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July 16, 2019

Etan Patz, National Missing Children’s Day, anxiety and all of us

May 25, 2018
Flowers and an issue of today’s New York Daily News were left out in commemoration of Etan Patz on Prince Street in SoHo. (Shawn Inglima/ for New York Daily News)

In most people’s worlds, May signals colder coffee, shorter clothes and longer stints outside. The weather gives us east coasters something to celebrate but nested inside this month is a significant day — one that honors missing kids.

May 25 is National Missing Children’s Day, and when it arrives this year, 39 years will have passed since Etan Patz vanished from his SoHo neighborhood on his way to school. He’d be 45 years old now with an entire life to call his own. But while everyone around him grew and aged, Etan remained a 6-year-old boy.

I grew up with an undiagnosed panic disorder. As a child, I couldn’t leave my mother without the debilitating fear that something would happen to her. I tried to have her in my sight at all times, but she kept sending me away: to school, to my father’s house for the weekend and to the doctor for tests. Maybe the tests were supposed to reveal what was wrong with me, but my worries were what was wrong with me, and no one tested those.

That May of 1979, I was 9 years old living on MacDougal St., not far from the Patz family. It’d been a big year: I’d started third grade at a new school, my mother remarried (a man with three kids), my grandfather was ill, my best friend had brain cancer and I was about to be sent away to sleep away camp for two months. The closer it drew to June, the stickier my breath, the thornier the branches of my lungs. How would I survive this?

On May 25, a month before I left home, a cop came to our door and held up a photo of Etan and asked to search our house. Except, he didn’t. He went straight to the roof, bypassing all closets, never once looking under a bed.

Up until Etan’s disappearance, my fears were constantly dismissed. People didn’t just vanish. Bad things don’t happen to kids. I knew they were wrong, because I could feel the panic in my body telling me otherwise but no one took me seriously. (It was the seventies, no adult took any child into deep consideration.)

The child they did take seriously was the one who proved all the adults wrong, but he had to disappear to get them to listen. The morning of May 25, 1979, something happened on his two-block walk that changed not only the course of his life, but his family, neighbors, city, and soon, the country.

My mother insisted he’d be back. She offered reasons for his disappearance: He’d lost track of time, he was at a friend’s and forgotten to call home, but as the days progressed, I felt my fears harden into fact. I’d been waiting my entire life for my fears to be proven true, and now they were.

For the rest of my life, I would anticipate the moment the people in my life would vanish. When I thought about having children, it called up a fantastic dread inside me, one that warned me not to create something the world could so easily take, and I didn’t.

While I was at camp that summer, my grandfather died. When I returned home, I learned that my best friend had also died. Yet learning that Etan was still missing made death easier to comprehend than missing. Etan Patz’s disappearance articulated the namelessness inside me and made my mental anguish visible to the world, although it wasn’t my anguish they were feeling. Now the mental anguish belonged to everyone.

I’ve always felt solemn on May 25 until one of my best friends gave birth to a baby boy. Now May 25th has another meaning for me. While I still mourn a little boy who is 6 forever, I celebrate another little boy, who turns 6 this year.

It’s hard to hold our sorrows and joys at the same time, but if we don’t begin practicing how to live with uncertainty, we’ll miss life altogether. When we allow ourselves to disappear into our sorrow and grief because we fear the horrors of the world, we deny those around us the right to be seen. If we’re missing from our own lives, how will we ever find those who are missing in the world?

Stern was born in New York City and raised in Greenwich Village. Her memoir, “Little Panic,” will be published by Grand Central on June 19.

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