After 33 years, someone has confessed to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz. And people immediately start speaking of "closure."
Patty Wetterling hates the word.
Since 1989, she and her husband have writhed in the same hell as Stan and Julie Patz. Whatever path they might have been on, it was irrevocably altered that October evening when a masked man walked away with their 11-year-old boy, Jacob.
"Once you're a victim of a crime like this, your life takes a very different direction," the St. Joseph, Minn., woman says. "It doesn't really close anything, because everything just became different from that point on. But it does provide answers."
Thanks to the wonders of modern computer graphics, these parents can watch their children "age" — digitally, at least. But no one can write a program capable of generating the milestones — high school graduation, college, marriage, parenthood — that come along with growing up.
Some, like Mike and Maddi Misheloff of Dublin, Calif., exist in a kind of suspended animation, unwilling to move or even redecorate the lost one's bedroom.
Many, like the Patzes, live with the "what ifs." What if they hadn't given in to his "please," hadn't let him make his first solo walk to the school bus stop that May day in 1979?
A few suffer under a cloud of suspicion themselves — like Judy Moore of Jackson, Ky., whose 6-year-old son, Kelly, disappeared in 1982 while playing in the snow.
Back when Etan vanished, authorities put the children's faces on milk cartons. Today, their names and images flash across the Internet and digital highway signs.
It is a horrifying truth that the best some families can hope for is that their child is being held against their will, says activist John Walsh.
Before her rescue in 2009, Jaycee Dugard was repeatedly raped and gave birth to two daughters during 18 years of captivity at the hands of a known sex offender in California. Still, her mother could eventually put her arms around her again, says Walsh, host of television's "America's Most Wanted."
"Against all hope and reality, every now and then a child comes back alive," says Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida department store in July 1981 and murdered. "So that's why these people keep their rooms and their phone numbers, because it's part of the staying mentally sane. It's part of the being able to cope with the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you — your beautiful, loving child disappears."
Through his show, Walsh has helped capture more than 1,200 criminals and bring home about 60 missing children. He knows the Patzes and has shared their heartache each time a lead evaporated, and one "breakthrough" after another ended in disappointment.
"My wife has a wonderful saying," says Walsh. "It's like a mortal wound that you don't die from. It heals over and it has a scab on it. And events like that crack it open, and it bleeds. It'll never die."
Across America, as the Patzes wait to see if they will at last get justice for Etan, parents' hearts are bleeding anew.
With their other two children grown and out on their own, the Misheloffs' house is a bit too big for them. But they wouldn't dream of moving while there is still a chance that Ilene might return.
"She has to come back to HER house," her father says.
"This is her home," his wife agrees. "We have to be here for her."
They have left their daughter's room just as it was on Jan. 30, 1989 — the day she vanished. Not as a shrine, Maddi Misheloff says, but simply because, "It's her room.
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