Friday, January 20, 2006

January 20, 2006

There’s something about hearing Jack Williams announce it on the 11 o’clock news that made it seem more real.

I’m sure it’s just that he was the anchor my parents watched and that’s where I got my news as a kid, and that someone whose parents watched channel 5 or who grew up in St. Louis or L.A. wouldn’t have the same reaction.

But I already knew that Ian and Victor were dead. I’d been at the hospital and then the school for most of the afternoon and I don’t think it seemed to be real to me until I watched it on the news.

Seeing my school, my colleagues, my kids, one of my best friends, grieving and sharing and explaining and eulogizing on my TV screen at home was somehow more real than experiencing it. Or maybe it wasn’t, and it just happened that I was finally unwinding from the day at the same time the news was coming on.


Mom called me at work around 1:30. It’s not unusual for her to call me at work on a Friday since we go over to their place for supper Friday nights and she wants to know what we want to eat. It’s essentially a Friday ritual: Mom calls, asks what we want to eat, I tell her anything will be fine, and it usually is.

But this was her second call. She told me that there had been a car accident and four SLA kids were in the car and that she thought one of them was on the basketball team. She said they had received a call at the insurance office from the kid whose parents owned the car asking about what coverage they had, if there was a death benefit on the policy, etc.

I assumed the kid was just a little freaked out and that he was probably just covering his bases. I didn’t know he was calling from the police station.

I tried to call the Sterling police to get some more information—how many were hurt, what hospital were they taken to—and got nothing except that they were investigating an accident. A coworker overheard my conversation, and called someone she knew in a neighboring town. The reports from that town were that one was dead on the scene…maybe two, and another was critically injured.

I called Mom back and found out who the four students were. Three of them were Crusaders.

I left work and headed to Worcester. I’m not sure what I thought I could do, but I figured there must be something I could do to help. I always try to find something to do. I guess I cope better by occupying myself, trying to find a way to do something. Or maybe to not do nothing.

I wanted to get to Cameron’s place to tell him in person. I didn’t think he should have to find out by phone that one of his players was dead. No one could find him. I figured I might catch him at home, but as I got closer to town I called ahead and he wasn’t home yet, but his mom said the phone at his place had been ringing off the hook.

So I went to the hospital.


I’m not sure what I thought I would accomplish there. If I’d thought about it at all, I probably would have realized that I probably wouldn’t be much help. I’m not good at talking to grieving people. I was at Mrs. Schmidt’s funeral last week and got stuck at the head of the receiving line and after I’d said “I’m sorry” and hugged the people who were there to hug I had no place to go. Just standing there smiling, but not too much, because there’s not much to smile about. Awkward really.

How do I empathize with someone who’s lost a parent or brother or best friend when I’ve been so lucky not to have faced that kind of pain?

When I got to the Emergency Room, there were a couple of teachers and a couple of students waiting. Martha asked me if I had an update, and I told her what little I knew. She said Ian and Jody were both in surgery and that it was touch and go for Ian. The rest of the people who were waiting for news were up on the third floor where Ian was in surgery. I went up to see what was going on.

When I got off the elevator, I realized I probably had no business being there. I have no idea who I expected to see—actually I do, I thought some of my girls might be up there—but in the hall outside the elevator were a handful of people crying. I knew they were there for Ian, but I didn’t know them.

Except for Allyson. She told me Ian had died.

She then ran across the hall to the only place on the floor she had found cell service. I checked the waiting room briefly and found none of my kids there, and I didn’t know what to do. There were people I didn’t know grieving over their loss, the one person I did know, the principal, furiously trying to call teachers, pastors—anyone—to update them on the news.

And me. Standing in the hall. Not sure if I should hug someone I didn’t know, or help someone I did know, or just go back downstairs.

I don’t know how long I stood in the hall alone but not really alone. Probably not that long, but when Allyson got off her phone I asked her how she was and she said she was OK. I think she was just busy, but busy makes things better until there’s nothing left to do. I wanted to be busy (and courteous), so I asked if there was anything I could do. Allyson asked me to go downstairs to get the Bible teacher and ask him to come upstairs with her and Ian’s parents. And to try to find out what was going on with Jody and Nelson since no one on the third floor had heard any news.

I found Jeff and sent him upstairs, and then turned around to see that one of my girls had arrived.


Since I’ve been coaching again, one of things I’ve noticed that makes me a better coach now than ever before is the separation I have from my players. Where I’d always been closer to my players in age and by extension closer to them personally—especially when I coached at college—I’m now older enough and have a much fuller life outside of basketball and I haven’t developed the same casual closeness I have developed with teams and players when I was a lot younger. And not being at the school everyday and seeing the kids every day is also an advantage in the sense that my role in their lives is clearly defined. I care about my kids, love them dearly, but I am their coach.

What works for basketball is suddenly inadequate when two kids die and one of my players is crying and I’m holding her and realizing that I don’t know if she’s crying because she’s really close to the kids who are gone, or if she’s not so close but just overwhelmed, or if she’s remembering some specific experiences they shared…or for any reason really. I realize that I don’t know her as well as I would if I were at the school every day.

And maybe that’s just an excuse. Maybe I should have taken more time to know her anyway.

She tells me that another player is in the chapel where some of the friends have gathered and I go in and find her sitting trying to get news on what has happened, and how it happened. And I put my arm around her and she lays her head on my side and cries softly as I stand next to her as she sits.

I am sad for her. The first boy she ever kissed has died. I know that because she came to practice late one night completely nervous and worried and with a scarf pulled tight to her neck that she wouldn’t take off as we practiced because…well you know. Everyone knew why she was acting that way and why she was dressed that way, but she was thrilled and nervous and scared because it was the first time and she’d lost track of time and that had never happened before and how would she face her parents.

Of course it all turned out all right and over time it became an inside joke. I wear a mock turtleneck to each game and every once in a while when the young man would walk by I’d pull my collar up tighter over my neck and wink and she’d roll her eyes and laugh…and I’ll probably never do that again.

How does a 17-year-old deal with that?


A 34-year-old deals with it by staying busy. Cameron finally called me back shortly after I left the chapel. We needed to get a hold of the people at St. Mary’s High School to cancel Saturday night’s game. Cameron wasn’t at school and didn’t have all of his contact information with him at home so I volunteered to take care of that for him if he couldn’t.

I waited at the hospital until he arrived. He seemed to be doing OK. He came in as Ian’s parents were leaving and they shared a hug. After consoling a few of the other students that were still there, he told me he hadn’t been able to reach St. Mary’s. I volunteered to drive over to St. Mary’s to see if someone was at the school or gym and try to get word out. Failing that, I’d go to his office when I stopped by SLA and get the contact info.

I went to St. Mary’s and found their AD in the gym. I told him what had happened and he said he’d just found out from Cameron’s wife. I felt a little weird being there since he’d already found out. He offered to pray for the school and I thanked him for that and headed back to Lancaster.

When I got to the school, most of the folks there had already cried themselves out. There was a lot of standing around, looking at each other, generally being awkward. Many of the rest of my players were there, and I got to talk with them for a couple of minutes, and hug them and listen to them tell a couple of stories.

One of them asked me about the game Saturday and I told her that it would be postponed. The question bothered me. I’m at the school, two of these kids’ classmates have died, people are grieving and she asks me about basketball. Not because that’s all that is on her mind, but because that’s all she has to talk about with me. And I again feel like maybe I’ve missed something here.

Cameron calls as I am leaving and I tell him that St. Mary’s knows and that all of the little items we had to take care of are done and that I’ll see him Saturday morning at the school where everyone is meeting again.


I had been calling Michelle periodically with updates through the afternoon. Every new update brought worse news, and I could hear her crying on the other end. It struck me that she seemed to be taking this news harder than I was. I think I just chalked it up to one of the ways we are different. But I realized once I got home that our different reactions might have been more basic than that.

I had found things to do. When I was at work and had the option of waiting for news or heading to town to busy myself, I made myself busy. Michelle didn’t have the same option, so she took my calls and watched the news and could think and empathize and cry and react to what she was seeing and hearing instead of pushing it aside.


As the day wound down I sat on the couch and turned on the news. The news crews had found the academy and Judy Hodder and Bob Malin and Allyson were being interviewed on channels 4, 5 and 7 and they talked about how good the kids were, and how tragic the loss was, and how every 17-year-old kid makes bad decisions and some are unluckier than others.

Then I turned to New England Cable News and watched their report and I was surprised to see Cameron on the screen. He talked about his kids, and how he loved them. He said he talked to the team after each practice about priorities and placing God and Family and School ahead of the team. As he talked he cried.

And it struck me that this was probably the first time that he had been asked. That he had held it together all day because he had made himself busy. Doing things, consoling others, being useful. And it wasn’t until some anonymous reporter stuck a microphone in his face and asked him to tell his story that he had a chance to deal with his grief.

I was sad and angry. I had left the office when I first heard the news with the express purpose of making sure someone was there for him and I got caught up in making myself busy and I forgot why I went in the first place. I was watching one of my best friends grieve and there was nothing I could do because instead of being there, I was at home watching on TV.

I tried all day to find something to do and I missed the one thing I actually could have done to make a difference.

I’ll get over it because I’ll see him tomorrow, or Sunday when the Seahawks play, or at the services next week.

But my kids won’t get to see their classmates or their friends again. How do they get over that?

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