My daughter, my first child, was born May 1, 1979. It was the same year, the same month that Etan Patz went missing. At the time, I was living in Buffalo, N.Y., and his story dominated the news. How could it not?
A 6-year-old boy vanishes in broad daylight while doing something so routine as walking to his school bus stop. Pictures of this smiling, angelic child reinforced the horror. As a new mother, I tried to imagine what his mother and his father were feeling. I thought about how I would be bargaining with God and how, despite my best efforts, I would be going through the “what ifs.” I hoped for the happy ending that became more unlikely with each day and week. And eventually years.
In 1981, when another smiling, angelic boy named Adam Walsh similarly vanished while on a mundane shopping trip with his mother, there were the inevitable comparisons to Etan Patz. This time, though, the family was provided with an answer — a horrible one — when the boy’s severed head was found in a Florida canal. Thinking of the two families, I had to wonder what was worse: knowing or not knowing?
“I just cannot imagine what they have gone through,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of Etan’s parents on Thursday night when, improbably after all these years, an arrest was finally made. A telling detail of the parent’s pain and hope — recounted in the stories that appeared on each anniversary of Etan’s disappearance — was of how they refused to move from their SoHo neighborhood or change their home phone number to make it easier for their son to find them.
There are, of course, still questions to be answered as to whether the 51-year-old man who confessed to the crime is telling the truth. Pedro Hernandez, according to the New York Times, told police he lured Etan to the basement of a bodega with the promise of soda, choked him and stuffed his body in a bag that he left out in the open with trash. Supposedly, when he later returned, the boy’s body was gone.
Like Mayor Bloomberg, I hope this long-sought development brings some relief to Etan’s parents. I feel that I owe them some debt because their loss — like that of Adam’s family — helped to make society more aware of the dangers to young children and improve how authorities react.