updated 09/22/2006 AT 7:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/28/2006 AT 12:55 PM ET
On his last day before he disappeared at sea, Patrick McDermott was gardening in the backyard of the Malibu home he shared with his love of eight years, Olivia Newton-John.
Now, more than a year after he vanished – leaving his driver’s license, wallet and car keys aboard the Freedom, an overnight charter fishing boat that departed Los Angeles on June 30, 2005 – a stone labyrinth stands in his place. Newton-John built the winding path as a private memorial where she can go to feel close to the man she says was “the most romantic person I’ve ever known.”
“He loved this garden and there are a lot of things here that remind me of him,” says Newton-John, 58, in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “So he is here.”
It’s a reflection of Newton-John’s enduring positive spirit that despite the pain of the past 15 months she has emerged more hopeful and loving. This month she releases a new CD, Grace and Gratitude, which was inspired by her loss of McDermott, a cameraman she met on a commercial shoot.
McDermott won her heart on a special Valentine’s day when he planned a “magical mystery tour” for the Australian singer. Leaving cards hidden as clues around Malibu, McDermott guided the Grease star to the beach where he waited for her in a tent with a bottle of champagne. “That’s typical of the man he was,” she says.
The songs on Grace and Gratitude, which use Eastern influences such as sacred Tibetan and Japanese chants, are unlike anything Newton-John has performed before. “It’s been a difficult year and this music I’ve been creating has really been part of my healing,” she says. “The whole CD is a spiritual type of journey.”
The journey began in July 2005 when McDermott’s ex-wife, Yvette Nipar, called Newton-John to tell her McDermott had gone missing. “I’ve been through cancer and divorce. Nothing compares to this,” she says.
Long daily walks with her faithful companion, Jack, a 9-year-old Irish setter, allowed her to survive the pain, though she realized she could not get through it alone.
“I took antidepressants for six months. I had to,” she says. But she is quick to add that the healing only really began when she stopped taking the medication. “Once you go off them you can deal with it better,” she says. “It’s important to go deeply into your emotions. You have to cry.”
“We were on a break. But we had been on breaks before and we got back together. It had only been for a short time,” she says. “We had a wonderful relationship. He was so special and bright and loving and thoughtful and incredibly reliable as a father and boyfriend.”
McDermott’s disappearance, which remains unsolved by police, is also a mystery in her heart. “I don’t really know what happened. That’s probably the hardest – to live in the unknowingness,” she says.
Harder still is that there have been episodic reports that McDermott is living in the Mexican town of Cabo San Lucas. Several newspapers claimed to have found eyewitnesses who said they had seen someone resembling McDermott, stirring speculation that he’d faked his own death to start a new life.
The rumors, says Newton-John, brought up a range of emotions, including “hope that maybe … I don’t know. It just stirs it up again. It creates that ‘What if’ again.”
Deep down, however, the singer is convinced that McDermott didn’t fake his death, if only because he would never subject his now 14-year-old son to such anguish. “He just wouldn’t do that,” she says. “His son was everything to him.”
That feeling is echoed by the boy s mother, McDermott s ex-wife Yvette Nipar, 41, who has become close friends with Newton-John during the ordeal. “I can’t imagine him leaving our son ever,” says Nipar, an actress who was divorced from McDermott in 1998.
Newton-John says she hasn’t spoken out until now because she didn’t want to risk interfering with the investigation into McDermott’s disappearance. “Obviously, if I thought it would have made a difference I would have,” she says. “But we were doing what the police wanted. Just because I am a public figure doesn’t mean it’s not a really private thing.”
But the music inspired by McDermott, and the joy it has brought Newton-John, are cause for ending her silence. “This one is really from my heart and spirit,” she says of the album. “It gave me a lot of pleasure and peace to do it. It was a wonderful experience.”
Her good friend, producer and songwriter Amy Sky, who collaborated on Grace and Gratitude, adds: “Olivia just pushed herself to sing from a really honest, emotive place. She tried to just get to the heart of her voice. And that’s what you hear. It just gives you goose bumps.”