On Monday, the Kirwan family sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, like thousands of other families in Pictou County.
There was roast turkey with savoury stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes, harvest vegetables, pumpkin pie… Everything the family could hope for on Thanksgiving Day. Everything except for Amber Kirwan.
Thanksgiving 2012 was drastically different from that of 2011 for the Kirwans. That Thanksgiving weekend, Donnie and Marjorie Kirwan were frantically searching for their 19-year-old daughter Amber, who disappeared into the dark night late on the Saturday of the long weekend.
Now, just a few days before a memorial to Amber Kirwan is unveiled on the Samson Trail in New Glasgow, Marjorie Kirwan breaks her silence and sits down for a personal one-on-one chat in a place where she feels safe. It will be her only interview with the media, she stresses.
The petite brunette – who has shrank even smaller in the year since her only daughter was murdered – sits quietly, dark eyes warily searching for a safe place to rest as she unburies a year’s worth of memories. As Marjorie speaks, she recalls the highs and lows of the past 365 days – the moments of unspeakable pain, delirious hope, crashing despair, haunting loneliness and finally, grim acceptance…
“Amber and I were together Friday night. She would get Mason (her boyfriend) to drop her off here in the morning because he had to be to work for 6:30. I would drop her off at Home Hardware, where she worked, for 8:30 and then I would go to work,” she begins.
“We were going to go to a craft sale at the community college. I phoned her said, ‘Amber will you go with me?’ and she said OK. Then I phoned her later and said I didn’t really want to go to the craft sale, let’s go to the mall instead. And she said, ‘Oh, thank heavens.’ It was the last time I ever saw her alive…
“I knew Amber was having a few people over to the apartment on Saturday night. I don’t think she knew she was going out.”
The whole family planned to go to Marjorie’s mother’s in Merigomish for dinner on Thanksgiving Monday.
The briefest of smiles touches Marjorie’s lips as she recalls, “Amber bought a chicken to cook on Sunday for she and Mason.” Had she ever roasted a whole chicken before? “God, no!” she smiles slightly, taking a sip of water. “She was showing her friend Maggie what she bought to cook for her and Mason and Maggie laughed at her saying, ‘Amber, you have to take it out of the freezer!’ It was still in the freezer – frozen solid.”
The brief laughter quickly fades from her face and she recalls, “Needless to say, we never did have turkey.”
Saturday came and went without a phone call from Amber. But that was not unusual, Marjorie stresses. “I’m not the type of mother who needs to have a daily phone call. Well, I wasn’t at that time.”
It was Sunday before Marjorie and Donnie knew Amber was missing and they went to the police station together to file a missing person’s report. “After that, everything is very, very foggy,” Marjorie shrugs.
Most of what happened over the course of the next few days Marjorie only knows because people have told her. Time and space seemed suspended forever in those agonizingly long hours after Amber’s disappearance. “We didn’t go to bed that night.”
Marjorie has no recollection of doing anything except walking the Samson Trail daily with Donnie and Liam and a handful of other family members and friends, frantically searching for Amber and calling out her name over and over again. In fact, after leaving the police station Donnie, Marjorie and Liam went to the trail and started to search right away. Even when night fell, they repeated the routine all over again, carrying flashlights to slice beams of brightness through the inky dark as they made their way along the winding trail. For days, they retraced the steps they believed Amber would have walked the night she disappeared, searching for anything that might give them a clue to her whereabouts.
“For a whole month we searched, walking the streets looking for her. Whenever we’d hear a rumour or something we’d pile into the car and drive around looking for her. The family knew not to call the house because we’d jump every time the phone rang, thinking it might be her calling, or someone calling with news.”
But that phone call never came. Kirwan was last seen on October 9, 2011 leaving Dooly’s in New Glasgow following a night out with friends. Her disappearance sparked a massive search involving police departments, search and rescue crews and dozens of community members. It culminated November 5 when police confirmed human remains found on a wooded property in Heathbell had been positively identified as hers. Convicted killer Christopher Alexander Falconer, who was on parole when Amber disappeared, has been charged with her kidnapping and first-degree murder.
The tragedy that befell Amber is every parent’s worst nightmare. And it happened to Donnie and Marjorie Kirwan.
“The way Donnie and I describe our life right now: Every day is the same. There is no change. There is nothing to get excited about, nothing to look forward to, other than what involves Liam. We’ve tried. But the reason I get up every day is because of Liam. If we didn’t have Liam…” she shrugs and trails off. “Donnie and I get each other through this.”
She continues, “I think when the trial is over, we will get a sense of peace where we won’t be in the spotlight anymore.” This constant attention is a daily struggle for the Kirwans who have always guarded their personal life and want to continue to do so. “We’re private people. I’m not comfortable speaking in public; not comfortable in the spotlight. The police press conference was one of the hardest things I ever did, and the only reason I did it is because I thought there was hope for her to come home.
“But when the trial is over, Amber is still gone. Nothing is going to bring her back.”
It is the love and support of family and friends who help the Kirwans now. “The support of family, friends, community… that’s what has gotten Donnie and I and Liam through this.”
Marjorie also describes her only sister, Donna Hayes, who lives in Dartmouth, as ‘a rock’. “She was there the day the police came to the house to tell us…” she trails off at the painful memory before composing herself again. “She took entire months off work to be with me, and she comes every other weekend now.”
Of her workplace, Investors Group, Marjorie is also full of praise. “These people, my co-workers, my work family, are the reason I can continue to come to work every day. They are amazing people.”
While the family continues to get through each day as best as they can, the grief and loss for what they have suffered is palpable. “I will never be a grandmother to my only daughter’s children, we will never see her in a wedding gown, Liam doesn’t have a sibling anymore. Now he’ll be an only child. Sometimes I think he lost the most,” she frowns at the realization.
And she will never see her daughter’s dreams come true. Amber wanted to go into nursing and had been accepted at the Nova Scotia Community College in Stellarton into its next LPN program. Her acceptance letter came just two days before her body was discovered.
“Amber never knew she had been accepted.”
It has been a year since Amber disappeared and the Kirwans are deeply touched and honoured that a memorial in her name has just been unveiled. They may visit it from time to time, but they will continue to grieve in their own way.
Marjorie’s hope for the future is that “Amber’s death has to mean something… it can’t be in vain.”
The Kirwan family has indicated this will be the only interview they consent to do with media and they ask for respect for their privacy as they struggle to deal with the upcoming trial and continue to grieve the death of their only daughter.