Discarded Daughter, Discarded Family. How Can Fugitive Chris Burns Abandon his Family So Carelessly?

Arabella stepped up into my car, quickly bent down to pick something up off the floor, and was staring directly into my eyes asking me a question that left me speechless. The back lift gate of my car was fully open, and I could see straight through to her intense expression. She was fixated on what answer I was going to give her–and I had no response that would ever satisfy her emotional distress.

We were only four days into Chris missing; it felt eery driving my car back to the house alone from the dark parking garage. My parents, the kids, and I had been holed up in the house avoiding the media, private investigators, angry victims, notice of service from civil lawsuits and unwanted neighbors too interested in why there had been a police car in our driveway a few days before. My kids were scared. There were so many strangers walking down our driveway, and we had no parameters for trust anymore–any stranger was danger. 

But, we were flailing through paperwork and needed to escape the house to meet with a lawyer in Atlanta. My Mom, my sister, and Arabella needed to quickly get into the car. I rushed to open the rear hatch and put a box of paperwork in the trunk while Arabella was climbing through the side door to get into her car seat. We didn’t want to be seen, so we were all scurrying to enter the safety of locked car doors.

Arabella paused in between the captain’s chairs and delicately picked up something from the floorboard of the car. I could see her newly developed analytical skills searching into the deepest recesses of her mind to try to find an answer.

On her thumb, was a silver ring four times the size of her finger.

It was made to fit a man who was 6’2”. She had felt that smooth, precious metal support her tiny frame from the day she was born–it lived on large, safe hand that curled around her tiny body. She had gazed up at its glimmer when she gulped down bottles of milk. As she took her first steps and continued to find her center of gravity, she held onto all the digits of a left hand with this symbol of eternity locked around her Daddy’s ring finger. Her subconscious memory knew that what she now held had always been with her. Its removal magnified how much we trusted that it would always be a sign of commitment and faithfulness.

“Mommy, why is Daddy’s wedding ring on the floor?” she asked timidly. She was five and as gentle as a butterfly kiss.

I choked. I could not pull air into my lungs. My body stood rigid and unmovable. My eyes wanted to look away, but they clearly followed the incapacitation of the rest of my limbs and held her gaze. How many seconds go by in that moment? Or is it a minute or minutes? How did either of us feel the continuum of time in our shared experience of a slowly emerging emotional dissection in our hearts? Time enveloped our locked eyes, and we waited for air to push the moment through cardiopulmonary resuscitation–for our hearts to find a beat again and to feel oxygen drown our alveoli.

My sister jumped in to save us, “Here Arabella, give that to me, and let Mommy look at it. Let’s get you buckled into your car seat so you’re ready to go.” Arabella dropped the ring into my sister’s hand and slowly crawled up into her carseat. She was fatally silent.

My sister handed me Chris’ wedding ring. Like an emotionally detached detective, I slipped it into a ZipLock bag just like I had done with his hair brush, used syringes and used Invisalign molds. Earlier, I had empty his toiletries drawer because I found leftover hair from his electric razor–they went into a Ziplock bag too. I couldn’t know what might be helpful in the future–so I added his ring to the pile.

For reasons only Chris knows, he chose to leave his wedding ring too–tossing it over his shoulder as he sat in the driver’s seat, it landed right where a curious five year old might imagine she had found a stowaway silver treasure.

What happens when a child’s innocent imagination turns into the realization that one of the daily comforts from her first five years of life has been carelessly discarded? 

We were sitting in bed two nights ago, and I asked her if she remembered anything from right after Chris left. She eventually told me how she found his wedding ring on the car floor:

“I just remember I found it.”

“Do you remember if you felt anything?” I ask.

“Well, It was also kind of weird because I also found his baseball cap,” she says.

She pauses for a few seconds. I sense that she is processing and searching for words. Eventually, clarity comes from her tiny, gentle voice:

“It’s like he just vanished. It’s like he was just standing here, and then he vanished. Like, I was kind of looking at him, and then I looked away, and then I looked back and he wasn’t there. Well, that didn’t actually happen, I’m just telling, like, how it would be like, how it felt like.”

“That’s a great way to describe it, Arabella,” I say.

She speaks her truth: “It’s kind of creepy. It’s like magic or something, but really creepy.”

Two weeks ago, my Dad put Arabella to bed for me just like he had put me to bed as a six year old little girl. Throughout my life, he would put me to bed by talking with me about my day, praying for me and offering the safety of sitting and holding me until I fell asleep. He told me Arabella had decided to say a prayer that night. As she was held by her Papa, she asked God to make Chris never come back because he made her scared; then she fell asleep held in his safe and faithful arms. The sad relief I have from her prayer is that, a year later, she is finally beginning to verbalize her feelings and talk about her memories.

These conversations and remembering are an emotional exhaustion too taxing to even try to express. With whatever energy I have left, I wrap my clumsy hands around the truth.

I hold on to the belief that even the ugly truth is far more beautiful than a charismatic set of lies.

I hold on to the belief that talking about a hideous reality will free it from becoming a cancer inside our bodies and minds. I honor our shared, lived experiences; they are sacred spaces that we unknowingly entered together…but she was never alone–we walked, and will walk, through the fear and pain with her hand in my hand.

1 thought on “Discarded Daughter, Discarded Family. How Can Fugitive Chris Burns Abandon his Family So Carelessly?”

  1. I hold on to the belief that even the ugly truth is far more beautiful than a charismatic set of lies.

    Oh my gosh Meredith. It’s so true. so so true and so well put. Sweet little girl! Processing with her and having her verbalizing her emotions is a gift in itself.

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