For more than a decade, Brenda Adams has been logging contacts in the case of her missing son, Harold Clifton Cooper III. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Nearly 10 years after her son disappeared, Brenda Adams celebrated the man’s 30th birthday the way he would have wanted her to. Family and friends scarfed down fried chicken, his favorite food. A DJ blasted “Atomic Dog,” his favorite song.

The party was a happy distraction, an opportunity to pay tribute to the life of Harold Clifton Cooper III.

Adams’s daily reality is not so joyous.

The 49-year-old Fort Washington nurse does not celebrate the holidays. It’s too painful, she said, without her son. Even watching the news can be a struggle. When unidentified human remains are found, Adams cannot bear the thought that they might be Cooper’s.

“When I hear stuff like that, I just try to block it out,” Adams said, adding that she thinks to herself: “ ‘Oh God. I ain’t claiming that one.’ ”

Bonnie Harris, right, wipes tears from the face of her sister, Brenda Adams, who talks about the mysterious disappearance of her son, Harold Clifton Cooper III. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing. Most are found as quickly as they’re lost. The runaway teenager returns home. The elderly relative wanders back.

Cooper’s case is different.

One afternoon in August 2001, Cooper called his grandmother to say he was coming to her house in Virginia. Family members said they think he was in Bladensburg at the time, visiting his girlfriend.

He has not been seen or heard from since.

Police said they have interviewed and re-interviewed Cooper’s friends. They have met with family members as recently as last year. They have even consulted the now-retired detective who had worked the case.

“We’ve considered foul play. We’ve considered some sort of accident. We’re continuing to match the description of this man between John Does and any remains that turn up,” said Julie Parker, a Prince George’s County police spokeswoman. “So far, that has not been a match.”

In the national database that tracks missing people, Cooper is listed as “missing,” Parker said. His is among about 11,000 such cases that are more than a decade old, according to National Crime Information Center data.

Cooper grew up in the District and attended Anacostia High School. He was the oldest of five siblings and was close to his mother. His father was beaten to death when Cooper was a boy, and the young man became very protective of Adams, family members said.

“He didn’t like no guys to look at me,” Adams said. “He’s like, ‘What you looking at my mother for?’ ”

The last time he was seen, Cooper was less than a month shy of his 21st birthday, and he was working in a warehouse in the District, family members said.

Adams keeps Cooper’s clothes packed in a closet. When family members donated some old stuff to the United Way recently, she insisted that they leave Cooper’s things alone. She is waiting, she said, for her son to come home.

But waiting has not been easy.

In the years after Cooper vanished, Adams called police again and again, making handwritten notes in a journal of each person she talked to. She reached out to the news media and national missing persons organizations, hoping they might be able to help.

Perhaps because the case is old, perhaps because her son was not a celebrity, everyone’s interest has seemed to fade, Adams said. But her grief hasn’t.

“It’s like you just lost in the dark,” Adams said. “That’s my baby.”

At night, Adams said she tosses and turns as images of her son flash through her head. Talking about Cooper on a recent evening, she broke down in tears. Bonnie Harris, her sister, pulled her to her chest. “It’s gonna be okay,” Harris said. “Be strong for Harold.”

Adams said her life is dominated by her nursing job and her other children, who have become familiar with their mother’s refrain: “Who you going with? I need names and numbers.” Doting on them, Adams said, helps keep her mind off her oldest son.

On what would have been Cooper’s 30th birthday celebration last year, family members released 30 yellow balloons in a gesture of hope that he will return. Deep down, Adams said, she has her doubts. But if he walks through the door tomorrow, Adams said, a bed is ready.

“All he has to do is call me and say, ‘Mom, I’m on my way,’ ” Adams said. “And I’ll be frying that chicken.”

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