Songs For The Missing


One of our ferrets disappeared. One minute he was in the Queens apartment, the next I couldn’t locate him when putting the ferrets back in their cage at night. I’d not made them go into the cage for a couple of days, so I didn’t know when he actually went missing. The entire apartment was ferret proofed, meaning, all areas of danger were closed up, no holes in walls, or in back of the stove or refrigerator. At first, I had no misgivings–ferrets sleep deeply in burrowing spaces–so my husband and I started our routine of checking all the typical spots–in clothes left lying around, under the bed sheets, below the chairs or sofa, and in closets, although they usually weren’t open. When these didn’t pan out and after we had checked and rechecked, we then took the entire place apart, becoming more and more alarmed when he didn’t turn up. By around 4 in the morning, we realized he just wasn’t there. I was frantic by 6 am, and started knocking on doors in our building, asking if they had seen something that looked like the picture I was holding. Most people were annoyed and short, others didn’t even listen, still others were clearly not ferret fans. By the middle of the day I was hysterical, and couldn’t do anything–I was overcome with fear and guilt and horror, not knowing what could have happened. There were two possible scenarios–the ferret slipped out the door when the UPS man came, and I didn’t notice (which is remote, as I had a sixth sense when it came to ferrets by this juncture in ownership) or he had climbed up onto the sink over to the air-conditioner, where we noticed a little opening in the extension which would have been enough for him to crawl through, and fall to his death. Seems unlikely–but ferrets are resourceful creatures, and as a friend said to me during my grieving–animals have souls and minds of their own, and sometimes we can’t keep them safe.

I have no idea what happened. No one admits seeing him, the super acted odd, according to my husband, but that was our only clue–to nothing. He had escaped and someone found him and not knowing what he was – killed him; the super found him and killed him;  he fell to a horrible death from 5 flights and the super found him but wouldn’t own up; or someone found him and kept him–these are the possibilities that I still live with. I’ll never know. Do I want to? The answer is no. I’d rather not know if it was a horrible death, in this case not knowing for me is better.

But what about when a loved one goes missing? One of your children? I have watched reality programs with family members recounting when a daughter or son or husband or wife went missing, and although touching, I didn’t relate on a deep empathetic level. After reading Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing, I have overwhelming compassion and understanding of how the unknown fate of a loved one affects so many people, and in distinctly different ways.

July in summer, Kim Larsen, a pretty smart popular 18 year old disappears.  Kim’s parents, Ed and Fran’s first reaction was for Ed to drive around town and on the highway, looking for her car, could be out of gas or  broken down. As time ticked away,  it was clear her car was just as missing as Kim. The police questioned Ed and Kim as if they were suspects in their daughter’s disappearance, and when satisfied they weren’t involved,  gave them instructions to call Kim’s boyfriend, J. P.; Kim’s best friend, Nina; and everyone Kim had ever been associated with. Being 18, the cops weren’t going to take her being gone for this short of time seriously.  “There was a logical order to their panic, Fran thought. Every failure led to the next step.” And Fran took steps. She scoured the internet for instruction on how to wage a campaign to garner attention. Tools such as flyers, statements to the press, a variety of things would help amp up the search for Kim. This is how Fran coped. She spent every waking moment composing new signs, creating rallies–search parties–at first–Help Find Nina gatherings as time continued to drain away. Lindsay, Kim’s younger, less charismatic sister, was forced to participate in all aspects of the ‘bring Kim home’ war her mother was fighting, While struggling with her own feelings about her sister. She knew the morning Kim didn’t come home,  she was dead. There was no question in her mind, so the hope her parents insisted on parading around town, in newspapers, and on TV was painful for her, and she was overshadowed by the fact of her sister’s absence. Each of Kim’s family had their own heartaches and reactions to the unfolding events. Kim’s friends suffered questionings, guilt, and acute loss, but peripherally. The entire small Ohio town felt the horror of the young girl’s disappearance, and in the beginning the outpouring of love and support was tremendous. Little by little interest  becomes depleted, time moves tragedies to the back page, and the fight to find Nina, or her fate, was left to Fran and Ed. A body was found, Ed had the agony of identifying it. It wasn’t Kim. But, unlike my feelings about finding the facts behind my ferret’s disappearance, for loved ones, not knowing appears to be worse than the truth, if revealed. Judging my reaction when just a pet had been lost, if a family member suffered the same fate–I’d wouldn’t be able to cope in the individual ways each person in the book does.

The reader follows each character’s journey during the search for Kim and subsequent moving on with their lives. You feel Fran’s fanaticism, Ed’s struggle to contain his pain, Lindsay’s resentment, and guilt over her resentment;  Kim’s friend Nina’s conscience and need to inform the police about Kim’s relationship with a drug dealer; and J. P.’s confusion and ostracism by Kim’s family.  It is a deeply moving story, a heartbreaking realization that when someone disappears in this way, answers may never come, and everyone is left with a loss greater than simple death.

Not an easy read, O’Nan’s books never are, it is however, not a depressing one. It’s not a whodunit,  suspense novel, or thriller–who took her, and why doesn’t matter. It’s the damage left in the wake of her disappearance that is the core of the story, the coping mechanisms for humans to carry on in the midst of unanswered prayers. Dennis Lehane was quoted: “Both profound and profoundly beautiful. A haunting mediation on the power of those we lose, it’s emotional resonance defies description.” Mr. Lehane’s words sums up my feelings quite accurately.


Footnote–Snow Angels by Stewart O’Nan is on my Best 100 Mysteries of All Time list.


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