I AM THE MOTHER OF THE BOY WHO DISAPPEARED, Others take up mother’s quest for missing son, As she remembers his birth, searchers in Ecuador give her hope
Zamora, Ecuador — A rooster crows.
And then another and then another and the sun comes up, and in the room next door a man, or perhaps it is a woman, snores.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Some kind of farce.
The intimate sound of a stranger, while the same sun that at this quiet moment touches your skin may also, at this very moment, be touching the skin of your husband, who is home in Madison, half a world away. And the sun that narrows your waking eyes may also be shining into the eyes of your son, your missing son, lost somewhere in the vast green jungle that climbs into the mountains, just outside your open window.
And it’s one foot then the other as you step into the alien day. The hands that held your husband, the hands that held your son, turn on the shower. And the snoring stranger can no longer be heard above the rush of cold water.
It is Sept. 14, and Maggie Felker dresses herself entirely in black. Her wardrobe makes no point, has no particular significance. These are just the clothes at hand. The cleanest things available. Maggie puts them on.
It is her son’s birthday. Today, David Byrd-Felker, who has been missing in the Amazon since July 22, turns 21.
— — —
David was born in Madison at St. Marys Hospital Medical Center, where Maggie had been working for about a year as a nurse.
Here is one thing that Maggie remembers about David’s birth:
There came a time in her labor when the pain was so great, so overwhelming, that she was afraid that it might, if even for a moment, diminish the love she felt for her striving son.
She called out to her husband, Mike Byrd, and to the nurses around her, and she asked them for their help. She asked them if they would care for David in the moments that she could not, when the pain was all too much.
And then, it was over. David was born. She looked over, and there was Mike holding their son. How could anything be this great, she wondered. How could anything be so wonderful?
Maggie opens her journal. She listens to the snoring and writes:
“I honor David.
“I honor David’s birth and life.
“I acknowledge my deep joy in our relationship.
“I honor this trip as still another link in our relationship.
“I will live this day as best I can to honor all these things.”
Maggie tucks her journal into her backpack and waits for the police who will come to help her look for her son.
Later she will tell them: “My hope has been all over the place, but my love has been steady.”
— — —
They drive up the mountain and down the other side to Loja, the largest city in the region. There they will meet Rick Waters, who is on the staff of the American Embassy in Quito.
Waters has taken a personal interest in David’s disappearance. Waters’ mother lives in Milwaukee, so there’s that. But he has also been moved by the force of Maggie’s love for her son, and by her grief.
For an American to go missing for so long in Ecuador is exceedingly rare. Missing-person reports to the embassy are common, but these cases are resolved within a few weeks, if not a few days. Somebody has left the country without telling anyone. Their exit records are found at an airport. Somebody has gotten themselves in trouble, and they are found in a jail. Somebody has gotten tired of being checked on. They show up at a hotel.
But David has not been seen — at all — for six weeks. His clothes and books and journal were found in Zamora, where he checked into a hotel room on July 22. David left the hotel with his room key in his pocket. His bed was never slept in. He never came back.
Waters and a group of searchers will spend most of the next two days combing the road that runs south from Loja to the Peruvian border. They will stop in every village along the way until they reach the border, and then they will check the border records by hand for clues to David’s whereabouts.
They will find nothing.
After Waters leaves, members of Ecuador’s elite search and rescue teams will come and spend five days searching the huge Parque Nacional Podocarpus near Zamora. David’s journal indicates, and eyewitnesses confirm, that David had entered the park and then exited it the day before he vanished. The theory is that David may have re-entered the park — an Amazonian rain forest with few trails and plenty of hazards — and met with misfortune, either human or natural.
They, too, will find nothing. The police will find nothing. Maggie will find nothing.
How could this be?
It is very unlikely that David has run away. And there is no evidence that he is dead. No evidence that he is alive. No evidence that he has been kidnapped.
There is nothing.
— — —
It is Sept. 23, and Maggie sits in the office of the regional district attorney, Hartman Monteros. It is hot, and the office does not have air conditioning. Maggie sits by the window. The drapes lift and lower in the occasional breeze.
Monteros wears a tie and extremely well-polished shoes. His shoes glow. He has just gotten a haircut, and there are tiny bits of clippings on the tops of his ears. He asks Maggie if she would like some coffee, and when she agrees, he removes an enormous manual typewriter from a little steel desk and places it on the floor.
He places the desk beside Maggie, then wipes it till it gleams. Then he leaves the room, returning a few minutes with saucers and a bowl of unrefined sugar. He arranges the objects on the desk, leaves again, returning after a while with cups of very black, very sweetened, coffee.
He has passing familiarity with English. He knows the lyrics to several American rock ‘n’ roll songs. He and Maggie speak in Spanish. He removes a pen from his desk and begins to take notes. Though it is nothing but a cheap plastic pen, the end of it is taped to a piece of string and the string is tied to the leg of the desk.
David’s case is very strange, he tells Maggie. There is no evidence that he is dead, but no clues to where he might be. The Ecuadorean government has exhausted its resources, but the jungle is vast and, given his nation’s limited resources, not yet fully searched.
Monteros tells Maggie he has sufficient reason to believe that a continuing search for David may prove fruitful; it is possible, he says, that David is still alive. He asks Maggie to help him draft a letter to a variety of American officials, including Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, seeking their support for a joint American-Ecuadorean effort to find David.
Maggie readily agrees. She knows her usefulness in Ecuador is reaching an end. She must return home to her husband and daughter. But the thought that in leaving Ecuador she will be abandoning her son has been unbearable.
She remembers the day David was born, when she asked others to care about him when she could not. It eases her heart to know that she will leave behind capable people willing to take up her cause.
— — —
Saturday, and Maggie returns home to Madison.
Before leaving, she goes to the Zamora police station to collect David’s things. One of the national police officers who is in charge of David’s case — Edison Amores — comes with her.
One day, Amores’ wife, Luly, invited Maggie over to their $20-a-month, one-room apartment, for lunch. On a little stove, Luly Amores cooked pork chops and rice and made soup. She squeezed out glasses of fresh juice.
Luly Amores is trying to learn English, and Maggie gives David’s Spanish-English dictionary to Officer Amores. In the cover, Maggie writes: “Con carino y respeto.”
With affection and respect.
Maggie asks Amores if she can leave some of David’s things with him, just in case David shows up someday. Amores agrees but asks Maggie to write a note explaining why he would have some of David’s things in his possession. Maggie complies.
Why don’t you write a little note to David on the back, Amores suggests.
Maggie, though she isn’t sure why, refuses.
Amores gives Maggie a ride to the cab station. Before she gets out, he again urges her to write a note to David.
Maggie takes the paper and writes:
“I love you, David.
She draws a heart on the paper and gives it to Amores. She gets out of his car and, one foot then the other, begins her long journey home.