29 years ago, I was quite oblivious to the fact that just a few blocks away from my house, our own high school basketball team was loading up in vans and heading to the Okanagan for a tournament. While I went about my typical afternoon, parents were dropping off kids and saying goodbyes that were going to have to last a lifetime.
I don't remember much of the details of the day, other than the news carried the story and somehow I found myself on the doorstep of one of my teachers' house, ringing the doorbell looking for answers. His wife answered, phone in hand, eyes red and she hugged me, which was unusual even though I had babysat for them for many years. "Jim's at the high school. It's not good news."
I remember I wasn't alone when I walked into the high school but for the life of me, now, I can't remember if it was my mom with me or a friend. I do remember the school was empty save for a few teachers and administrators. I walked into the office and the phones were ringing off the hooks. Mr. Callaghan took me into his office, and sat me down and I remember him asking me two things. "If you're sure you want to know, I'll tell you what I know. Are you sure?" He told me the names of those who had died. The girl I'd double dated with on my first "real" date. Another girl, a sister of a friend of mine, who I sometimes walked home with. A boy I'd gone all through elementary and high school with who could make me laugh like no one else, whose freckles I felt were immeasurably sweet, and who walked with me to math class three times a week and saluted when we parted for some reason I no longer remember. A boy who I only knew as a quiet and artistic boy...a boy I didn't even know had played basketball. And then there were those for who we weren't sure what their injuries were other than very serious...a boy from my elementary days who I knew as a fun guy to kick around with and another, a friend who lived next to my Grandma and had a genuine smile and was friendly to everyone. His father was driving the van and my heart felt sick for all that that meant. And then Mr. Callaghan asked me if I could answer some phones for a while and just relay information about a meeting at the school to inform people of what had happened. It was a long evening.
Over the coming days, as reality hit, our small high school closed ranks and knit together a crazy kind of closeness that broke down the ranks of cliques and diminished the lines drawn between them. For each of us lost someone...the artists, the rockers, the jocks, the fresh faced popular girls and the boys for whom sports was language.
We walked through funerals together and filled chapels and funeral homes. We stood amongst caskets and hearses and comforted one another. We filled the arms of parents who would never hug their child again. We sat in the living rooms and shared stories with families who were eager to hear every nuance of their child's life. We drove by their homes in the years to come and whispered silent prayers for them as we knew the rooms that remained unoccupied. We unveiled plaques and we donated to scholarships. And as the years went by and we moved on with our lives, we saw these families at our graduations, our weddings and then, for me, less and less.
I remember standing on a small bluff in Tsawwassen, BC about a year after the accident. We were part of a small graveside gathering with one of the boys' families to put his ashes to rest overlooking the ocean he loved. I remember the smell in the air that day of salt water and the cool wind, the friends in my vehicle and the warmth of the car as we returned to it, chilled by the time outside.
I will say this. There was a lesson in this for me and probably numerous lessons for all of us.
That life is short.
That friendships are knit together in fun but they are fused together in loss.
That more often than you believe, in the next 29 years, as full as your life is with friendship and family and chasing down your dreams, there will be a song that stops you in your tracks and the heartache will be fresh. There will be a wistfulness in the smell of salt air and the mention of the word "Sovereign" will bring memories of a sailboat that was missing a crew member. There will be moments when you watch your own son, at 17, race off to a basketball tournament and it will strike fear in your heart that you may never see him again. And there will be the hope that his life will have meant something in the way that these four lives have meant something in the lives of so many who remember them.
Februaries are always reflective. I've lost track of many friends and family over the years but let me say this now. The time you spend with people imprints them, in more ways than you can often imagine. These four lives imprinted mine in a positive manner, even though it was a brief overlap for some, I continue to remember the gifts they brought about. Sitting in the gym today, hearing the sounds of basketballs on the backboard and the shouts of teammates on the bench, I heard the reminder that life is short but the memory of love is long.
To Meghan, Darren, Michelle and especially Brent....I remember. We all do.