Words have real power. Words can wound, words can heal. And in my case, words can find people.
In 2013 I put a whole bunch of words together in a crime fiction novel I named Write About Me. After I finished all my made up words I wrote some real words about my cousin, Ursula Dianne Barwick, who went missing in October 1987 when she was 17 and I was 15.
After reading all my words, one of my best friends wrote to me: “Just finished your book! Fantastic job you should be so proud. I feel like giving you a big hug after reading the author’s note. Love and hugs to you.”
And my best friend from high school wrote: “Give up your day job now. I have 20 pages left and I don’t want the book to end.”
Those words, among many others, spurred me on to keep writing, and to keep searching for the truth about Ursula. Four years and four more books later, around half a million words, and I am staggered by how much words have changed the course of my life.
Finding Ursula was a team effort, driven by two dedicated detectives from Kings Cross – Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward and Detective Senior Constable Amy Scott.
I had a small but strong support network every step of the way, encouraging me to be brave in my pursuit of the truth. Initially thinking it was too late to solve the mystery of her disappearance, my quest started as a way to honour her memory. To show her, no matter where she was, that I had not forgotten about her, I had not stopped missing her, I had not stopped searching for her. An amazing groundswell of support followed, and it soon became clear that Ursula wanted to be found.
On July 19, 2017 I tried to say goodbye to Ursula, who, nearly thirty years after she went missing, is FOUND. Her lifetime was 17 years, two months and thirteen days.
I stood with my family, some of Ursula’s school friends, the people who worked so hard over the past several years to find her and the people who have supported me along the way. Ursula’s Mum, my Aunty Cheree, wasn’t with us, although I like to think she and Ursula were reunited when Cheree died in 2004.
Yet, the journey is not over
To be completely honest, I am at sea as to how to say my final goodbye, as the long journey of her death is not over yet. We are still trying to join the dots that connect Ursula and the fictional character of Jessica, who she created for her new friends in Sydney that were with her when she died on the Hume Highway at Tarcutta on October 27, 1987.
I am unable to gather the words to describe my grief at discovering that Ursula died in a car accident only a short time after she went missing. During that first horrible, painful, devastating year after she went missing, words refused to settle into neat sentences. Then they raced around in circles for the 29 years that followed, all those years when we held onto hope she would come home to us. But she couldn’t. Because she was long gone.
I haven’t fallen into a crumpled heap onto the floor to sob my broken heart out. My stomach doesn’t twist in pain. I still wake up each day with fresh hope for a new day, and my life is moving forward at its usual rapid pace. Instead of the raw volcano of emotion that I expected to go with the news that Ursula is dead, I carry around a dull ache across my shoulders, behind my eyes, in my right leg and in my lower back. My grief moves and shifts around, quietly, reminding me every now and then that she is really gone. There are other signs of my grief. I forget things. I fade away in the middle of an important conversation. I lose concentration while riding down a steep, rocky hill and nearly end up in a pile of trauma at the bottom.
What we remember about Ursula
Every person who knew Ursula, both those who grew up with her, those who were close to her, and those who only said a casual hello to her in the school yard or up the street, all remember the same things. Ursula was always laughing, always smiling, always having fun.
The circumstances surrounding her death are now in the hands of the NSW Coroner and I look forward to having clearer answers to the questions we cannot answer at this time. Maybe then I will be ready to say my goodbye.
Her legacy, the thing that will inspire others for many years to come, is that it is never too late to find your missing person.
Yes, words certainly do have power. They can wound, yet they can heal. And as I have shown, words can find people.
Ursh, I love you and always will. I will never stop missing you, and I will always remember your bright blue eyes, soft blonde hair and lovely loud laugh. Let the good times last forever. Dance all night and shake the paint off the walls. Forever yours, Lissy x”
- This was my speech at the official launch of FOUND, my fifth crime novel. The Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz launched my novel at Canberra Muse on July 27, 2017 as part of National Missing Persons Week. My closest family, friends, parents of missing people and keen readers wrapped me in love as I spoke publicly for the first time about Ursula being found.