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Erebus day: A granddaughter drawn towards the mountain

A personal essay by Sarah Myles in honour of her grandfather who died 40 years ago today with 256 others on the slopes of Erebus.

On November 28 in 1979 my grandfather Frank Christmas boarded a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and never came home. He died on the slopes of an active volcano 4000 kilometres from home with 256 other adventurers. Frank Christmas was a carpenter from New Plymouth and he was my hero, my Poppa.

The empty chair at the dinner table became symbolic of the crater that had ruptured our family, and 40 years on, I learned that these craters existed in other families too. There were thousands of mourners just like us who were also grieving and burying their dead. And there were some whose bodies were never recovered, or who weren’t positively identified, and for those families this was an added burden. Forty years on, it would appear that the aftermath of New Zealand’s greatest peacetime tragedy remains a source of pain for many.

And as for the recovery and identification staff who bore witness to the crash, for those who understood some of what we were going through – the mountaineers and police officers, the military crews and pilots and drivers, the embalmers and scientists – these men and women sifted through the debris and recovered our dead, they interviewed and fingerprinted and photographed, they loaded and flew and drove, they unloaded and embalmed and reconstructed and studied our dead in order to identify and return their remains to us. These men and women served the families of Erebus far better than any government or airline official ever did, and with little thanks or recognition. Some continue to serve us by meeting with families and helping us understand exactly what happened. And for many, the trauma of their service to Erebus still exists to this day.

It would take 37 years until I would start to question what actually happened to Frank.

*

It is March 2016, and my family has gathered in a cemetery in New Plymouth to celebrate the life of my grandmother, Eileen Christmas. We muster around Frank’s gravesite, a grassy plot that will now be shared by Eileen, her casket nestled above his own, together again. As we scatter petals and wipe our eyes, my young daughter starts to read the inscription on Frank’s headstone: Died as a result of air accident on Mount Erebus. She then points to Taranaki in the background and asks, “Is that the mountain Great Poppa died on?”

I choke on my answer as the grief and shame of the past three decades comes rushing back in, rising up inside of me. Doesn’t she know we don’t talk about this in public? A long-forgotten memory flashes through my mind – it’s of the Big Blue Men walking in to my grandmother’s kitchen. My father’s arm, my mother’s tears, a darkened hallway. I am three years old.

I decide to be brave and ask my family what they can remember of Poppa’s funeral, but no one can remember. Not one person can tell me who spoke, or what hymns they had, or who carried him out. Then there were versions of stories that didn’t add up. And the growing rifts between those around me. So, I did what any curious granddaughter might do – I googled Frank’s name.

And I discovered something they don’t always tell you about on writing courses – the importance of curiosity. It was curiosity that led me to Archives New Zealand and Frank’s coronial file. It was curiosity that had me talking with Frank’s funeral director, his old friends and neighbours. It was curiosity that led me to discover the identities of the very people who recovered and identified his body.

But no one warned me that curiosity might lead to a compulsion that would overshadow everything else in my life for quite some time. With the support of my husband and extended family, and the recovery and identification staff I had yet to meet, I set out to discover exactly what happened to Frank. I couldn’t let it rest until I knew everything, everything, and what I discovered threatened to light an inferno I had little hope of controlling. Erebus had returned to the epicentre of my life, highlighting and challenging some deeply held beliefs about what we thought had happened to Frank. It brought up our grief in the most painful of ways. It took me away from my children and my husband, overran my thoughts (and many conversations) and it kept me awake more nights than I care to count. This compulsion also required me to dive deep into the well of grief that surrounds Erebus, and to confront and heal my own grief story. Fortunately, it also brought Frank back into my family, back into our storytelling and back into our hearts.

From curiosity to compulsion, I researched and wrote my way towards the mountain. After two long years, the only thing left was to make my way back home, to detach myself somewhat and share all that I had uncovered (and hope I had done my best). But letting go requires something I knew nothing about – radical hope.

In times of hardship we all need a special kind of hope, one that transcends our current ability to understand what the future might look like, but it knows – deeply knows – that the future is good. It’s a kind of hope that is directed toward finding any future goodness in our most tragic of pasts, even when it seems there is none. It is born of courage and vulnerability and a belief in something greater than yourself. Even when we’re mourning our dead. Even when we lack the ability to understand it. Radical hope requires you to let go of the outcome, and trust that it will be even better than anything you could possibly conceive of.

For me, radical hope came about in communion with others. I found it in dining rooms and cafes and pubs up and down the country, with police officers and mountaineers and truck drivers. I found it sitting with embalmers and funeral directors, with those who deal in death every single day. I even found it at Archives New Zealand, hidden amongst the collection of love letters written by grieving family members.

I learned that many families still have no idea what happened to their loved ones, how they made it off the mountain and came back home to us. Many of these families are still angry and in pain, but gathering together and talking about it with others helps.

My extended family will come together today, on the 40th anniversary of Erebus. We will stand alongside the recovery and identification staff who took care of our dead. And we will grieve and honour Frank, and there will be other families gathered there too, families just like us.

Towards the Mountain by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin, $39.99).

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