The year things changed

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Leading up to Christmas in 2016, life — as the T-shirt says — was good. Though I was in between full-time jobs after taking a buyout from the Cape Cod Times, I’d landed an interesting gig with the Boston Globe curating a new, exciting business newsletter. My wife was steady as ever in her career as a teacher. Our oldest daughter, JoJo, was a senior in high school, and college offers with scholarships streamed in. Our son, Tommy, who took up hockey at 13 years old, was a high school sophomore, and had made the JV team. 

Our town was still basking in the glow of Falmouth High School’s Super Bowl victory at Gillette Stadium weeks earlier. 

Then Dec. 21 and 22 happened. On the 21st, my oldest brother died. He had health issues for several years, but none of us was thinking at 69 years old, his life was in jeopardy. He was a fun-loving guy, a huge Boston sports fan even though he lived in Florida most of his adult life, and a top-notch drummer.

We were sitting on the couch the next night, sipping wine with our good friends, telling stories about “Uncle Eddie” between tears, when we heard that telltale sound of a MedFlight helicopter at Falmouth Hospital, less than a mile away from our house as the crow flies. Minutes later we were hearing about a horrible crash. Seconds after that, Tommy called with the terrible news making its way through text messages among teammates. The crash involved two seniors at Falmouth High School, both hockey players, Owen Higgins and James Lavin.

That night we would learn that both boys died in the crash, and our community was shattered with grief. Higgy and Lav were high school classmates of my daughter, teammates of my son, and one a former student of my wife.

In the days that followed, classmates and teammates gathered for a vigil at the high school. The photograph of that vigil, which appeared in my former paper, is forever etched in my mind. I could name every grief-stricken teenager in it.

In the days that followed, a visit to the grocery store would result in hugs and more tears. I remember my heart pounding as Falmouth took the ice for the first time after the crash against rival Barnstable, the jerseys of Owen and James behind the bench, as they would be the rest of that season.

When reporter Rich Saltzberg reached out to me on Saturday, Dec. 19, I was brought right back to that night almost four years ago to the day. It didn’t take long for us to learn that it was a young woman killed in a horrific head-on collision in Vineyard Haven.

By all accounts, Emma Hall was a delightful young woman — a baker, a dog lover, a fair volunteer, and on a path toward an early childhood education career. 

I look at her photographs and I see my own, soon-to-be 22-year-old daughter. Thick dark hair and a contagious smile.

I don’t know Emma Hall. Still, tears come easily when I think of her, think of the loss her family is feeling, the excruciating loss of innocence for her sisters and friends, and the toll it’s taken on the Island community.

Here we are, in the grips of a pandemic, and we can’t do the very thing that comes naturally in these situations — give a reassuring hug to those so bereft.

It wasn’t my daughter or son in that crash four years ago, but I know it affected them, and I know it affected me. It took time for me, for us, to realize just how much it did.

It’s cliché to say that lives were changed forever that night. Phrases become cliché because they’re true. What we don’t know is how their lives have been changed.

The Hall family will need all the compassion and love their family, friends, and this Island can muster.

There is no preordained grieving period, no one-size-fits-all way to mourn. We need to understand that it’s OK not to be OK. And always be ready to listen.

2 COMMENTS

  1. With all the crises of 2020, your editorial cuts a swath to our most fundamental issue and what really matters. On December 31, I lost my brother and your article said it all beautifully. Thank you.

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