Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
— From “Separation,” from American poet W. S. Merwin’s “The Second Four Books of Poems”
I said hello and goodbye to my grandfather last week.
For the first time since the Mariners’ Memorial in Grand Bank was unveiled three years ago, I got to visit the site and look for his name inscribed on a small metal plaque submerged in the memorial pool.
It’s very moving, seeing the names of so many lost at sea, the underwater nameplates a poignant reminder of how they died and where they are still, somewhere in the ocean.
When I saw “Willoughby Riggs,” I said a silent hello.
“It’s nice to see you here. Anywhere,” I thought.
My grandfather’s name is etched on a headstone at Forest Road cemetery in St. John’s, along with that of my grandmother, Theresa, but it’s not quite the same when you know he isn’t actually buried there. She occupies the grave alone.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing either of them. They died a decade before I was born — he in November 1955 at the age of 46, and she three months later, at age 42.
In Grand Bank, his name shares space with others who made a living on the sea, including the captain and crewmen who died along with him. It is fitting that, at least here, they are all still together.
Inside the interpretation centre at Harris House, a kindly employee reading from biographical notes on her computer tells me my grandfather was a dapper dresser and a raconteur who sailed to Spain and Portugal as a teenaged deckhand. These were precious details I had not known.
The wheel from the schooner he was lost on, the Mabel Dorothy, is mounted on the grounds of the Mariners’ Memorial and I was able to touch smooth wood I know he would’ve touched; place my hands where he might have placed his.
It was wonderful to feel that at last, here was some acknowledgment of his life and work; to know that he was more than the name behind the deep tear made in the fabric of my family when he and my grandmother died so young.
They left behind nine children — the youngest only six months old, the oldest, my mother, 24. The children were scattered for a time, though they were as close as they could be given the circumstances, and were cared for by other members of the family. But undeniably the deaths of their parents left a void that nothing could ever truly fill, and the siblings were robbed of the opportunity to support each other in the freshness of their grief.
Death is enough sadness to bear. But at least sometimes there is a certainty to it.
When someone goes missing and is never found, there are questions never answered and details never known.
My grandfather’s death at sea may not have happened in my lifetime, but the emotional fallout has carried over into the next generation.
In my family’s case, the fact that wreckage from the ship washed up indicates something happened at sea. A collision with ice? Submerged rocks? Another ship?
Did they suffer? Slip peacefully beneath the waves? Live for a time, clinging to hope and ship’s debris? Were their last thoughts of home and family?
If another ship struck theirs, was it a hit and run? If so, no justice has been served.
These are the kind of questions you are left with when the story’s ending isn’t known.
And it’s why I am so distressed by the recent missing persons cases in St. John’s and the search for the bodies of Roy Sainsbury and Ryan Russell in Muskrat Falls, and for everyone else out there who has been lost.
I can only imagine what those families are going through.
Samantha Goodyear’s case had a happy ending when she returned home safely after being missing in St. John’s for six days. But I can understand why, despite being relieved at how things turned out, people still want to know what happened. We don’t have any right to, of course, but I can appreciate the need to understand how someone can disappear without a trace, even if for a few days.
How does a person vanish?
How can a person’s life story suddenly stop, mid-sentence?
Driving through Blackhead the other day, I saw members of the Rovers Search and Rescue team and police cadets out in full force, looking for Ann Marie Shirran, who was last seen on July 18 in Kilbride.
I often think of her and her family. The waiting and wondering. The sheer agony of it.
In Grand Bank, my grandfather’s nameplate shimmers beneath the shallow waters of the memorial pool. His name is inscribed in black lettering. “I am here,” it says. “Stop worrying and wondering. I am here.”
Perhaps that is the most we can ask for; to know that he is there in spirit, along with his crew mates and captain, their ship’s wheel now guided by an invisible hand.
For the families of all those still missing, I hope your loved ones come home.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.