Wednesday, October 3, 2012

for Holly

In October of 2002, I was a 19-year-old sophomore at UGA. I spent the evening of Thursday, October 3 much like I did most nights of my life those days—finishing up my school work and then spending time chatting with my friends on AOL Instant Messenger. That night I remember chatting with several of my friends from home—the following day many of us were going to be traveling home to attend our alma mater’s football game and enjoy a weekend of hometown fun. Although I loved my school and my life in Athens, I was more than a little pumped at the prospect of a weekend home in Augusta—especially one filled with fun plans with high school friends. I spent several hours that evening IMing with my friend Holly. Holly was several years younger than me and still lived at home and attended our high school. We’d met and become friends while I’d still been in school because we were both active in band, but our friendship had grown and sustained even while I’d been away at college—primarily due to the convenience of IMing and the fact that both of us had blogs (Open Diary). I know—blogging in 2002? We were like the frontrunners for this thing. So anyway, we spent some time chatting that night—we would see each other the following night at the football game, and probably grab some food afterward with our group of mutual friends—and then said good night. I was heading to bed. She was going to get a snack and do the same.

On Friday morning, October 4, I awoke to the news that my friend Holly, along with her parents, had died during the night when their house burned down.

Even now—10 years later—I sob when I write these words. She died that night. Probably a very short time after we finished chatting. While I enjoyed my peaceful slumber, Holly died of smoke inhalation in her home that had no working smoke detectors.

I felt like the world stopped spinning. And isn’t it funny how in these situations, it’s suddenly all about me? My world stopped spinning. I was so distraught. But that’s how grieving is, I suppose. All you can think about is yourself.

Well the main thing I felt, at first, was guilt. It might not make sense, but I spent years feeling guilty that I hadn’t stayed up later chatting with her. If I had, maybe she would have smelled the smoke and been able to wake up her parents. But I didn’t. I wanted to sleep. And so she went to bed too, unaware that it would be her last time. And because grief makes you a little crazy, I felt guilty. I could have stopped this tragedy, and I didn’t. I chose to sleep. I don’t feel that way now. I know it wasn’t my fault. But I still wonder if this story might be different if I’d stayed up a little later that night.

I guess besides sadness, obviously, the main emotion I remember feeling (and still do, to some extent) was anger. I was angry at Holly’s parents because I’d heard that they were both smokers and that is why they disconnected their smoke detectors—because their cigarette smoke would cause them to go off. I don’t even know if that’s true (well, I do know they were smokers), but it made me mad to think that it might have been. If you want to ruin your own health, fine. But you stole a vibrant, intelligent, and kind sixteen year old girl from this world with your choice. THAT isn’t fair. Never mind that anger made no sense—they died, too. Never mind that they OBVIOUSLY didn’t intend for that to happen, if in fact the smoke detector rumor was even true. It just made me feel a little better to be able to point some blame somewhere.

I was angry with God, of course. Because really God? How could He let this happen? I believed in God then, and I trusted Him to be a God who loved, a God who helped, a God who protected. I didn’t have any room in my mind for a God that let awful things happen to innocent children. I couldn’t reconcile my image of the kind, gentle shepherd with the God who sat idly by while peoples’ houses burned down. While neighbors rushed in to see their friends already dead. While high schoolers wept at the loss of the clarinet player in the front row. I don’t understand that God. And I don’t know how He plans to use this tragedy for His glory, like He says He does. I hope He does. Maybe He has, and I just haven’t seen it. Because ten years later, I still just feel sad.  

You want to know the worst part of this story? Holly had an older sister. I don’t know her name. I never did. She was much older than Holly (and me), and had never moved to Augusta with the rest of their family. I believe that at the time she was in grad school in Chicago. And on October 4, 2002, she awoke to the news that her entire family was gone.

I think of this sister so often. I can’t imagine how she felt. I think of how sad this tragedy made me—and I was only a casual friend of Holly’s, at best. So I multiply my sadness and anger and tears by a billion, and I bet that’s how Holly’s sister felt. Feels. I don’t know how you ever get over something like this. But I pray that she has, or that she will. Wherever she is, I pray that she has found friends and maybe new family (by marriage or something) that have taken her in and given her a place to call home. I hope that she clings to God when she’s sad, even if she doesn’t fully comprehend the way He works.

 I wish I could talk to Holly's sister, just once, and tell her that I will never forget. I haven’t. For ten years, I’ve carried the memory of Holly with me. I remember her smile, her sarcastic sense of humor, and her emotionally open blogging. I remember her constantly changing the CDs in my car when I gave her rides, searching for her favorite songs. I remember our shared passion for band (both marching and concert) and the dorky conversations we enjoyed.  I think of her and sob every time I listen to Sussex Mummer’s Christmas Carol, a song that we both loved. I remember that every time she wrote her name, she drew a star next to it. Her life was too short-- and I only knew her for a few years of it—but it was beautiful.

If Holly were still with us, she would be 26 now. I can only imagine what her life would be like—she was ambitious and smart, motivated and talented—she could be anything she wanted to be. I have confidence that we would still be friends, even if it were just by means of blogging. I mean, we were blogging in 2002. People that dedicated to the cause would definitely still be doing it. And I bet you all would love her blog, too. She would be able to tell us what new music to be listening to, and what books to read—she was always good at that.

I wish things had gone differently during the early hours of October 4, 2002. I wish I had told Holly how much I appreciated her friendship, how she made so many of our lives more full. I wish she’d had the opportunity to grow up and see where life would take her- to spread her wings and fly. I wish that at the football game on October 4, my friends and I could have been laughing and cheering on the band, instead of sobbing as they donned black armbands and left Holly’s spot open on the field. I wish I knew why God works the way He does. I wish I were better at trusting that His plan is actually best.

Holly’s sister…wherever, whoever you are: I want you to know that her life was not in vain. She made her world more beautiful and I will never, ever forget her.


  1. What a beautiful tribute. I hope you will find just a little bit more freedom and peace from sharing it. As always, thanks for making your heart soft and real and present in your blog.

  2. Such a sad story :( but I agree, what a beautiful tribute. I'm sure she is smiling down on this post!

  3. I'm so sorry to hear this Erika, even though it's ten years later. As E said, this is a beautiful tribute and I too pray for her sister. Hopefully she has found peace and family and clung to God through the hard times.

  4. beautiful. I think we've all been at a place where we've questioned whether His plan really is the best.

    The lyrics to Elevation Worship's song "Give Me Faith" have been on repeat in my head lately:

    "Give me faith to trust what you say
    That you're good and your love is great"

    your friend's sister would love to know that you remember and still mourn of your friend 10 years later.

  5. What a terrible loss for everyone who knew Holly and her parents. This is a beautiful post. I am sure her sister would be touched and appreciative to know that you still think of Holly and have such good memories of her.

  6. Erica...I cannot imagine how you felt at 19 knowing you were the last one to talk to Holly. Now that the years have passed you can reflect on how lucky she was to have a beautiful friend in you and have gone to sleep looking forward to plans with her friend. You've said this never know how far your blog will reach...maybe her sister is out there and will see this! Wouldn't that be neat?!

  7. So sad, but I know she must have been thankful to have a friend like you who is still keeping her memory alive today!

  8. I remember this like it was yesterday. Hard to believe it's been 10 years already and still so very sad/difficult/unfortunate.

  9. I think about Holly everytime I drive through our neighborhood. Everyday.

    A few years ago, once they finally cleared the lot the house was on, I thought about saving/raising money to buy the lot as a non-profit and building a playground.

    I love seeing the flowers by the mailbox bloom every spring.

    The next day at school was hard. Knowing that's the reason the sirens and lights woke me up the night before, broke my heart.

    All we can do is remember.

  10. Sad, yet beautiful, post. Thanks for sharing.

  11. one of my sis' is a Holly! And I had a best friend in hs die in a car crash on her way to pick me up. whenever i visit my parents i have to drive by the spot. it's been almost 16 years and only last year was the first time i drove by without thinking about it!


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