LIVERPOOL – Tom Burke made sure the soon-to-be seniors’ home residents would be treated to his very best carpentry work.
His sister, Desiree Burke, clearly recalls Tom’s excitement back in the mid-2000s, when the finish carpenter was hired to help build the Fredericton facility.
“It was a high-end nursing home and Tom knew that some of the residents wouldn’t be happy about being uprooted from their homes,” recalled Burke. “I remember him saying that he could help make it a nice place to be. He was determined to do his best work on everything: the bookshelves, the crown moulding, all of it.
“He was very proud of the work he did there.
“He was a fantastic brother. He was very selfless but in a quiet way. He was very concerned with other people.”
The pair had been living together at Desiree’s Liverpool home before Tom went missing without a trace on July 16, 2017. On May 12, Queens RCMP led a second and final search for the 28-year-old in a wooded area near her home. According to police, the all-day effort failed to produce any leads.
Desiree is still holding out hope that her brother is OK. She was also hopeful the search would turn up something to put her mind at ease.
“It’s very surreal,” said Burke. “It’s almost like it’s happening to someone else. I think I’m doing alright, in general. The uncertainty makes it harder. If someone’s gone, if it’s a death or an end of a relationship, you can kind of have that closure. With this, there’s really no answer. It’s hard to have that.”
Both born and raised in New Brunswick, Desiree arrived in Liverpool for a nursing job four years ago and Tom followed a few months later.
A graduate of Springhill’s Nova Scotia Community College carpentry course, Tom found steady work on the South Shore and fell in love with the place. He also renovated his sister’s home, top to bottom.
“He loved the South Shore. He always said to me that if I went back to New Brunswick or somewhere else, he would stay here. He made great friends here.”
Reaching out for help
But, Tom was battling serious depression. A few days after his disappearance, he was scheduled for his first appointment with a Mental Health Crisis Line counsellor.
“There are a lot of disparities and holes in the mental health system and it’s very easy for someone to fall through the cracks,” said Burke, a registered nurse. “There’s a lot of onus on the patient to make contact.”
Tom had reached out for help. Burke says he had a family doctor who did her best to get the support her brother needed. But he had grown despondent and stopped answering his phone by the time the help he required was on its way.
His disappearance coincided with a visit from family members. Desiree recalls Tom appearing to be in good spirits that evening and the family had enjoyed quality time together at her home before retiring to bed at about midnight.
Tom left for his usual summertime resting spot in the backyard shed, which he had fashioned into his own private getaway.
“He just kind of walked outside the house and no one knows what happened really.”
Burke’s been in constant contact with the RCMP since Tom’s disappearance and believes local officers have done what they can to locate her brother. But she laments the RCMP’s refusal to use police dogs in the immediate days after Tom’s disappearance.
“My parents asked and they declined, saying it was a too heavily trafficked area. That was frustrating.”
Queens RCMP Staff-Sgt. Derek Smith led the May 12 effort that included ground search and rescue teams from Queens, North Queens, Lunenburg and the Annapolis Valley. The search party, all 35 of them volunteers, was tasked with combing a kilometre of forest bordering Highway 103.
“It’s been 10 months and there’s been no leads, developments, no signs,” said Smith of the final search effort. “You can draw whatever inferences you want from that.
“It is difficult when there’s no closure for the family and we’re trying to offer some closure that we can.”
Clair Whynot, a neighbour of Desiree’s, says he’s still puzzled by Tom’s disappearance. He says Tom was a perpetually cheery neighbour and was always quick to help out with odd carpentry jobs.
“He was quiet but he was very nice fellow,” Whynot said. “He’d always come over and have a chat. The last thing he gave me was a box of cedar shingles. Tom was always generous and I would have never expected something was wrong.”
Burke says that throughout her brother’s struggle he maintained a positive outlook on life
“I used to call him an old man,” she recalled with a laugh. “He enjoyed whittling, he’d go to bed early and just preferred the company of older people. He had a great sarcastic sense of humour.”
Some days, Burke’s more hopeful than others, she admits.
“I would just want people to be more understanding of mental illness, more tolerant of people who cope with mental illness,” she said.
“There’s still lots of stigma around accessing help. There’s an attitude that still very much exists that people can just push through depression if they just change their mindset. But there are lots of other things at play and if you don’t take care of your brain, you can’t take care of your body.”