A Missing Community

Buried below the fold on p. A22 of today’s New York Times is a heart-rending story of a missing person, the family he left behind, and the community who left them behind.

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, 20-year-old Steven Chait disappeared. The Columbia University student simply bade his roommate “Take it slow,” and vanished, never to be heard from again.

Well, maybe. For 25 years, his mother received wordless phone calls from someone, two or three times a year, on days like Mother’s Day. Gloria Chait is certain that the caller was her son. She would say “Steven”, tell him she loved him, beg him to come home. He never did. The last call was around 10 years ago.

Since Mr. Chait isn’t around to tell why, people can only speculate on the reasons for his disappearance. A bright and successful student, he began his work at Columbia as an engineering major. But devastated by his first C, in an important class, he switched to art history. And he seemed never to recover from the sense of failure.

The case is one of New York City’s oldest missing-persons cases, but it has garnered little attention.

And his heart-broken parents, Gloria and Harry, received little support. Friends disappeared slowly; invitations stopped coming. Their two younger children struggled with the loss and the preoccupied gloom of their parents.

“People used to cringe when they saw me, like I was a witch,” Ms. Chait told the Times. “In this building, one man out of 92 families had the decency to spend an hour with Harry and me.”

Harry Chait died in 2002, leaving Gloria Chait even more alone for the last five years. She is now 78 years old.

Gloria and Harry Chait sufferred one of the cruelest providences that God ordains. And no one helped them through it.

We are all broken people living in a broken world. It’s hard to reach out to a hurting person. You don’t know what to say. You don’t know how they’ll respond. You don’t want to face their sufferring. You don’t want to accept that terrible things happen.

But they do. Somewhere, we’ve accepted this notion that life should be pleasant, that everything should work out in the end. People whose stories expose the lie of that notion are people we don’t want to see, to acknowledge, to know about. And because we don’t accept the sufferring of others, we never learn how to communicate with them, how to help them. The result is that there’s a lot more sufferring in the world.

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