A year ago, Ashley Simpson was looking forward to returning to her home in Niagara to attend her sister's baby shower. She'd been facing some challenges; she'd left her job in Northern, B.C. and moved to Salmon Arm, the hometown of her boyfriend Derek who wanted to be close to his kids.
She was waiting for Derek to give her some scratch, enough to get home where her big and loving family were missing her.
Her parents, John and Cindy, were concerned about her, so she made sure she sent them posts and photos. John joked that the girl with the gypsy tattoo was "the selfie queen". She was always posting and talking to her parents, her sisters, and her close friends.
John is a working stiff, a guy who cooks for the ships and boats that travel along the Welland Canal. Last spring, he was looking forward to his summer job at the Longhouse in Huntsville where he could relax a bit, and fish the lake for dinner. Ashley always came along, and he couldn't wait to spend time with her. He'd agonized about the fact he'd taken Ashley out to B.C. to work in the bush, and he anxiously wanted to have her home. Ashley had finally agreed to return to her roots because she and Derek were constantly fighting over money, and that fact he was always messing around on her.
Last March, I was winding down a job as an editor for a medical publishing company. I'd decided to take a job in retail to lose a bit of weight, and to pay off some bills. I was feeling a bit blue, but looking forward to a new addition to my own family.
This time last year, I was blissfully unaware that John and Ashley even existed -- even though they were my cousins. And I was too busy sulking in my little bubble, frankly, to care.
Reminds me of a John Lennon joint.
"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
Facebook can be a magical thing. It can destroy lives and reputations, and it can bring people together. In my case, it has helped me reconnect with my father's family, whom I didn't know at all. My dad, Russ, died in a car accident when I was a baby, and my mom rarely visited his kin.
The Simpsons are a large mess of a family. My dad had eight brothers and sisters. When I was little, I used to go to Grandma Simpson's for Christmas. After a while, the Christmas visits stopped and I'd see Grandma, a dour Scottish lady once a year, when my mom would bring me for tea and homemade shortbread.
I did know my cousin Dawn because her mother and mine were good friends, and we would go to my brother's lacrosse games together. I was also aware that my uncles had separately adopted a gaggle of kids, and vaguely remembered two little girls who used to come to play on our farm. The rest of the kids were a mystery to me.
My cousin Julie was one of those kids, and she connected with me on Facebook. Slowly, I began to get to know the rest of those adopted kids who had themselves reconnected in the last few years after they'd found their birth mother.
Last year, at the end of April, I saw some strange activity on Facebook. Julie's brother, whom I had not yet met, was frantic. His daughter Ashley was missing. She had left her boyfriend, and taken off down the road with no money, nothing. It wasn't like her, everyone said. She was joined at the hip with her dad, and her family. There was no way she would stop talking to them over Facebook.
Her disappearance left everyone scratching their heads. It didn't help that Derek didn't report her missing to the family until a couple of days later.
Salmon Arm isn't a place were one hitches. It's a place of bush and creeks and no street lights. And Yankee Flats Road, where Ashley and Derek lived, was in the middle of freakin' nowhere. Ashley was wicked smart, and tough. She'd worked at logging camps and on ships. She wouldn't just traipse down the road hoping that someone would pick her up. There was no one to pick her up.
Being a good journalist aka busy body I quickly insinuated myself into the mix. I started writing about these people based on what I'd seen on Facebook. To say I got backlash was a huge understatement. I was trashed all over Facebook, and deleted my posts. People didn't like them. They didn't like what I had to say about St. Catharines, where I grew up. I described it as a "place of leaving" because a lot of us got out of Dodge after high school because we didn't see a future there.
A couple days after I deleted my post, I got an email from Amanda Haveman, who was an honorary daughter of the Simpsons. She said Ashley's mom wanted me to keep on going, and keep writing even though some of the things I wrote might have hurt at the time.
Since then, the Simpsons have adopted me, as kind of a family biographer. They wanted me to keep Ashley alive, in the face of the cops who didn't seem to care. The story of Ashley is all too familiar to families across this country who have lost their sons and daughters in a most mysterious way.
Her story has touched many. Since her disappearance, my blog has had more than a quarter of a million hits. Don't say people don't care.
Mostly, people fear.
The Simpsons have been terrific.
They are brave and wonderful people who work for everything they get, and who love like there's no tomorrow, because sometimes there isn't a tomorrow. Ashley is a constant reminder of that.
Last year, too, my daughter's friend lost her mom who was in her early 40s. Gayle was beautiful, wonderful and full of life. She died suddenly after having a seizure. At the funeral, we all got a card. It said: "She lived, she loved, she laughed, she left."
When I think of Ashley, I think of those words.
Since I began to write this blog, I've told Ashley's story to anyone who would listen. My words have cast a net across the country and beyond. I've gotten to know people in Salmon Arm, Idaho, Halifax and my hometown. Thanks to Ashley, this poor orphan girl finally feels like she has a family.
Last week, another tragedy struck with the cruel death of little Nathan Dumas. Ashley was like an aunt to Nathan, and Cindy and John were like second parents to his mother, Whitney, who wrote lovingly about Ashley in this space.
We are all now connected by tragedy, loss and love.
Call me crazy, but it's like Ashley spun a Dreamcatcher, and brought us all together here, in cyberspace and on Facebook. Her death tests us everyday, in every way.
It's made us all better people. She's sprinkled us all with the dust of her memory, and we are forever linked in her memory.
She is our Angel, and we will never forget her.
Not this year, not next.