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Columnist
Mom: The holidays are not the same without Lee
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/11/2007 12:18 AM

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The little silver engine pulls two miniature railroad cars, the golden candle holders on the roofs serving as smokestacks.

"The train is Lee's menorah," says mother Beth Frazin, crying as she grieves the disappearance of her 18-year-old son, and smiling an instant later as she speaks of the miracle of Hanukkah, which climaxes with the lighting of all eight candles at tonight, and the hope for his miraculous return.

"He used to be," she pauses, "it just seems that the holidays are not the same without Lee."

Frazin's voice breaks. She speaks hesitantly, rocking slightly on the couch, her knees tucked up near her chest.

"My birthday was Thanksgiving. I cry every day. It's like a piece of your heart is ripped out and you don't know where it is or how to get it back. It's heartbreaking for all of us. The holidays weren't -- well, some days we didn't light candles because we were so down."

Her son, Lee S. Cutler, a bright, popular senior at Stevenson High School was reported missing Oct. 20 after he failed to show up for his part-time job at a mall. A police officer discovered his car two days later near a river outside Baraboo, Wis. His backpack, containing personal letters, and his favorite yarmulke were found on the bank. Divers found his pants, with his wallet and car keys, in the river, but an exhaustive search of the water and nearby fields and forests turned up no sign of the missing teen.

"He was really thin," his mom says. "I hope that he's eating and he's warm."

One of the leaders of a Jewish youth group and active in many Jewish activities, Cutler got a laptop computer at the climax of last year's Hanukkah "because he was a real good student," his mom recalls. His mysterious disappearance has fueled a network of concerned friends and loved ones who have met, conducted a candlelight service and communicate daily through phones, text messages and a group site on www.facebook.com.

As divers searched the murky waters for a body, thoughts about suicide and death were understandable.

"But I've never given up hope that he's alive," Frazin says. "The sheriff said if his body was in the river, they'd find it -- and they didn't."

The family has hired a private investigator and wants people to send tips by e-mail to finding_lee@comcast.net. While it may seem as if officials have investigated every bit of evidence, "people don't realize how much information they might have," says Penni Clobridge of ETS Investigative Services. A Find Lee Fund -- at Harris Bank, 500 Half Day Road, Buffalo Grove, IL 60089, Attn: Valbona Ceci (847) 876-8408 --offers a reward for information about Cutler.

Frazin said she understands if Lee isn't ready to come home yet.

"I just want to know he's OK," she says.

While she refuses to think her son might be dead, the burden of not knowing never leaves. Her wilted birthday roses, given by her 21-year-old son on Thanksgiving, rot in a vase. She stays at her mother's place in Glenview.

"There are days I don't get out of bed," she says. "I went to the beauty parlor and the lady asked how many kids I have, and I started crying."

When she was recuperating after a recent shoulder surgery, Frazin dreamed of her son.

"I felt like someone was touching my big toe, and I heard him say, 'Hi, Mom,' and I woke up," she says, "and he wasn't there."

She recalls Lee saying "I don't want to grow up" and yet talking about joining the Israeli army after graduation.. She remembers him holding the hand of a friend's little boy, and skipping. She remembers how he had the pressures of school, family and simply being a teen. She says sleeping problems drove him to see a therapist, and how he was thinking about being a social worker because he was so good at helping his friends with their problems. She says no one drove him away.

"Nobody did anything. They were there for him. He just didn't know how to open up," she says.

In the writings found in his backpack, Cutler wrote "something like 'I'm too quiet for this world,' " and "Mom, be happy. I love you," Frazin says.

"He was kind of like a clown," she says, smiling at the way he used to make his friends and family laugh. "Maybe he was happy on the outside and sad on the inside."

Her husband, older son and younger step-daughter, even the cat (which still sleeps in Cutler's bed) and dog are hurting, as well.

"We don't really talk about Lee, and I want to. We're numb," the mom says. "I feel like we're robots going through life and not feeling. The way our family deals with it is we haven't given up hope."

She works with www.teamhope.org, a support network for families with missing children, to help others avoid this nightmare. Friends of Frazin and of her son call and send text messages to her phone a half-dozen times in two hours.

"I text-message him pretty much every day," the mom says, thumbing back to her most recent message: "I miss you so much, Lee. Please be with me. I love you."

"I know he doesn't get them," she adds, "but it's what I do."

She didn't hang Hanukkah decorations or make latkes. She doesn't feel like celebrating, but her family will light the candles for this holiday.

"Mom, remember that Hanukkah is supposed to be about miracles," her older son told her. "We have to believe."

Frazin rocks again on her couch, her chin held high.

"When he comes back," she says, "it will be the greatest gift."