Desperate Days: The Madeleine McCann Mystery

10/04/2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

Desperate Days: The Madeleine McCann Mystery
Sept. 30, 2007: "She's got two beautiful twins and loves them dearly," says family friend Jon Corner of Kate (on her way to church). "She's fighting to give them love, attention and focus. Inside she's absolutely aching for Madeleine."
Peter Corns/Express UK/Zuma
Taking your kids to nursery school isn't supposed to be a heartbreaking experience. But heartbreak is exactly what Kate and Gerry McCann found on Sept. 19, when they enrolled twins Sean and Amelie, 2, in their local day care facility, the same one daughter Madeleine attended before she disappeared in Portugal in May. "It was very emotional and distressing for them," says Gerry's sister Philomena McCann.

At home, they find a bit of respite, surrounded by the happy chaos of the children playing and the constant stream of friends who have pitched in to run errands and help with chores. The McCanns talk to their kids about their big sister often, in an effort to keep her alive at least in their minds. Madeleine's photos are everywhere in the house, as are her toys. "Kate and I have told them we don't know where she is," wrote Gerry on his blog, "but lots of people are looking for her and we hope they will find her."

Meanwhile, the agonizing journey of Kate and Gerry McCann, both 39, from the largely anonymous life of respected doctors to international symbols of the perils of parenthood, is entering a critical phase of its own. Still suspects in their 3-year-old daughter's disappearance, with photographers camped out nearby, the couple continue to deny any crime – and they are fighting to keep the focus on what they insist is the most important thing: finding their little girl. They are prepared to take lie detector tests, but polygraphs are not used in Portuguese courts. They will not comment on reports that they have hired their own investigators, but with the help of donations of more than $2 million, they will be launching a massive advertising campaign in Portugal and southern Spain, including remote areas, featuring billboards and newspaper ads with Madeleine's picture. As supporters of the McCanns tell it, the initiative offers the couple some badly needed reason for optimism. But there is no denying the toll already taken on their spirits by the seeming lack of progress in the case. "Some days are better than others," says the family's public relations representative Clarence Mitchell. "It is exceedingly hard and getting harder."

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