In Her Words
Caylee and Madeleine: Little Girls Lost
As a mother, I’m gripped by two of the saddest stories this holiday season
-April Daniels Hussar
The town I grew up in became famous for its lost girl. Polly Klass, only 12, was kidnapped from a slumber party at her home in my quiet northern California community of Petaluma. For two months our town – and then the nation – perhaps the world – waited and hoped with fearful, bated breath for her safe return. Of course, she was found, but not alive. Her rapist and killer Richard David Chapman lives today on death row.
I was a teenager then, a junior in high school. It was a shocking, saddening event, but if I’m honest with myself I know that it only affected me in a peripheral way. I didn’t know the Klass family personally, and I was still cocooned in the bubble of illusory safety that protects most well adjusted teenagers. Today I have a daughter of my own, and I now know – truly, really know – that the greatest, most unimaginable – almost unnamable – fear of a mother is to lose her child. There can be nothing worse.
Perhaps that is why, as the holiday season reaches its peak – Christmas music on my car radio, cookies baking and being decorated, presents from Santa Claus waiting in hiding places – two of the most gripping news stories to me involve this ultimate, horrific tragedy: Little girls lost. The remains of little Caylee Anthony have been identified. And in England, Madeleine McCann’s parents are about to undergo their second Christmas without their baby girl, stolen that dreadful night in Portugal.
The McCann’s story is a parent’s “if only” nightmare come to life. Kate and Gerry, while on holiday in the Portuguese beach resort of Praia da Luz in May, 2007, left 3-year-old Madeleine and her 2-year-old twin siblings asleep in their vacation villa while they dined close by in a restaurant within the same resort. I imagine the daily torture of their “if only” thoughts … If only we had been more vigilant, if only we hadn’t left the children alone, if only, if only. The ultimate punishment for doing something they obviously felt was perfectly safe, at the time. If only.
I find myself drawn to these stories, even as I know I should avoid them. I read that a memorial set up for Caylee in the location where her “remains” (how can such a word have anything to do with the gorgeous, pure vitality that is a child?) were found last week serves as a glaring reminder of her fate for over 900 children who pass the site on their way to school. I read that Casey Anthony entered a “hot body contest” at a bar as police searched for her missing daughter, and the scope of my imagination and ability to extend the benefit of the doubt to a fellow mother stretches, snaps past its limit. I read that the McCanns – whose grief and hope I can imagine but not fathom – have released a fresh appeal for help, sharing private footage of Madeleine that must seem as if it was taken in another lifetime. I can neither bear it nor tear my eyes away.
Most of all, I look at those same photographs of Caylee and Madeleine’s sweet little faces, and I can’t help but see my own little girl’s face – just a little bit older than those lost daughters, just as sweet, just as innocent, just as at the mercy of those who should protect her.
I already feel as if an invisible golden rope wraps around my heart, tethered to my daughter’s body. The bigger she grows, the farther away she moves from me before she comes back … to school and playdates now; overnights and longer journeys will follow. The farther away she goes, the more the rope stretches, the tighter it becomes around my heart. It never breaks. I think of all the mothers with lost children, still tethered by their constricted hearts – even yes, the mothers who were the source of harm – and it’s all I can do not to reel in the rope and keep my child within my sight every second of every day. I can only be as vigilant as possible, and thank God, heaven, the universe, for the gift of that golden tether, even as it makes my heart ache.