Raising Richmond: “They don’t belong to us.”

I can’t stop thinking about them–her, specifically. Because she’s a mother of a little boy, and so am I.

I can’t stop thinking about them–her, specifically. Because she’s a mother of a little boy and so am I.

The difference is her son will always be a little boy. God willing, mine will grow up and let us see the teenage version of himself, the adult version, maybe the husband and father version. But Julie Patz, mother to Etan who went missing over 30 years ago, will never get to see beyond the six-year-old version of her son.

The Patz family lived—is living, will always live—my (and probably most parents’) worst nightmare. One Friday morning in May of 1979 their young son left their apartment by himself for the first time to walk two blocks to his bus stop. He never made it there. Thirty-three years later to the day of Etan’s disappearance, a man named Pedro Hernandez was officially charged with his murder. Hernandez allegedly lured Etan into the basement of the bodega where he worked with the promise of a free soda. According to Hernandez’s confession, he then choked Etan, stuffed the boy’s body into a trash bag, and dumped the bag into the garbage.

He dumped their little boy into the garbage.

I keep picturing the conversations the Patz family possibly had leading up to the morning Etan disappeared: Etan begging for permission to walk by himself, his parents talking it over, maybe a little psych-up/reminders session before he walked out the door. And what sucks all of the breath out of my lungs is the question of parental instincts. How hesitant were Etan’s parents to let him walk to the bus stop alone? Did their instincts tell them he would be ok? Or did they decide to go against their instincts in the name of helping Etan gaining some independence?

I suppose it doesn’t really matter which scenario is true; both would create their own particular prisons of guilt and agony.

Etan wasn’t the first (or, heartbreakingly so, the last) child to disappear, to be taken from his parents. But for some reason, whenever I see his picture on the news, something clamps around my heart with a vice-like grip that won’t let go until I pause to take a deep breath; sometimes I need to make physical contact with my son to make it go away. Maybe it’s the stick-straight hair that refuses to part or the smile that seems to express equal parts sweetness and mischievousness. My son JR is only three—half the age Etan was when he disappeared—but when looking at those images…it could so easily be our kid. And there’s only so much we can do to make sure it isn’t. The reality is that this world is both fantastic and completely messed up. As much as we all wish it weren’t the case, there will always be people capable of doing horrible, heinous things. Living in the world, bringing children into this world, means making ourselves vulnerable to the actions of others–good or unimaginably bad.

So what do we do with that?

I’ll admit that my natural impulse is to shut down. I want to hold on to JR as tightly as possible for as long as I can—locks on the doors, bars on the windows, full background checks on each and every individual with whom he might interact. Meanwhile, I’m convinced that if I invest enough time worrying about what could happen to him, the universe will see that I recognize our smallness and drop tragedy on the head of some unsuspecting dope who DARED to have a positive outlook on life. I think we all know that approach isn’t exactly healthy or productive. Keeping JR out of the world won’t protect him from it—and it certainly won’t prepare him for it.

Last week I talked with a close friend about Etan’s story and the resulting deep-rooted panic I was feeling in response to it. She also has a son—a six-month-old—but despite the fact that she’s logged considerably fewer mother hours than I have, she was able to pass along some wisdom. Actually, I believe her mother shared it with her first, but my friend was astute enough to know I needed to hear it right then.

“As much as we love our kids, they don’t belong to us.”

That statement shattered me…because it’s awful and wonderful and true. As much as we longed for our children, as much as we see them as gifts, as much as it is our job to care for them wholeheartedly, they aren’t ours. They’re lent to us for a while. All we can do is love them the best we can, protect them while they’re with us, and have faith in what that love and protection teaches them. And we send them on their way, trusting that all our work in raising them keeps them strong and safe—and hoping that world will be kind to our babies.

After our conversation, I thought of a song that’s included on a CD I used to play for JR off and on when he was tiny. It’s based on Kahlil Gibran’s thoughts on children from The Prophet. Regardless of what belief system you subscribe to (if any), it’s hard to deny how on-point he is:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
But seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
As living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
And He bends you with His might
That His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves also the bow that is stable.

Those words don’t make what happened to the Patz family any less tragic. If anything, it cuts deeper because perhaps they knew all this about raising a child; they chose to let go a bit and ended up in a nightmare. But I can’t—I won’t–let what could happen to my son prevent me from letting anything happen to him. As hard as it can be, I have to be that stable bow for him. At some point we all have to just breathe deep, hold our kids up as they find their aim…and shoot.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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