There is no easy way to write about Etan Patz. We were living in New York’s east village, just a few blocks from where the six-year-old boy disappeared 33 years ago. Our first child was almost two. So the news reports hit close to home. In those days the abduction of a child seemed a rarity. It was before Megan’s Law. Before Brian David Mitchell took 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart to be his “second wife.” Before 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard spent 18 years in a series of sheds and gave birth to two children.
Etan was the first missing child to have his face on a milk carton, and for many of us he will always be that impish and innocent little boy – the adventurous first grader who begged his parents to let him walk alone to his school bus stop just one block away – until they finally relented on May 25, 1979. Now designated National Missing Children’s Day, it was also the date last Friday that police charged Pedro Hernandez with Etan’s murder.
But while Etan’s smile has remained stopped in time, our lives have not. We have grown older, perhaps had our own tragedies. But I will not forget that face.
The death – or worse, the disappearance – of a child puts unimaginable pressures on a family. At first, it draws them closer, but people cope in different ways, heal at different rates, if at all. For many couples the death of a child ultimately brings the end of their marriage.
Etan’s parents still live in the same loft on the same street in Soho. In 33 years of indescribable pain, they have given us an image of extraordinary grace.