Leah Eichler is a writer in Toronto
When I was 12, my uncle spontaneously decided to whisk me and my twin brother away to Florida for our birthday. The plan was to surprise my grandparents, who wintered there, and then continue to Disney World. It’s difficult to underscore how big of a deal this was. We weren’t the kind of people who could readily afford a trip to Disney World and the promise of three days alone with my young, hip and single uncle opened something inside me: a window to freedom.
As a bookish kid in a non-bookish family, I stood out painfully. But my uncle, he got me. We could talk about books, about current events, even about religion. He was an Orthodox Jew but also the child of Holocaust survivors, and it was clear even to my young eyes that he struggled with the logic of how God permitted such evil in the world.
He was funny and magnetic, bordering on mercurial. In hindsight, he likely suffered from a major, undiagnosed mental-health issue as well as addiction issues, but my younger self didn’t understand that. I only knew that when he was good, he loved me like the daughter he would never have. When he was bad, his anger and vulgarity never failed to surprise me. But the worst times were when he just disappeared.
As long as I can remember, I worried about the day he would never come back. Did he sleep on the street; did he stay with friends; did he leave the country? No one ever knew. In my heart, I knew one day it would be my job to look for him, when no one else did. He didn’t live long enough for me to try.
My mind wanders back to him whenever a missing person lands on the news agenda, as it has with Gabby Petito over the past few weeks. While the obvious similarities between a slain celebrity Instagrammer and my uncle, who likely never owned a cellphone and died of disease and neglect, remain few and far between, it’s that feeling of missing that pokes at a sore spot in my chest.
I’ve realized that this emotion of missing, the longing for closure, has permeated my professional life. My novel, The Never Ending, follows a journalist’s obsession with a missing girl, and every story I’ve written since then captures, in some way, the longing for a missing person.
While we can collectively mourn the tragedy of Ms. Petito’s disappearance and death, the truth is missing people are surprisingly common, so common that the only surprise, really, is meeting someone who hasn’t been touched with this type of loss.
Lots of ink has already been spilled on why Ms. Petito draws so much attention, compared with the 600,000 people who go missing every year in the United States, or the 70,000 to 80,000 in Canada. This argument, understandably, gets raised every time a missing person story goes viral. Yes, it’s tragic that the young, white, affluent missing person gets all the media’s focus. Still, in Ms. Petito’s case, it appears the interest also stems from our obsession with presenting ourselves as perfect on social media. In this case, as in many others, that perception is deceiving and, in some cases, deadly.
For now, rather than focus on why Ms. Petito gets all the attention, let’s take the time to mull that nagging emotion of missing someone. The pandemic, if anything, has highlighted how physically damaging it can be to miss people. As social animals, we need people. We like to believe our relationships are solid, that love is somehow inextricably linked to permanence. Missing our loved ones, if anything, highlights how impermanent even our closest relationships can be.
Many people, my uncle included, often go missing of their own volition – not uncommon with those engaging in maladaptive behaviours. He’d reappear as if neither of us skipped a beat. Perhaps I was too young to ask him directly, or too worried about his response, but the lesson learned was that we cannot hang on to anyone.
We can pick apart all the details of missing people and falsely reassure ourselves that if we don’t follow the same script as others, it cannot happen to us, or to our loved ones. But there are no guarantees, not even for the privileged of this world. People go missing, so very many people, and we should search for all of them – but the burning question for those left behind is, years later, how do we let them go?
Back to Florida: The morning we arrived, my throat began to hurt but I pushed through, forcing myself to enjoy all that Miami could offer my 12-year-old self. I swam, ate ice cream and tried to soak up as much sunlight as possible. It was winter in Toronto, and I felt determined to show up at school after the long weekend with a mighty burn to prove to my friends, and myself, that this trip was real.
By evening, it became clear that my sore throat had evolved into a high fever. My grandmother, who barely spoke any English, covered me in her jacket as she took me in a taxi to the hospital. The doctor on call wanted to keep me overnight, but I refused and as soon as he left the room, I grabbed my clothes and my grandmother’s hand to hail a cab back to the apartment, where my uncle and brother slept.
On the way, I did my best to convince her that by morning, I’d be fine to continue the journey with my uncle to Disney World. I slept in my clothes and woke myself up at the first crack of light to find my grandfather at the foot of the bed, wrapping his tefillin on his arm as he prepared for morning prayers.
I called out my uncle’s name, hoping he was only getting ready in the next room, but my grandfather shot me a loving look of concern and maybe just a little bit of pity and I knew, once again, he was gone.
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