MIDLOTHIAN, Va. -- It was by the seaside that Randy and Melinda Sansbury began building memories and traditions that carried on through their 40-year marriage. One of their most cherished traditions was putting messages in a bottle and releasing them into the ocean.
“When I was a kid, I put messages out in a bottle anytime I was at the ocean,” Randy said. “So when we first started our family, I said we’re going to put messages in a bottle and throw them out.”
Year after year, the Sansbury family put bottled messages into the ocean while on summer vacation in Hatteras, North Carolina.
"Periodically we’d hear back from those bottles, but mostly not,” Randy said.
But in May 2018, the family began getting a steady stream of responses from people who found their bottles.
Those messages came at a time when the family needed them the most.
“That is not happenstance,” Randy said. “It is not. It is the timing when we were hurting the most.”
In December 2017, Melinda Sansbury died of cancer. The loving and devoted wife, nurse, and mother of four died shortly after her symptoms began. The timing gave Randy and his children little time to prepare for the devastating loss.
However, they said they were grateful for their final hours together.
“It was very quiet, very peaceful,” Randy said.
Grieving from loss, Randy rented a home in Hatteras, North Carolina to spend some quiet time by the ocean.
“The stabilizer of our family had been ripped out and I had to stabilize myself and get my life stabilized to be stable for my children and my grandchildren,” Randy said.
It was by the sea that Randy found comfort remembering his wife walking along the surf and collecting seashells.
“Just seeing, in my mind’s eye, a picture of Melinda walking on the beach with her hands behind her back and just strolling and being peaceful on the beach,” Randy said.
Along with the image of Melinda walking on the beach, Randy said he also imagined a bottle resting in the sand just behind his wife.
That image, along with many shared memories at the beach, inspired the Sansbury family to release seven bottles into the ocean when Melinda’s ashes were laid to rest along the coast of Hatteras in May.
The bottles all contained a message about Melinda’s life and her love for others.
The family released five bottles along the coast and gave two bottles to a fisherman friend to release in the Gulf of Mexico.
Randy said he felt compelled by his faith to release the bottles and found immediate comfort when the first bottle was discovered by two church leaders from Pennsylvania.
The bottles were found the same day Randy stayed in Hattaras while his family returned home.
“I was alone for the first time,” Randy said. “It wasn’t 30 minutes later that I received an email from the people who found the first bottle. They said in their email that they had been praying during the time of our grief and I thought that was pretty cool that someone we didn’t know was praying for us.”
Randy said the second realization that he wasn’t alone in his grief, came just a few days later, on Mother’s Day, when the second bottle was discovered.
“I knew that Sunday, the aloneness that my children were going to feel,” Randy said. “I felt for the first time that God was telling me, look, I got this. I got your heart. I know how raw it is and how tender it is. I’ve got your heart in my hands.’”
And the blessings kept coming.
In July, a third bottle was found by a North Carolina park ranger the same week as the Sansbury’s first summer vacation without Melinda.
A fourth bottle was discovered and answered in August, on what would have been the Sansbury’s 40th wedding anniversary.
But it was the discovery of the next bottle in March 2019, some 3,000 miles away, that further convinced the Sansburys of a miracle in their lives.
“That Sunday I was walking out of the door to go to church and I get a call from my middle son and he says, ‘Dad, what’s the furthest a bottle has ever traveled?’ I go ‘well, a 100 miles north or south.’ He said, ‘What about Ireland?’ And I’m going no way!”
The night before, Randy had taken his children and grandchildren to see a Celtic show in Richmond.
Listening to Celtic music had been a favorite family pastime.
They said that night was emotional because the music reminded everyone of Melinda.
“Everything that was going on was just exciting and good for my heart. But the pings on the heart come as they do in time,” Randy said.
Little did the family know, that just hours earlier, a young fisherman discovered a fifth bottle off the coast of Bally Shannon, Ireland. Eight months later, in December, just before their second Christmas without Melinda, Mairéad Staunton discovered the message from the sixth bottle, further south in Co Mayo, Ireland.
The discovery was documented by RTE News, an Irish television network.
“As soon as I saw it, it was a ziplock bag tightly rolled up with a red ribbon and I thought to myself, this is something significant, so I kind of unrolled it and there was a printed letter inside and it said ‘To whoever found this bottle, this is a love story that dates back to the early 1960s.’ Mairéad read, ‘building memories was her gift to all she met and weaving stories of their lives and ours together was the blessing. It has truly been a wonderful 40 years with Melinda.’”
Randy said the discovery began a long-distance friendship between Mairéad and his family.
“When Mairéad contacted us to let us know that the message was there, but the bottle was gone, you look at that and go my goodness!” Randy said. “I think out of that I learned that God was telling us that long after the bottle has been broken down to sand, and our bodies are broken back down to dust, that message lives on.”
Today, the image of Melinda walking on the beach with her hands behind her back graces Randy’s Midlothian home.
He commissioned Virginia artist Vonnie Whitworth to paint the image as a gift to his children. Each painting holds a special place for every member of the Sansbury family.
Each Christmas, the family now has a new tradition to carry on Melinda’s message.
Mairéad discovery in Ireland came at the same time the family was visiting Melinda’s hometown of McAdenville, North Carolina for the first time since her passing.
McAdenville is known as Christmas Town USA for its charm and hospitality.
“My children had grown up there at Christmas time. We walked the streets together singing Christmas carols and waving to all the cars,” Randy said.
Hoping to recreate the spirit of McAdenville in Midlothian, the Sansbury family now hosts a special Christmas Town celebration each holiday, complete with Santa and Mrs. Clause.
The celebration draws families from many nearby neighborhoods and every letter that is dropped off for Santa is returned with a special message.
Randy said through their grief journey, he and his family have seen God’s hand at work. They said Melinda’s spirit carries on through messages she left in life. Messages of love that somehow managed to cross an ocean.
“That’s so important, the messages that we give our children and to our grandchildren,” Randy said. “The messages that we live in life, sometimes we don’t think they’re important, but they are really the most important things we’ve got.”
To this day, the Sansbury’s say the seventh bottle hasn’t been found or at least answered. But the family knows it’s just a matter of time before they receive a message from a stranger.
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.