‘They just never abandoned each other’: Family mourns N.S. couple, four children who died following fire

Michelle Robertson and R.J. Sears were always best friends.

Even when they weren’t together they were still bound to each other’s lives.

They met in high school in Amherst, he at 16, she at 14. They grew up together. They started a family together. Over 14 years and four children, they separated, came together, separated and reunited again — “the little family that could,” Michelle’s aunt called them.

In a shocked and stricken Nova Scotian town near the border with New Brunswick, memories of “the little family that could” were flowing Tuesday in the aftermath of a fire that claimed the lives of the six family members and left anguish, mourning and questions in its wake.

R.J. and Michelle had a girl, Madison, and a boy, Ryder.

Madison, 11, had a huge social life — she was always at someone’s house. And she loved arts and crafts; she taught herself how to knit with two pencils.

Ryder, at eight, was a Daddy’s boy. He wanted to do everything his father did. He and R.J. bonded over hockey. They were a Montreal Canadiens family.

For R.J. and Michelle, there had been bumps in the relationship along the way, but they always found their way back to each other.

There was a four-year-old son, the wise-beyond-his-years Jaxson — with a vocabulary to match — that R.J. took as his own, a son who would proudly tell anyone who would listen — and they all listened — that he had two dads.

And when R.J. and Michelle reunited, they had another son, C.J., who Michelle called her “serious baby” — he didn’t smile much until he was a toddler. But, at 3, he could light up a room, his relatives say.

R.J. and Michelle took turns trying to make him smile. “Where’s your wings?” R.J. would say. C.J. would point to his ears.

Since January, Michelle and the children had been living with her aunt, Nellie Lloy, but in the last four weeks, the family had reunited again, this time moving into R.J.’s house.

“They just worked everything out somehow,” said Lloy. “They just never abandoned each other. Never did.

“There really was something magical that happened this summer with them. They really were at the peak of their family. Michelle was at the peak of her motherhood, R.J. was at the peak of his fatherhood and the kids just couldn’t have been happier.”

That magic, sadly, did not last.

Michelle and R.J. died together, this past weekend, along with their four children.

They were found Sunday morning in their 27-foot Passport Ultra Lite trailer parked well down a logging road near Millvale, on a piece of property owned by Lloy.

There had been a fire in the trailer, said Lloy, but it looked to have been extinguished. The trailer hadn’t burned down, and the bodies hadn’t been burned.

The property was a bit of a getaway for the extended family. Eventually they had planned to build something out there, but in the meantime, on their frequent summer trips, they’d been fixing up the land, planting flowers, letting the kids paint rocks. And they’d parked the trailer out there semi-permanently.

R.J. and Michelle had been excited about this last trip. Michelle had decided to go back to work at a nursing home, they were going to celebrate baby C.J.’s birthday — he’d just turned three — and it was going to be one nice family get-together before they closed things up for the fall.

But then tragedy struck.

On Sunday around 6:30 p.m., RCMP were called to the site and discovered the six bodies inside the trailer.

The medical examiner’s office is still looking into the cause and time of death, and the fire marshal is investigating what started the blaze. The Mounties say they are not treating the incident as suspicious.

In the middle of town, there is a gazebo near town hall with a photo of the family, an impromptu memorial growing by the day with flowers and stuffed animals and the occasional Montreal Canadiens jersey.

Here, in groups and clusters, people approach, pause, sometimes touch the photo and talk quietly amongst themselves, mourning with the quiet strength of a small town dealt a painful blow.

Next door, from the steeple of the First Baptist Church in Amherst, there is the sound of musical bells, every hour on the hour. In the moments after Lloy and Michelle’s cousin Molly Ferdinand leave after reminiscing with a reporter about their departed family, it begins to play “The Impossible Dream.”

“When I think about Michelle, I think about her laugh,” Ferdinand said moments earlier. “I think about her with her mouth wide open and her head thrown back.”

Ferdinand, Lloy’s daughter, said she and Michelle were like sisters.

“I was sort of the older sister, but she was really there for me (when things got hard.)

“I just feel like she was more a sister to me than I was to her. And I feel very privileged that I got to have that relationship.”

The last couple days have been times of a tearful reminiscence, she said. But those most recent memories are cherished ones.

“The last time I saw R.J., he told me I was beautiful.

“He wasn’t an outwardly complimenting person. He’s very quiet. So, for him to so boisterously say, ‘Hello, beautiful!’ was so shocking to me. And I told him that. Like, ‘Who are you?’”

Those memories are some small comfort for her, but there’s also this:

If nothing else, said Lloy and Ferdinand, through thick and thin, Michelle and R.J. were still best friends — and still together at the end.

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