This story first appeared in the Mercury on June 2, 2013.
Three years after his son went missing, Norm Stanton found himself walking the paths of a Buddhist monastery poised on the edge of the Morton National Park.
As he walked and meditated on his loss, he heard the words repeated like a mantra inside his head:
"I'm still with you, Dad."
This was the moment when he could walk no more, when he found a log, when he collapsed and sobbing engulfed his body.
"I felt there was an element of truth," Stanton, a retired primary school principal, said.
"His presence was with me even if he is missing, Ian's memory is still with me in my head and heart, and I thought, 'Let's inscribe it on my body and get a tattoo'."
So it was that, a few weeks ago on his son's 33rd birthday, Stanton found himself sitting in a tattoo parlour for his first piece.
Rolling up his sleeve, this gentle, thoughtful, sad and compassionate man reveals the blue-black ink still fresh on his skin:
"I am still with you Dad." The Grebe.
Ian Stanton was a challenging son, who carried the family nickname of a bird whose portrait appeared on a stamp when he was a baby - a bird with a small tuft of hair like his own.
He was adored and happy as a child, but started smoking marijuana as a young teenager and later became so difficult that he left home for a refuge before he was 17 years old.
Probably an undiagnosed schizophrenic, he led a chaotic life. He grew dope and may well have sold drugs for a while.
Sometimes he worked, sometimes he did not. Sometimes he had a girlfriend, but none lasted. He developed a heroin habit for a while, but kicked it.
He was a WIRES volunteer, was artistic, became an amateur actor and community radio announcer.
He was a talented cartoonist and - at his best - gentle, funny and clever.
The last time the family were together was a happy occasion, his 23rd birthday, but a week later he was short and dismissive when his father turned up at his home in Bundanoon to deliver some mail.
A week later, he was gone - no-one knows the precise date of his disappearance - and, like 12,400 people every year in NSW, he was reported missing.
His sister, Alex Speed, later described the experience as "living with a permanent bruise under our skins".
The first and most important fact to realise about missing people, according to Chief Inspector Paul Roussos, manager of the Missing Persons' Unit in Sydney, is that the vast majority turn up again.
Of the 12,400 reported missing, only about 30 people remain missing after a year - though some are found dead through accident, suicide or misadventure.
"If you have a concern for someone's welfare, then that starts to become a missing person matter," Roussos said.
"That's why we say, if you have a concern for a person then report it, don't wait.
"It's important not to wait because if there is foul play, or if something's gone wrong, it's important to have the authorities on the matter as quick as we can."
If police treat reports of missing people differently now, it may be partly due to the efforts of Stanton, who tells his family's story to all new recruits passing through the NSW Police Academy at Goulburn.
It would be fair to say, however, that the Stantons' experience was not a good one.
"I say to cadets 'Don't treat people like I was treated. Don't make assumptions that that person is going to turn up'," Stanton said.
"When I reported Ian missing at a police station, the officer didn't take any details and just fobbed me off. It was a really lazy approach."
Worse still, there were only cursory search attempts at the most likely location for Ian, the Morton National Park, where he used to go for long rambles through the bush.
So Stanton, his wife Jean, and other family members found themselves bashing through the undergrowth in a desperate attempt to find Ian.
"Those early days were heart-breaking stuff, not knowing what had happened, not knowing what to do," Stanton said.
"We did our own searches but we're not bushwalkers and we're not trained to do it."
They eventually stopped when they realised they were lost in the bush, and saw the irony of the parents of a missing son going missing themselves.
It was up to Stanton to ring police stations, refuges, hospitals and mental health institutions in a vain attempt that any had seen his son.
Even now, Stanton hands out photos of Ian when he talks to service clubs, because, as he says: "You never know".
You never know.
Stanton calls it the Clayton's Loss - after the non-alcoholic drink advertisement, whose line was "The drink you have, when you're not having a drink".
"For me, this is the loss you have when you don't really know if it's a loss," Stanton said.
And that is the point.
That, according to Liz Davies, the co-ordinator of the Family and Friends of Missing Persons, is what makes the fact of a missing person so hard.
The group is the only one of its type in Australia, and was founded in 2000 after lobbying by families of missing people and is funded by the state government.
Quoting an American expert, she calls it "ambiguous loss" for that state when a loved one is both psychologically present but physically absent.
"The struggle for families is finding a way to sit with not knowing," Davies said.
"They have to find a way of living with the ambiguity of the missing person.
"The recipe is a very challenging one.
"We talk with families about finding a place of comfort with themselves, of sitting with the not knowing and lack of clarity, of being able to move forward with their lives.
"If you come at missing from a problem-solving, solution-focused perspective, it confounds you.
"There may be no solution, though we would love for it to be possible.
"The solution is that the person returns, so families work to find a way of waiting that is tolerable, to find a way of living with not knowing."
The group provides a range of support, including helping support groups such as the one that attracts up to a dozen people to share experiences every couple of months in Corrimal.
"I don't believe we have the right to ever say to a family that there is no hope," Davies said.
"I don't believe families ever give up hope, though the nature of their hope might change."
Yet hope is no simple proposition.
No-one knows this better than Bob and Sue Neville, whose son left the family home in Coledale with the words: "I'm just going for a walk, Mum".
That was one warm September day in 2008, leaving behind him parents tormented by questions that may very well never find an answer.
It was not unusual for Bobby to leave, though he would always be in touch eventually, but this time, Sue felt a mother's intuition when walking the next day with Bob.
"I just had this overwhelming feeling that he's not coming back and that something had happened. I almost dropped to my knees," she said.
Is he alive? Is he dead? Would he leave without explanation? Does he want to be found? Did he kill himself?
Bobby Neville’s boat is still in their yard, last used a couple of weeks before he left.
His old bomb of a car waits for the return of its owner. The fence and the sandstone terrace he built on the property are reminders of his presence.
‘‘He is so embodied in our property that we stay, even though our property is getting very difficult for us to manage now,’’ Sue, a retired teacher from Figtree High, said.
Like the Stantons, the Nevilles are torn apart by the love for their child and have only lately learned that they sometimes need to put him to one side if they are to retain their sanity.
Bob is a retired draftsman and courier, a bearded bush character who is a straight-talker and a man proud to set his own course, but in constant physical pain from an old work injury.
The mental pain, too, is becoming hard to mask or to endure.
Bob admits that the void is ‘‘tormenting to the extreme’’ and that he’s finally made an appointment with a counsellor to get help.
He reveals that he is on medication to settle him down for the interview because, that morning, he was ‘‘shaking like a dog shitting razor blades’’.
‘‘Sometimes, I talk to him while I am doing things, it’s just a thing we do, like going to the grave and putting flowers there,’’ Bob said.
‘‘I had got to the stage where I’d tell him I’d have to go away for a week or two – ‘You look after yourself and I have something I have to do’.
‘‘I have found the spectre of it is too great at times.’’
This is the dark side of parental love, revealed by the constant and desperate searching of two parents who would give anything to hold their son in their embrace once more.
The Nevilles have travelled all over Australia in search of Bobby.
They’ve been to Adelaide, travelled the Ghan to Alice Springs, driven up to Queensland and the NSW North Coast.
They would turn up to police stations, caravan parks, taxi ranks – anywhere – always armed with flyers showing photos of Bobby.
Every time their hopes are raised with a possible sighting, or the discovery of bones in an outback grave, they are smashed once more.
One time, they had only just returned from a trip up the North Coast when they received a phone call from a caravan park owner who reckoned she had seen him.
It sounded hopeful – a man with a skateboard under his arm, talking about fishing and wondering if he could have a shower and a coffee.
So Sue turned right around again, seeking leave from her job, and travelled for five hours to Laurieton.
When she arrived, she showed the owner more photos of Bobby and suddenly the certainty faded. Maybe it wasn’t him after all.
But hope would not stop tormenting the parents, so they returned six months later and traipsed seven kilometres up the beach, searching the scrub where homeless young men were living rough.
The adrenaline of hope pushed Bob on until he remembered his pain and knew he could not return, hoping only that there would be help further on.
‘‘You do lose your equilibrium and that’s where I am at the moment,’’ Bob said.
‘‘It’s not good is it? I have lost my equilibrium, I bloody have.’’
Because another strange torture of missing is that – in many ways and in contrast to other forms of grief – it becomes harder to bear over time.
Another member of the Corrimal support group is Karen James whose father, former serviceman and taxi driver Leslie Hicks, vanished shortly after breakfast on Easter Sunday, 2008.
He left his Woonona retirement village on a short walk to his daughter’s house and has never been seen since.
For three years, James was convinced her father was alive, despite that fact that he was nearly blind and needed daily medication for his diabetes.
She believed he may have forgotten she was away at her caravan down the coast that day, and instead attempted the journey to his son’s house on the mid-North Coast.
It took three years for her to buy a burial plot at Kembla Grange – her hand was forced because they were selling fast and she wanted him buried near her mother, who died in 1989.
‘‘That was when I started to accept that I had probably lost him,’’ James said.
‘‘I wanted some place to go, but I have nothing to write on the headstone because I have no date of death.’’
James only found out about her father’s disappearance on the Easter Monday, and still regrets those 17 lost hours when he was gone but not yet reported missing.
Like the Nevilles, she has had hopes raised and then dashed.
‘‘If I am driving, I am still looking the whole time,’’ she said.
‘‘If I see an old man the right height, if I can’t see him properly, I have to do laps until I can get a good look. I am always on the lookout.’’
She’s been to see three clairvoyants, but has never had a message from the other side.
One saw his body in thick lantana and brambles in bush between the Bulli Pass and Pope’s Road, where he used to live.
But when police searched the area, they found nothing.
Until the past few months, James was reluctant to leave the house in case she missed a phone call from her father and medication to combat anxiety has increased in strength as time passes.
‘‘It’s funny, because when you lose somebody from death, it gets easier every day,’’ she said.
‘‘Because you have put them to rest, and you know they’re gone.
‘‘With this, as time goes on it gets harder. You think about all the what-ifs.
‘‘The hope starts to fade and you wonder if there might have been foul play.’’
She hates the rain or when it’s really cold because the part that thinks he’s still alive worries that he is cold. The part that thinks he is dead doesn’t want his body laying out there.
‘‘I feel despair,’’ she said.
One of the men in the Corrimal group recently heard that his wife’s remains had been found and the other people congratulated him.
The wait was over, even if the questions were not.
But although James would welcome the news that her father’s body had been found, she knows that would not be the end.
‘‘Everybody says that you’ll have closure, but that’s a word I hate,’’ she said.
‘‘You won’t have closure because you don’t know what happened.
‘‘You don’t know how they died or what they went through.’’
The only truly happy ending for any of these families would be if their loved one walked in through the door.
And even then, the questions may never have answers that satisfy.