On March 5, my 18-year-old cousin disappeared from her University of Washington campus in Seattle. Marizela Perez -- 5-foot-5, 110 pounds, short black hair with brown/red highlights and bangs cut into an asymmetrical bob, wearing a dark hooded jacket, jeans and light brown suede boots -- was last seen at a Safeway grocery that fateful Saturday afternoon.
Marizela walked out the door and up Brooklyn Ave., and hasn't been seen or heard from since.
Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust once described the "aching hearts" of families of the missing "in which the dread void of uncertainty" remains. In the first days and weeks after Marizela went missing, this feeling completely engulfed her parents, relatives and friends near and far.
How to express the inexpressible?
You try to breathe, but all that fills your lungs is that smoky, stifling uncertainty.
You try to eat, but all you can taste is indigestible fear.
You try to sleep, but all that comes is fathomless fatigue.
Your heart is weighted with grief, but your soul refuses to mourn.
You cling to hope and faith, tie a knot at the ends, and hang on with raw, blistered desperation.
Whoever said "time heals all wounds" has only known superficial hurt. Sharp pangs of panic have metastasized into deep anguish over the past eight months. There have been no investigative leads. No witnesses have come forward. To the police department, as is the case with so many others like her, Marizela is just another bureaucratic burden.
In fact, for five full months, the Seattle police shockingly violated state code requiring law enforcement agencies to submit her DNA information and dental X-rays to the Washington State Patrol within 30 days of her disappearance. After raising a ruckus, we were informed in late October that this legally mandated task was assigned to a "light duty" officer (never identified) who let it slip through the cracks. No one was held accountable for this negligence.
Along the way, however, the kindness of complete strangers has been boundless. This holiday season, our heartfelt gratitude goes out to each and every person who has contributed to the search for Marizela, including:
-- Ned Cullen and the generous folks at ClearChannel Outdoor, who donated digital billboard space for missing persons alerts about Marizela all over the West Coast, from the Seattle area to Salem, Oregon, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
-- The staff of the King County Superior Court and the staff of the King County Medical Examiner's office, foremost among them forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor for her professionalism, dedication to and compassion for families of the missing.
-- Countless bloggers, Twitter users, and YouTube and Facebook users from across the political spectrum and from every walk of life who took time to spread the word about Marizela's disappearance from Day One.
-- Melanie Helmick of K-9 Kampus in Arkansas; search-and-rescue team leader Michael Lueck from Texas; Steve Yerger of K9 Centurion and his daughter Rebecca in Maryland; Don and Austin Davidson; dog handlers Mary Haislet, Shannon Kiley and Melissa Ellis; and Seattle Parks and Recreation Department staffers Sandy Demerit and Laura Nepler.
-- KCPQ, Q13 Fox, KIRO-TV, KING 5-TV, Christine Clarridge and David Boardman of the Seattle Times, the University of Washington student daily, Seattle radio hosts John Carlson, David Boze and Dori Monson, and many other Pacific Northwest-area readers, local media outlets and allies who gave their broadcast air, pages and personal time to the case.
-- "America's Most Wanted," CBSNews.com, Fox News and FoxNews.com, Human Events, Intermarkets, To Write Love on Her Arms, and several missing persons' advocacy groups, who all helped alert national audiences and followers to Marizela's disappearance.
-- Friends behind the scenes who have offered invaluable legal, technical and investigative help, advice and counsel.
-- Church communities, fundraising organizers and too many more to name from South Jersey to Seattle and beyond who have helped with our ongoing search efforts.
On her left inner arm, Marizela has a tattoo that reads "Lahat ay magiging maayos." Her friends transformed the saying into a tribute bracelet in her favorite color: bright orange. It's Tagalog for "Everything's going to be OK."
This has become a credo in the ongoing search for Marizela -- and it is also a fitting Thanksgiving message. To smile through tears. To savor the sweet over the bitter. To find a way, with the help of God, family and friends, to count our blessings even (and especially) in the midst of great angst. Because in the end: "All will be well."
We have posted Marizela's missing persons flyer, photos, videos and updates at www.findmarizela.com. The tip line number for citizens who may have any information that might aid in the search is 1-855-MARIZEL. Thank you.