When I was 14, my softball team, the Royals, had a thrilling season. In one game, we won by one run on a sacrifice bunt in the last inning. When our runner on third beat the tag at home plate, we hugged and screamed with joy. The exhilaration was overwhelming.
But in the time between that unforgettable game and our team picnic, one of our teammates, Nancy Scamurra, disappeared. Nancy was a shy, unassuming girl who could hit the ball out of the park. Our coaches, my father and uncle, agreed they’d save Nancy’s trophy. My uncle is a Vietnam veteran. Decades after the end of that war, his car bears a bumper sticker that reads “POWs and MIAs, you are not forgotten.” The trophy was like that sticker; it was hope, and my uncle saved it for 28 years.
My belief at the time was that the stunned sorrow and anxiety we all felt over Nancy’s disappearance would be balanced in the not-too-distant future by an equal measure of joy and relief at her safe return. Children have a keen sense of justice. A significant part of growing up, however, involves developing the understanding that bad things happen to good people, and that the bad guys don’t always get caught. But losing a childhood friend in such a manner is no way to learn those lessons, and the eventual knowledge that my kind, quiet teammate died violently is nothing but corrosive.
Nancy had just graduated from eighth grade when she disappeared. She was anticipating news about her entry of poems into a writing contest. She was learning to play tennis; she and her mother had been getting up at dawn to play before school. Nancy had started a silk-screening business and was eagerly advertising discounted T-shirts to her family and neighbors. Hers was a life of activity and the love of her family.
In the days after her disappearance, Nancy’s family posted pictures of her everywhere – in libraries, restaurants, stores, gas stations and on toll booths in the frantic hope that someone might recognize her. They maintained those postings for more than two decades. Dozens of teachers from Nancy’s school searched for her in the marshes of the LaClair-Kindel Wildlife Sanctuary. Nancy’s brothers and their friends scoured the fields that stretched along the railroad tracks near her home.
Nancy disappeared in the time before Amber Alerts and DNA testing. Twenty-eight years passed before her family received news about her. During that time, Nancy’s mother died without ever knowing what happened to her little girl. Last spring, an initiative in New York State to solve cold cases by using DNA testing led to the discovery that Nancy’s partial remains had been found by a fisherman in Lake Ontario near Oswego just two weeks after her disappearance. A story about the discovery had run in an Oswego newspaper shortly after Nancy disappeared.
Peace flew from her family members’ lives the night she disappeared. A small measure of it returned on Sept. 8, 2012, when they placed Nancy’s ashes next to her mother’s. At the belated funeral service, Nancy’s loving brothers read letters and poems she had written in the last months of her life. Her nieces and nephews prayed for the aunt they’d never meet. Everyone there was diminished by personal loss. But the fact is, when a child is stolen away into violence, our society is diminished.