It was a hot Saturday in August 1968.
Between lunch and supper duties at a local kid’s Bible camp, Shirley Brown took ten month-old Cathy and twelve year-old Robbie to the beach while her two middle children, Ross Jr. and Michael stayed at camp for afternoon activities. Shirley watched the interaction between her budding teenager and his baby sister. Robbie, not thrilled at first with the news of a new baby, had quickly become the adored big brother.
About four o’clock Shirley gathered their belongings and prepared to return to the camp. Robbie walked the short distance home, intending to do his daily paper route and then wait at home for his father to return from work.
“Don’t forget to let Dad know where I am and that I’ll be home as soon as I can,” Shirley reminded Robbie. Watching him stride down the rural road from the beach to home, Shirley thought how responsible and grown-up her Robbie was becoming.
At 6:30 that evening Shirley and Ross pulled into the driveway simultaneously. The boys ran for the house while Ross swooped Cathy into his arms. “Where’s Robbie?” he asked noticing he was missing from the family’s reunion.
Rushing inside to prepare dinner, Shirley said, “He went to do his papers but he should have been back by now.” Ross Jr. ran off to meet Robbie but soon returned alone, with a bundle of undelivered newspapers.
“What has he been doing the past two and half hours?” asked Shirley with an edge of irritation in her voice.
Ross Jr. and Michael delivered the papers while Shirley worked in the kitchen. How could he be so irresponsible? I’ll ground him for a whole week. These thoughts grumbled in her mind all through dinner. She expected Robbie to burst through the door any minute with a reasonable explanation – he’d stopped at a friend’s house – “sorry Mom, I lost track of time,” he’d say. He would pledge never to do it again and that would be the end of that.
After dinner Ross and the boys drove back to the campground thinking Robbie may have returned there to look for Shirley. They searched the camping area and side-roads stopping to ask each person if they’d seen Robbie. No one had.
At 9 p.m. Ross’s car pulled into the driveway. Shirley ran to embrace Robbie. Her frustration with his behavior had turned to worry. She no longer cared about grounding him. She wanted to see his face again and have him safely inside the walls of their home. But Robbie wasn’t in the car.
Ross couldn’t hide his concern. “No one has seen him for hours. I think we’d better call the police.”
Officers from the Pefferlaw Police Department took a description of Robbie and asked where he’d last been seen then they also searched the campground. This time they found someone who saw Robbie walking toward the beach at about 4;15 p.m. This meant instead of heading home after parting from his mother, he had returned to the water.
Investigators probed into the Brown’s family life to determine if Robbie had reason to run away. When it was determined that running away was unlikely, they assumed he had drowned. But if he went into the water, where was his clothing? He had been wearing bathing trunks under his shirt and pants. And swimmers at Georgina Beach walked several hundred yards before reaching deep water. Besides, Robbie was a strong swimmer.
In spite of darkness, police organized a search party of summer cottagers, friends and neighbours. Shirley and Ross stayed awake all night, watching, praying and fighting off nightmarish thoughts of what may have prevented their son from returning home.
At daybreak, a police helicopter joined the search. Reporters arrived. Friends and relatives came to console the family. Jo took one look at Shirley and suggested she get some rest. “I need to stay awake and pray,” she protested.
“You go to bed and I’ll do the praying for you,” Jo said. Five years earlier it had been Jo who shared her “born-again” excitement with Shirley and invited her to church. There, Shirley heard that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, gave His life for her and she too accepted Jesus as her personal Savior.
Each time Shirley awoke she saw Jo kneeling beside the bed. Shirley recalls this act of kindness as one of the finest things anyone has ever done for her.
After resting, Shirley visited the beach. Columns of searchers waded through the water like a giant comb, hands joined, eyes downward. Weakened and shocked by the sight, she climbed back into the car holding in wails of anguish by stuffing tissue in her mouth.
At home, Shirley fell across the bed groaning in pain. Ross rushed to hold her, panic and horror binding them together in a moment only they could share.
By the end of the first week Shirley’s mind ached from terrible thoughts of what may have happened to her son, and from probing questions: What kind of parents were she and Ross? Did they tell the truth about their son’s disappearance? Was there reason for Robbie to run away? Was the Brown marriage a happy one?
Considering the alternatives, Shirley began hoping that Robbie had drowned. If his body surfaces, then at least we’ll know the truth, she thought. Truth is better than uncertainty.
Sightings of Robbie were reported, some hundreds of miles from home. At first Shirley and Ross became excited but as one after the other proved false, they stopped paying attention to rumors.
One day while shopping a woman approached Shirley. “I’d like you to come to my house,” she said, “I’m having a séance and we’ll try to find out where your son is.”
“I talk to God every day and when He wants me to know where my son is, He’ll tell me,” Shirley said. Another psychic sent a message giving directions to a pit where Robbie’s body lay.
“Father, please help me,” Shirley prayed. “If Robbie is there, let someone else find him. I won’t even look. I will trust only you, Jesus.” Later Shirley read Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and realized God forbids all occult practices which includes séances and divination of all forms. Today, she thanks the Lord for giving her wisdom to avoid the deceptions of spiritual darkness that could have been a temptation.
At this point, under severe mental strain, Shirley knew if she allowed herself to give in to the desire to scream Robbie’s name, as she sometimes felt driven to do, her mind would snap. She describes this period – “I lived in a circle of God’s peace but a world of madness lurked at its perimeter.”
After two years of alternately believing Robbie was alive and hoping he wasn’t because she knew only horrific circumstances could keep him away from the family, Shirley phoned a local police officer and asked, “Do you believe Robbie is alive?”
“We’re almost certain that if your son were alive he would have been able to get away by now.” This reply guided Shirley to an important decision – the acceptance of Robbie’s death. With acceptance, the turmoil of wondering and waiting ended. She helped her children come to the same decision by explaining that Robbie was with Jesus. They cried but it concluded their pain and enabled them to remember happy times with their big brother. Gradually, they forgot the sorrow of the past and built new family memories.
As a family, Shirley, Ross and the children placed Robbie in God’s hands. In return, God gave them peace to accept the mystery of his disappearance.
Shirley’s vibrancy and joy make it difficult to imagine the depth of her suffering but like many who have suffered deeply, she enjoys God deeply. An active Christian worker, speaker and woman of prayer, Shirley has invested her life so others may know the Savior she calls her best friend.
A few years ago, Ross, Shirley’s companion for forty-six years, went to be with Jesus.
Of her new journey she says, “It makes a difference when you know your God and His promises. He gives a peace within. I remain focused on Him, He is now my husband. Ross and I walked the road of grief together when Robbie disappeared, but this road I walk alone, yet not alone because my Lord is with me.”
Today, Shirley makes her home in the Hamilton, Ontario area where she enjoys spending time with her children and nine grandchildren. She’s active in her church and speaks about her experience. Ross Jr. is pastor of People’s Church, Hamilton.
Read the complete story of how Shirley and her family coped with Robbie’s disappearance in Vanished: What Happened to my Son? available here.
Families with missing loved ones can find help through the Brown family’s foundation, Courage to Cope.
To order One Good Word Makes all the Difference by Rose McCormick Brandon, visit here.