Popular guides to the five stages of grief have made everyone an armchair psychologist. But as any therapist will tell you, the real thing is much more complicated. Over the three-plus years since Aubrey vanished, the Saccos have experienced it all—often simultaneously. Anger? Paul cringes when he recalls storming in on the French Ambassador in Nepal and screaming, “Our embassy helped you [when the French girls were assaulted]. Why can’t you help us?” Depression? “Men, all their lives, are supposed to solve their little girl’s problems,” says Paul. “To feel as helpless or out of control as we have at times, it makes you want to commit suicide.”
Would the news finally end this awful cycle?
There’s no chance to find out. Like so many times during the search for Aubrey, the truth changes. On the morning of August 1, McNeil calls again. Taking a deep breath, he says, “This is, in many ways, disappointing. [The Nepali police inspector] had doubts about this … boaster. They had questions [so they took him to Langtang]. But he changed his story, naming people who didn’t exist. Based on no physical evidence, [the police] don’t feel that they have any basis to keep the men.” The three suspects are released after 28 days in custody.
I expect the latest turn of events to devastate the Saccos. But they’ve been through this so many times—these leads that dead-end—that they’ve become inoculated against big emotional swings. When the call ends, the house becomes eerily quiet. The summer air hangs still. Paul goes out to keep an appointment. Connie walks into Aubrey’s room, where the clock is frozen on the date she was supposed to come home.
Connie, who has a soft, introspective demeanor compared to her daughter’s exuberance, confides that she often waits for Paul to go to bed and then walks into the backyard. There, she stares into the sky and talks to Aubrey. She says, “Where are you?” and “How are you?” and waits for a response. She often gets a feeling that Aubrey can hear her. But one night she saw two eyes and a mouth in the clouds. The eyes reminded her of Aubrey, but the mouth was frowning. “I knew that I wasn’t looking at Aubrey, because Aubrey is always smiling,” she says. “Then I realized that the face in the cloud was mine. In Aubrey’s journal she wrote that in order to move on, you need a clean slate in this life. Sometimes I wonder if my clean slate is letting go.”
Acceptance? The Saccos’ refusal to even entertain the idea has powered the longest, most expensive search for a missing trekker in Nepal’s history. But is there a price? Recently, I talked to Amanda, Aubrey’s best friend and now sister-in-law, and asked what part of Aubrey she misses the most. Her answer surprised me.
“Obviously, I miss having her around,” she said. “She was the best person I could talk to when I needed encouragement. But at this point, I miss her being there for her family. Her parents come over all the time. I have pictures of her in high school, of her last night before she left for Sri Lanka. Paul will kiss the pictures. Our son [Luca, 4] is at the point that he’s noticing things. My husband is more on the angry side, while Morgan, the younger brother, is very quiet. He doesn’t talk about it. It’s hard … I just miss having her here. She was the middle child but she was also the equilibrium. She would liven the mood and her parents need that more than ever.”
Paul admits as much during a phone call with both him and Connie last fall. “Frankly, it’s kind of depressing. Connie and I just look at each other and shrug. We’re in a lull,” he says. The latest hope: U.S. officials delivered polygraph equipment to Nepal last November, and are training Nepali police to use it. Most likely, the “boasters” in Aubrey’s case will be the first subjects. “But we’ve learned that even if [the police] know something, until they’re ready, they won’t tell us,” says Connie.
I wonder if the Saccos really want to know. Because when you know nothing, anything is possible. In September, Paul tells me about a man he met while moving his mother into a nursing home in Chicago.
“This is the manager,” he says. “A high-powered businessman, and very savvy. Halfway through the tour, he notices the wristband I wear for Aubrey. He points to it, says ‘What’s that?’ I struggle with this. I don’t want to get into it. But I respect Aubrey.”
Reluctantly, Paul tells the abbreviated version of how his daughter evaporated in a beautiful valley beneath the tallest mountains on earth. And the guy starts shaking, like he’ll go into a trance. Paul asks if he’s all right. He says, “Yes, but I’m an intuitive.” He says every feeling he’s ever had he’s been right about. And then he says, “Your daughter, Aubrey, is alive.”
The man is a Freemason with contacts in India. He says he has “brothers” all over the world and that he will search for Aubrey. Paul exhales, then says to Connie, “That’s an example of the kind of thing that keeps us going, right?”
“Well, he’s asked us a lot of questions,” says Connie. “That’s exhausting. Revisiting things is exhausting.”
But Paul doesn’t hesitate. “We have to keep going, right?”
As if it’s a question.
Tracy Ross won a 2009 National Magazine Award for her BACKPACKER essay The Source of All Things.