Missing for 18 years: ‘I found my dad on TV’

The love that never died.

When a TV show granted Debbie’s lifelong wish, nobody could predict what would happen next.

Here, Debbie, 48 tells the story in her own words.

Growing up, I always wondered what it would be like to have a dad. So did my older brother Barry. Our father had left the day that I was born.

‘I came home from hospital with you to find him gone,’ my mum, Robin, told me. They’d been married five years and he hadn’t even left a note. She’d reported him missing to the police, but he had vanished off the face of the earth.

Eventually, Mum found a new man, but because Dad was still missing, the judge ordered that newspaper ads be placed in every state to try and locate him before she could remarry. When there was no response, Mum had to accept that Dad must have died. So she remarried and had my brother Kyle but she still spoke of Dad lovingly. ‘What did he look like?’ I asked her. ‘He was tall and very handsome, with beautiful brown eyes just like yours,’ she replied wistfully. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my dad’s face.

18 with mum
Me and my beautiful mum

When I was 13 and Barry was 15, we decided to look for him. Ringing every Colin Rigby in the Brisbane phone book, we got nowhere. One night, a year later, I dreamed I’d been in a terrible car crash. At 3am the next night, Mum woke me. ‘Barry’s been killed in a car crash,’ she wept.  I’d lost Dad and now my brother Barry had gone too.

I married at 22 and went on to have three kids – Katey, Daniel and Joel. A few years later, Mum split up with her second husband. When my marriage ended too, I decided to again look for Dad. It was hopeless – there were hundreds of men named Colin Rigby. At 38, I remarried to Jason, 36. And then in 2015, Mum, 76, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Me, mum holding Kyle and Barry
Me, Mum holding Kyle and Barry
wedding pic

‘I’d love you to find your dad if he’s still alive,’ she said. But how? Then I saw an ad for the TV show Long Lost Family, which reunited people with lost relatives, so I wrote to them.

A producer from the show asked me to write a letter to my father, in case they managed to find him.

Dear Colin, I wrote. I was never angry that you left. I always believed one day we’d be reunited…

When the show called to say they were going ahead, I was stunned! Mum couldn’t believe it either. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ I warned her. On the big day, Chrissie Swan and a TV crew came to my house.

‘Debbie, we’ve found your father,’ she said. I nearly fell off my chair!  ‘He’s written you a letter,’ she said, passing it to me.

Dearest Debbie, I’ve thought of you every day. I have a photo of you that’s been in my wallet since the day I left home.

That wasn’t all. I had a younger sister named Alyson, 38. But they lived in Perth, WA – over 4000km away! ‘Your dad would love to meet you,’ Chrissie added. ‘I’d love that too,’ I cried.

Mum was amazed to hear the news. ‘Where is he? How is he?’ she asked. ‘They’re flying him over to meet me!’ I cried.

The date they were arriving – January 18 – would have been Barry’s 50th birthday. On the big day, I walked shakily into the cafe. My dad stood up, held out his arms, and I fell into them.

‘My girl, my girl, look at you,’ he wept.

reunited at last
It was so amazing to meet him

Finally, I learned the truth about why he’d gone. Mum’s grandmother – Nanna Carmel – had made him. ‘She told me to leave in no uncertain terms,’ he said. ‘So I did. I went to the centre of Australia and found work.

‘There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought of you and Barry. And I always loved your mum.’

It was surreal. I just wish Barry could have been there too. Dad was distraught to find out he’d died. And Mum felt no malice at all.

‘I’d love to speak to him again,’ she said, so I gave her his number. They were on the phone for hours.

‘I had no idea he left because of Gran,’ she said afterwards. ‘I wish he hadn’t listened to her.’

father and daughter
Dad and me – finally reunited (Credit: Supplied)
Deb, Barry and Alyson in 2016
Me, Dad and my sister Alyson.

After that, they were constantly calling each other.‘The candle’s been reignited,’ Mum told me. ‘I have that old flutter back.’ At 77, she was like a teenager in love!

‘I still love her, darling,’ Colin, 76, told me. ‘Now we can’t wait to meet again.’

After almost 50 years apart, my parents had fallen in love all over again. I arranged for them to spend Christmas with me in Brisbane. Then tragedy struck. Mum took a turn for the worse and passed away on November 3. ‘Mum,’ I sobbed. ‘You never got to see Dad again.’ Colin wept when I told him the news.

The following month, he and Alyson still came for Christmas. It was wonderful for the kids to meet their grandfather for the first time.

We were so sad Mum never got to see him again, but for the last eight months of her life, my father made her incredibly happy. I found my dad and she found love again. I’m so grateful for that.

Two days before passing
Me and Mum, two days before she passed

See more in this week’s issue of that’s life! on sale now.

Related stories