She didn’t notice it was gone at first, not in the midnight confusion of a canceled flight, not in the scrum at customer service, not in the sleepy courtesy van ride to an airport hotel where her luggage would not be waiting.
The loss didn’t register until the next morning, when Bridget Hughes realized she had no hairbrush and went to hide her messy hair with the floppy brown hat that she takes everywhere. The hat wasn’t in her backpack – the only bag she had with her.
Oh no, oh no, I can’t have lost this, she remembers thinking.
Flip through her Facebook photo albums, and you will see that Bridget Hughes is a woman of many hats: A ski hat with pompoms, and a birthday crown fashioned from a brown paper bag and glitter. There’s Bridget goofing with friends in some sort of zombie do-rag, and in her college mortarboard, and in an inadequate-looking helmet she wore bungee jumping off a bridge in Ecuador.
But most of all, you will see her in the floppy brown knit Gap hat that her mother wore while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Bridget, now 23, was 7 when Lynn Hughes died on Feb. 12, 1997. Her daughter remembers how her sick mother would make her giggle by flipping up the brim and joking about “my Indiana Jones look.”
Every so often, as Bridget was growing up, her Aunt Diane would mark a special occasion by presenting her with some keepsake of her mother’s, such as the class ring that was too small for Bridget’s finger, or the flowery comforter that was too big to take anywhere.
But the brown hat fit perfectly, and Bridget could smell her mother’s lost scent in the soft, old yarn. It finally became hers just this past August, to celebrate Bridget’s move from her native Pennsylvania to Las Cruces, N.M., where she teaches preschool as an AmeriCorps volunteer.
“It was the only possession of hers I could constantly carry with me,” she said.
Look at the Facebook album again: There’s Bridget in her brown hat -- whitewater rafting, climbing a mountain, sitting in church, kissing her boyfriend. (They met when he responded to her profile picture – in the hat – on an online dating site).
She knows she had the cap Sunday night: She pulled it over her eyes while napping in the Phoenix airport during a layover on her trip home from Thanksgiving.
On Monday morning, she retraced her steps from hotel to shuttle van to Sky Harbor International Airport to the US Airways gate. No one had seen her hat. She left a message with the airport’s Lost and Found, and spent much of the day searching the terminal until her flight that night.
The next day, she decided to give it one last shot, and posted the story of her missing hat on Facebook.
“So, I’ve turned it over to the power of social media, all for a hat that represents the fierce goofy independent spirit of a woman that is my mother,” she wrote. “If anyone is willing to just share this status, I’ll be really grateful.”
Before she knew it, the 63 friends of Bridget Hughes who shared it had become more than 165,000 around the world, accompanied by thousands of comments.
[Updated on Nov. 30 at 3 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect a higher number of Facebook shares.]
She heard from other daughters who had lost mothers, from other mothers who longed to comfort her. Strangers offered prayers from Australia, the Netherlands and the Jersey Shore. Montreal sent hugs. Arizonans offered to search the airport and call every trash collector in Phoenix. Well-wishing witches offered spells involving spilled salt and broken cords. All echoed the hopeful rallying cry of an Englishman who commented: “Let’s get this hat home!”
The airport was besieged with enough calls, emails and Tweets to post reassurances on its own Facebook page that everything possible was being done to find the hat.
“Someone will find a $100 bill and turn it in,” airport spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said hopefully. “We have 200 lost items a week, and an average of one-third of them are returned.”
Bridget Hughes knows the chances of getting her beloved hat back are slim.
“If I do, that would be awesome,” she says. “And if I don’t, I will grieve the loss of it, but feel immensely blessed at the same time, and immensely grateful, that so many people cared for me.”
In a way, she wonders if that’s what her mother meant to give her all along.
“This has her fingerprints all over it,” she said.