely refrained from commenting to media outlets, seems questionable. But both Gil and Dan are adamant that Morgan's friends should not be vilified, with Dan likening Morgan's case to the "wrong leg being amputated in the ER." Many factors, many mistakes by different people, he says, led to one devastating outcome.
"There is someone to blame," he says: the person who took her.
"Someone should not be taken, raped and murdered," he says. "That's what we have to believe the bad outcome is here."
Yet despite being forced to face that brutal possibility, the Harringtons, although constantly correcting themselves when they use the past tense to discuss Morgan, insist they have not given up hope. Morgan's room remains untouched, her bed neatly made, a pair of Chuck Taylor hightops sit in her closet next to a pair of black stiletto ankle boots. The Harringtons are also keeping Morgan's Blacksburg apartment, 35 minutes away, although they say her roommate, Amy Melvin, has moved out.
The Harringtons say they understand the quieting news cycle but wish attention could stay focused on finding Morgan. They mention the $150,000 reward and express hope someone will soon claim it.
"It's time," says Gil, "for someone to come forward."
The absence of reporters calling and television crews setting up in their house is also leaving them with more time to absorb the horrific reality.
"How can we even be having this conversation? It's absurd!" Dan suddenly exclaims during an interview, before falling silent, as though the surreality of what has happened is hitting him for the first time.
They reminisce about this past summer, when Morgan suddenly seemed more adult than child. They laughed together watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, took a beach trip, ate meals together.
"We call it the 'miracle summer,'" says Gil, explaining the name doesn't imply that there were problems before–- only that Morgan had, after years as a friend-obsessed teenager, at last seemed genuinely interested in spending time with her parents and moving toward a relationship of equals.
"We didn't know that in 20 years we were supposed to pack in a lifetime," says Gil.
While Dan has his day-to-day work, Gil is looking ahead to a long-planned journey she'll take this spring to Africa with the nonprofit Orphan Medical Network International, a group bringing medical supplies to impoverished villages. It's her sixth such trip, and in her garage, she is assembling "birthing kits," zip-lock baggies packed with items including a large piece of plastic, two pieces of string to tie off an umbilical cord, a sterile razor blade to cut the cord, and a towlette. The kits cost less than $1.50 to put together from Lowe's, says Gil, yet they are prized possessions in a world where mothers deliver infants alone in huts and often perish from infection, leaving their babies to die of starvation. Knowing that she is not the only mother who suffers, and having seen other women's suffering up close, helps her stave off self-pity.
"Even if I can't find my child, save my girl," says Gil, who imagines herself as an umbrella, protecting those she pulls close, "I'm going to make sure I'm saving someone."
But she's not ready to give up on Morgan.
"The hole that she leaves," she says simply, "is unfillable."
Anyone with information about Morgan Harrington's disappearance is urged to call the Virginia State Police hotline at 434-352-3467. Anonymous tips are accepted.