by Brian Moore
Gerri was about to bring the meeting to a close when the woman at the end of the room said, “I don’t think I can stand any more of this.”
The group sat on a ring of chairs around two long plywood tables that had been shoved together endways. The woman had fanned photographs of her daughter across one of the tables; she touched them with her fingertips, making tiny adjustments in their positions. Some pictures were eight by tens of the girl in a graduation cap and gown, holding a scrolled diploma like a baton, each with a small variation in the pose of her head and the placement of her hands. Others were family snapshots that included the daughter—picnics, birthdays, vacations, weddings of relatives—taken over several years. In the most recent pictures she was tall and confident, with waves of black hair, a wide flat nose, and almond skin. It was not hard to imagine that her mother must have been just as beautiful when she was young. Her daughter had disappeared thirty years ago, hitchhiking on a jagged scar of northern road.
Gerri exchanged glances with the others, wondering what to say.
The woman heard the abrupt silence and looked up. Her eyes widened with surprise, bewilderment.
“Oh goodness. I mean the coffee. It tastes awful.”
People exhaled. “Shit, Althia. Don’t do that.”
“What? What did you think I meant?”
Gerri tried to smile. “We thought you meant something else. I’ll try to bring decaf from now on.”
“How about soy milk?” she said. “That’s supposed to be good for you.”
“How about vodka?” someone else said, and they all laughed. The conversation resumed.
At the end of the meeting people straggled out, arms full of briefcases, binders, and file boxes. Gerri took Althia’s jacket off a hanger by the door and held it while she shrugged into its sleeves. At seventy-nine, she was the oldest of the group.
“When do we meet next?” she asked.
“July twenty-fourth,” Gerri said. “Leonard volunteered his house. You have his address?”
Althia nodded. “I’ll be there. I’ll bring something gluten free. I’ve had enough donuts to last a lifetime.”
She paused in the foyer, took his arm, and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Gerri. We don’t say it often enough. I don’t know how we’d manage without you.”
After they had all left, Gerri packed up his maps and albums and folded his laptop shut. He checked to make sure no one had forgotten anything on the tables. The lights in the church basement hummed and flickered. This was his thirty-fourth meeting leading the group.
The East York Examiner
May 22, 2019
The Examiner: What is the purpose of your group?
Gerri Londale: I formed this group six years ago after my son went missing. When it happened, I didn’t know what to do. In Canada, the system for finding missing persons is a patchwork of law enforcement, government agencies, community groups, databases, and websites. It’s very difficult for an ordinary person to know where to turn and when, and often there is no one to coordinate between all the different resources available. I quickly learned that you have to become your own advocate for your child.
The Examiner: So this is a support group?
Gerri Londale: We don’t do grief counselling, not directly. There are community networks and therapists for that. This is for the parents who continue the search after everyone else has stopped looking, who essentially become their own investigators. Eventually, the media stop calling and the leads run cold. But fathers and mothers don’t forget—the search goes on.
The Examiner: What do you do in a typical meeting?
Gerri Londale: We’re pretty informal. We exchange updates on the status of our investigations, share new government initiatives, ideas for how to reach out to the public, tips on using social media. Some of us have been looking for only a few weeks. Others have been looking for decades. We come from all walks of life, all backgrounds.
The Examiner: Why not leave this work to the police? Aren’t they the most qualified?
Gerri Londale: People often ask me that. This is something you can’t understand unless you’ve been through it. When a child disappears and is not found, there is no closure. No explanation. You can’t grieve. You can’t move on. You can’t even have a funeral. The common term for it is ambiguous loss. You just don’t know. My son went missing in 2011 in the Georgian Bay region near Collingwood. The police combed the area with dogs and helicopters for three weeks. We put up posters, hired detectives, organized search parties. After six months the active investigation ended. This is not unusual but for me it was devastating. I formed this group because it’s very hard and very frustrating to continue the search alone. Sharing the mission with others who also have missing loved ones lightens the load for everyone.
The Examiner: Do you think you will ever find your son?
Gerri Londale: That’s my hope. You never know. I’m fifty-four now. My worst fear is that I’ll die without ever knowing what happened. But I can’t think like that. There’s always hope.
The Examiner: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Gerri Londale: Thank you.
Two days after the interview appeared in The Examiner, Gerri woke in the early morning dark; and for a moment, he did not know where he was or how he had got there. It was a shame because he had been sleeping deeply—the first good rest in weeks—dreaming of a park near the house where children from the apartment buildings played. He was sitting on a bench with the children running wild around him, not a parent in sight, and the sun brilliant and warm on his face. Next to a sandbox a boy crouched alone with a yellow dump truck, much like one Gerri had when he was a kid. The boy waved at Gerri, and Gerri waved back. “Where’s your Mom and Dad?” Gerri asked. The boy replied in a language he didn’t recognize, a hammered grind of consonants. “Come here then,” Gerri said. “I’ll help you find them.” The boy shook his head. Gerri took him by the hand, but the boy jerked away, terrified and crying. A man came out of one of the buildings and crossed the playground at a run. Gerri tried to explain. “No, no, you don’t understand. I was just trying to help.” The man cocked his fist, and Gerri woke up.
Gerri was still wearing the suit he had fallen asleep in, his tie limp on a chair, dress socks balled up on the carpet. The living room curtains hung wide open, and the city stared in: townhomes, condo towers, the throbbing neon sign of the convenience store. He swung off the couch and held his head in his hands, waiting for his vision to clear. It was a bad start to the day. Melissa had warned him about anniversaries. This will not help you. She hadn’t stayed to find out if she was right.
He finished the bottom of last night’s beer on the coffee table, changed into a golf shirt and weekend jeans, and snagged the car keys from the hook in the foyer. The street was amber lit, empty, and starless. He slid into his car, impatient to beat the cottage traffic on the 400 before they choked it into a parking lot. At sunrise he was a hundred kilometres north, and the land was still climbing.
Outside Nottawa he turned off the county highway down a side road that knifed straight and rolled through fields of hay and corn, and occasionally the grey remains of hollowed-out farmhouses, abandoned like wrecked ships in a sea bristling with hawthorns and burdocks. Not marked by signs, the fields ended and the provincial park began. The road now whiplashed in tight curves through the bush and up the Niagara Escarpment. Near the crest he eased to the gravel shoulder and switched off the ignition. A cycling trail marked by white blazes led into a twilight of trees. The road was empty.
Gerri pushed out of the car and slogged up the trail, winding through stands of birch and maple, hushed and lofty as a cathedral, the air cooling in the shade. The path forked into a narrow crevice that he mounted on rock steps until he emerged above the canopy to a promontory of bare rock, out of breath and thighs aching.
This was his favourite spot—no one came here, not even the hardcore mountain bikers. The view was scenic, but not spectacular. Below the escarpment, the villages and cottages crouched out of sight under the quilt of the forest, and the east crescent of Georgian Bay sparkled and shivered its grey-blue pan out to the sky. From up here the shoreline was a landscape without roads or rails or watchmakers. A modest sly country, well disguised.
Gerri sat down on the edge of the cliff.
He didn’t hear his son coming. Sandy strode out from a thicket of cedars, wearing the same tee and cut-off shorts he always wore, smiling with that infuriating confidence that provoked Gerri like the flip of a switch. He was young and lean, but not muscular. He walked with the easy, rubbery gait of a big cat.
“Don’t even ask,” Sandy said, waving his hand.
“I wasn’t going to.” But of course Gerri would have, knotted up with questions like a bad cramp. Sandy sat beside him, cross-legged.
“How are you?”
“Never better.” Sandy liked to mimic middle age, humouring the old man. “Glad you could come.”
He wore twines of friendship bracelets on each wrist and a fake diamond stud in his left ear. A stallion’s head, with a wild wind-stroked mane, inked the right side of his neck. After he went missing, all the details became vital.
“I’ve always loved this area,” Gerri said, “even more in the summer. Remember when we first started coming here? You couldn’t have been more than what, seven?”
“You dragged me to ski lessons. Sprained my ankle the first day.”
“But you kept at it, didn’t you?”
“You kept asking.”
Skiing was not Sandy’s thing. He tolerated it. So did Melissa. Gerri justified the slopes as something they could do together as a family, without phones or video games. It wasn’t until Sandy began mountain biking that he found his own purpose here; and instead of snow, he waited in suspense for spring.
Sandy pointed to the woods that descended behind them to the south. “There’s some outstanding singletrack down there. If you pick up the trailhead from the park. you can follow it down from Pretty River all the way to Kolapore. You should have gone riding with me that day. You would have loved it.”
“I could never have kept up with you. You know that.”
Sandy was a maniac on the back trails, without restraint. Mountain biking flowed through him like breath and blood. His nirvana was screaming through a trail gnarled with tree roots, his wheels thrashing air over jumps, shredding through spring rain and summer heat. His friends placed bets on which bone he would fracture next. He drove Melissa crazy with worry. His father, the alpha male, was no help at all.
Gerri pulled a handful of moss and rubbed it between his palms. “We did everything we could.”
“I keep thinking there must be something more. Something I missed.”
“Maybe it’s time to chill a little,” Sandy said.
Eight years ago, Sandy told his mom he was cycling up the Three Stage trail and would meet her after for supper in Collingwood. Melissa phoned Gerri the next day, frantic—no son, no messages. Gerri told her not to worry, that he’d be shacked up somewhere. Sandy couldn’t be pinned down. He had disappointed their expectations so many times, his zen calm like sandpaper over their need for safety. Gerri’s supply of surprise and outrage was all used up, an empty box. What was one more broken promise? But Melissa didn’t care and didn’t wait. She called the police as soon as she hung up on Gerri.
“We interviewed all your friends. We canvassed homes and nailed posters all over the county. We put your photo on the news. I drove up and down every goddamned dirt road I could find. I hired an investigator who milked us dry. There wasn’t a lead or a phone call that I didn’t take. Do you understand what I’m saying? We did everything.”
Sandy beamed. The sun was fire in his hair. He couldn’t stop grinning. “You were always compulsive, man. You never let go of anything. You needed to lighten up.”
“If you were still alive, surely to god you would have the mercy to tell me, just a miserable text or email. I wouldn’t have chased you down. I would have given you your privacy.”
The pleading was wearying Sandy.
“Do you want to hit me?” Sandy said. “Take the edge off?”
Sandy looked the same as when he disappeared. He had an old childhood scar on his left cheek—was it really that long ago?—and a raw, red burn along his jaw from their fight the week before he vanished. On sunnier days Sandy said that the battles with his father were epic, which made them sound like a boy’s adventure, just the guys winking to each other about a joke mother wouldn’t understand. Horsing around. Roughhousing between the furniture. But with an undercurrent of venom and intent that hardened when Sandy evacuated to a friend’s house or to a girlfriend in another city. Gerri’s control wasn’t as good as he would have liked. So, back then, he tightened the screws. His neck bowed under the futility of missed chances.
Sandy assumed an air of patient concern, slipping effortlessly from scene to scene. “We orbited around you—your career, your schedule, your exhaustion. Mom used to stop me on the way to the kitchen to say it’s one of your black days, like she was giving me the weather. When I couldn’t sleep I peeked into your office in the basement. You, leaning back in your big leather chair with the computer glowing in the dark and a bottle of rye hanging off your hand. Man, you were a poster for death by work.”
“Don’t blame me for this. That’s too easy.”
“I’m just telling you how it was. You always wanted life explained to you, documented, organized. Well, here it is.”
“If I thought for a second that it would have saved you, I would have given up the job and the house, the money, everything, to get just one more day. Don’t you understand how hard it was to get to where we were? You were throwing it away.”
Sandy shrugged and pursed his lips into a kiss of resignation.
“Throwing life away. Someone had to show you how that was done. You never would have figured it out on your own.”
Gerri couldn’t make anyone understand. He told all of them—the counselors, the police, even Melissa—that you don’t forget. It was the mantra when he woke, when he worked, when he ate, when he lay in bed waiting for dreams that didn’t come. No one disappears. Everywhere, he looked.
Gerri resisted the need to hug Sandy, to rub his hands across the bone of his shoulders. He loved the smell of Sandy’s blond hair, the reddish tinge inherited from Melissa, and the self-assurance in his face that came from not knowing any better.
Sandy explained that everything was going to be fine. “Read the books, man. The government pamphlets. The websites. They’re just trying to help. In the future, years from now, the loss is going to go subterranean. It will seep deep into you, until its part of the bedrock. The grief will sleep if you would only stop picking at it.”
Hours went by, and he could no longer pretend that Sandy was beside him. The texture of Sandy’s face grew vague and manufactured.
Gerri dreaded going home. There were moving boxes in the hall, and the pictures had all been taken down. The rooms echoed. He ate from cartons, fell asleep with the television mumbling messages into the night.
Sandy would have said, “You’re sweating things you can’t change.” Or Melissa, before she fled, would have said simply, “Cry, really cry. You never had a good, earth-shaking, soul-emptying cry—for us or for yourself.”
Gerri stood stiffly on his old man joints. The bay rimmed the horizon sharp, shining and ruthless as a butcher’s knife. The squadrons of clouds, stacked up and travelling on high-altitude winds that never touched the earth, were powerful, swift, and marvelous. The water glided down from his eyes to his cheeks to the ground.
Year after year. The same silences. The same stories. The escarpment indifferent and unread, clutching its own secret, throwing its own disappearing act. Just let me move on, Gerri prayed—to someone, to the voice that accused and beseeched him in the hot velvet light.
Let me go.