I was only seven when I lost three friends to a tragic accident. It has been 39 years ago this December, and I have never been able to shake the feeling of that loss. Frank and Todd were my age, but, Todd’s sister, Gina was 5. It was two weeks before Christmas and I have never been able to view life through wide eyed innocence again. To say I was too young to understand the significance of their deaths would be a mistake. I have never forgotten the significance. I do not believe that I ever will.
Frank, Todd, and Gina all lived in the same apartment building as I did. We didn’t know it at the time, the buildings were new, but they were for low income families. Todd and Gina lived right below our apartment. Frank lived the next section over. We were all like typical children. We horsed around, we watched tv(the few channels you could get at the time) and we went to school together. Frank was a bit of a rascal. Tried to pull the ring zipper down on my jumpsuit once. Gina played more with my sister, who was younger, then we played with her. Todd and I were nearly inseparable. Truth be known, though I mourned all their deaths, Todd was the one my heart missed the most.
Todd and I were as close as 7 year old’s could be. Both of our mother’s were divorced. We enjoyed playing together and shared our secrets. We would walk hand in hand the length of the apartment basement with our sisters and tell them there were ghosts beyond the concrete. Yes, we were mischievous. One time, after that, they ran out of the basement and we returned to play with his car set. We were sitting very close. I turned to him and he turned to me. The next thing I knew is he went to kiss me and I went to hug him. I received a kiss on the cheek. Just as we embraced we heard his mom storming down the steps to yell at us for what we did to our sisters. What seemed, originally, in slow motion, became quick as we let go. There was a never an intimate moment that seemed as innocent as that moment. It never happened again with us.
The day of their deaths, we were returning home from school. They got it in their heads that they wanted to go skate on an ice pond nearby. Later in life, I found out that a friend of ours, Tracy, was there with us. I didn’t remember that. In her memories, she had wanted to go with them to the pond. She said I reminded her that her mom had said she had to go straight home. She said, for the longest time, she hated me for reminding her of that. It wasn’t until later in life that she felt I had saved her life. Had she gone with, she would not have been here today.
My version is slightly different then her’s though I am trying to mesh them all together. In my memory, we ended back at the apartment skating on the ice from the sub pump. Todd went to tell his mother that they were home. While he was gone, Gina got it in her mind to go to the frozen pond. When Todd came back we told him where she had went. Frank and him chose to go get her. I played a little longer and went in. On the way in I met up with Todd’s mother, Elaine. She asked me if I had seen the kids and I told her where they went. That was the last time we were to see them alive.
When she went to look for them, she did not see them where I said they were. She called the police. The police man asked me questions while we were standing in the hallway. I told him the same information I had told Elaine. They too went looking in that area. Throughout the night people came in and out of our apartment asking questions. Our neighbor actually went to the pond, but did not see anything. I do remember Tracy, my sister Kathy, and I coloring one of those holiday contest pictures from the newspaper. I will never forget all the lights I saw, looking from my back porch.
When they still hadn’t found them they organized a very large search party. It was now dusk. I stood on my porch watching all the people going door to door, knocking, asking questions. More porch lights then I have ever seen were glowing the darker it got. I watched this amazing spectacle for any person, much more a child of seven, but grew frustrated. I knew where they went. I knew what they were doing. Why didn’t anyone see them or listen to me?
Around midnight, my mother finally ushered my sister and I to bed. She told me she would wake us when they found them. She didn’t. She let us sleep until we woke up naturally. I found her sitting on the couch in the living room. My sister was trailing behind me. My mother told us that Frank, Todd and Gina, were found dead. She said Jim, our neighbor, had found them shortly after we went to bed. Apparently, he had returned to the pond and saw a hat sticking near the top of the ice. Our mom said that they believe that Todd and Frankie had seen Gina fall in and that they tried to save her. Their were long sticks near where the ice had broken and frozen over. She told me that Elaine was at the hospital talking to them.
I do not remember much of that day. I do remember bursting into tears and being unable to stop. My mom took me over to her friend, Cheryl’s(Tracy’s mom) apartment. I remember still sobbing as we knocked on the door and went in. I know they gave me a pill that I thought was baby aspirin to help calm me down. I do not remember anything of the rest of the day. This was the seventies and I’m not sure that what they gave me was baby aspirin. In my adult mind, I wonder why they would have given me baby aspirin. But, as I said, I really do not know.
We were not allowed to attend the funeral. My mom had told me that Elaine had not wanted any children there. I did find out that, Todd and Gina, were buried in Illinois. Not too long ago, I looked up their burial information. I emailed the Archdiocese to find out exactly where they were located. I went to http://www.findagrave.com and entered their information. I requested some one take a picture of their stone, because it was too far for me to drive and visit. I was hoping for closure. Someone took a picture shortly after my request. Their headstone was for both of them. They were together in death. Though it hasn’t provided me closure, it has given me some sort of peace.
After their deaths a number of things occurred. For one, Elaine mourned greatly. Even though I was a child, I witnessed this deep and powerful grief. Her friends tried to console her, but she could not be consoled. For another, while walking to school, I noticed them draining out the pond. We could not have avoided it, but, why they chose to do it with the knowledge that young children were going to pass by, is beyond me. You would have thought they would at least have waited until the children were in school. I remember the fish flopping around in the street as the hose poured into the sewage drain. I heard the adults saying that this was suppose to have been done long before this tragic loss.
Now a days, if a group of children from one school would have died in an accident, they would have counselors on hand. They didn’t, not in the seventies. At least, not at my school. My mom asked me to pick up Todd and Gina’s belongings from school, per Elaine’s request. I went to the office to get their items, and my Principal came out of his office to offer his condolences to me. Perhaps he knew that this would be difficult and that this was asking a child a little too much to pick up the items of her dead friends. I brought it home and it sat up in our closet for years. Elaine never asked for it back. We even moved with it. It was definitely over 25 years before my mom finally got rid of it. Every day, when I was a child and looked in the closet, I saw it. A constant reminder of my loss.
I have never handled death well since. If I can avoid going to a funeral of someone I am close to, I will. The pain starts all over again. The sobbing begins and I find it difficult to stop. I am crying for the recently deceased and for the loss of my friends, especially Todd. My mother passed away last year, along with my aunt, and my mother’s best friend, my “aunt”, Cheryl(yes the same one as above), and my world fell apart. I am told I am suffering from complicated grief. I would like to not be suffering from grief at all, but this is not a perfect world.
It happened two weeks before Christmas. I looked up articles just to verify when it happened. The articles don’t mention Tracy or I, even though I know we talked to reporters. Just as well I guess. Every year since their death, I had been filled with deep sadness. Not relating their deaths with my sadness at that time of year. It took a therapist, in my twenties, to recognize I felt guilty over their deaths. Recognizing that has helped me get through those two weeks with understanding. However, the guilt has never left.
I feel guilty that I didn’t die with them. I feel guilty, in only the way a child can, that I was unable to save them. I’m trying, now, to get through that and shake it from it’s hold on me. It has been a long process and it will continue to be. I need to forgive myself for the child I was. I need to realize that it was not in my control. Logically, I can see this, but the heart doesn’t understand logic. Can something that has been held so long actually go away? I guess this is one of those “time will tell” moments. I am really hoping I can look back with fondness and not pain.
The holidays and New Year, is a time of renewal. Whatever is holding you back from living fully, I hope you will overcome it. The peace I wish for myself, I wish for all of you.