Ten weeks before I was born in 1979, Etan Patz went missing. I wasn’t aware of his case until many years later, when I tried persuading my mom—at the age of 9—to allow me to ride the Manhattan transit system alone. Already I was worried that the yellow school bus that safely brought me to school and home would permanently peg me as a dork. Besides, I’d noted in whatever haughty way a short, skinny little girl can muster, the school gave me a city bus pass.
My mother calmly told me no and when I persisted she explained her reasoning in two words: Etan Patz. At the age of 6 he left his apartment downtown, alone, to go to his school’s bus stop. No one heard from him ever again. What happened to him? I wondered in my bedroom that night, after my mother tucked me into my warm, cozy bed. I was safe, because she was a room away, but Etan didn’t have the luxury of such comfort. Left to my imagination, I went where human minds often do—to the worst place imaginable. I didn’t pester my mom about going to school on my own again for at least a few more years.
Through the years his name would come up on the news now and again; a new lead that would end shortly thereafter, or a milestone anniversary would that be announced with some muted fanfare, although I never liked such a word associated with something so tragic. Outside of those small mentions, I didn’t think about Etan Patz while I was getting older. I partly pushed him from my mind and partly felt that I’d grown out of his cautionary tale. I no longer feared men luring me into their cars with candy, as my mom once warned me, or mistakenly going home with a stranger who’d told me he or she was sent to pick me up after school.
As of last week, the boy who would now be 39-years-old is in the news again. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but when I heard his name I thought first of his mother and father. What a life-altering, life-stopping, tragedy it must be to lose a child; a “parents’ worst nightmare” my mom told me so many times through the years. The possibility of such an incident is enough to make me never want children of my own.
It took this re-emergence of Etan’s case to make me realize why I was so affected by his story so many years before—and why afterwards I essentially made myself forget about him. It wasn’t that a ghoul or murderer took him, or even that at such a young age he was separated from his parents. What happened to Etan became important because my mind couldn’t figure out why him and not someone else. His case was my first brush with an idea that still horrifies me to this day.
Sometimes, like is inexplicably unfair.
I wish I could comfort Etan’s parents but there is nothing anyone can say to make them feel better. Their son is dead, although perhaps soon they’ll have his remains and maybe that will bring them some measure of closure. Maybe it won’t. I’m not them so I can’t say.
Instead I can only offer up my condolences. No one should ever have to live through what they have, which is life at it’s unfairest.