This past New Years Day, my girlfriends and I decided to commence the year with a seven-mile round-trip hike on the Topanga trail. Very rarely does one get to experience a 360-degree panoramic, crystal-clear view of downtown, Catalina Island, the Santa Monica mountains and the very tip of Big Bear mountain, covered with snow. But on this particular day, we had that experience.
As we trotted along the trail surrounded by the beauty of the rock formations, oak trees and sage brush, we chatted about the last delicious meals we’d made, the men who’d entered, exited and then re-entered our lives, sex, or the lack thereof, the next great trips we wanted to take, our goals to get our bodies into kick-ass shape, the trials and tribulations of having kids, or the anticipation of having kids, breakups, divorces, and other subject matters that are most relevant to cool, savvy women in their forties.
As Meghan, (one of the cool, savvy, 40-something-year-old women) and I were hiking ahead of the others, she said, “I just found out that one of my colleagues, Matt Badger had something tragic happen to him.”
Totally unprepared for the answer to come, I asked, “What kind of tragedy? A Divorce?”
“No,” Meghan replied. There was a pause. “On Christmas, his three daughters and in-laws were at his wife’s house and there was a fire….”
I still didn’t think that anything REALLY tragic had happened. I naively thought and hoped that tragedies could not happen on Christmas Day.
“Did the house burn down?” I asked.
To which Meghan responded, “The three girls and the wife’s parents perished in the fire…. Somehow, the gifts’ wrapping paper caught on fire …”
At that moment, the rest of the group caught up with us and Meghan shared the news. Rapid conversation ensued and many questions flew as we headed back down to the trailhead.
“Did the house have a smoke alarm?”
“How did the mom and boyfriend get out but not the rest of the family?”
“How exactly did the fire start?”
Of course, we couldn’t answer these questions, but as humans, we needed to know why and how such a tragedy could occur.
Indeed the hike was the highlight of the first day of the New Year. But as I laid my head down on the pillow that night, I found myself saying a little prayer for the three little girls whose lives were abruptly shortened.
On the fifth of January, the New York Times posted a photo taken of three caskets at a funeral procession in New York City on the front page. At first glance, I thought the Times was covering a story for fallen NYPD cops or some other civil servants. But when I read the headline, “A Mother Pays Tribute to Her “Little Girl Tribe,” I realized the caskets held the bodies of the three girls who perished in the fire. My heart sank once again and I quietly sobbed as I read the article.
The entire article captured the profundity of the whole experience. There was a specific line in which the writer noted, “As he first entered (the church), Mr. Badger (the father of the three girls) let out an audible moan, stopping to drop his head.”
Just reading those words made me wonder if Matt Badger was on suicide watch. Admittedly, if I had to endure the agony of losing my three daughters, I would no longer want to live. So, I could only imagine how he was feeling on that day.
Like many things in life, while this story had such a profound impact on me and several others, it too, had faded a bit as time went on and other tragedies occurred in our families, communities, nation and world at large. But the story resurfaced when Meghan invited me to a “Friend Raiser” for Matt, who’d decided to start a grant program (as a memorial to his three daughters) called, “The Lily Sarah Grace Fund” (named after the daughters), and designed to provide grants to teachers from Title-One schools (public schools that are the nation’s most underfunded). The schools were to submit proposals as to how they would use the arts (painting, drawing, etc.) to teach their curriculum more creatively.
I sat in the living room with forty of Matt’s friends and colleagues, and we chatted amongst each other. I was informed that Matt was going to speak in front of the group about the grant program, but at the moment, he was nowhere to be found. Several minutes later, he emerged from a room, looking a bit disheveled and medicated, but nonetheless, with the presence of mind to address a large group of people, and talk about how and why he started this particular grant program.
Matt spoke for about ten minutes. Ten, heart-wrenching minutes. Everything he said and every gesture he made were demonstrative of his pain, sorrow and uncertainty about his ability to live on this earth without serious contemplation of suicide.
But then there was a glimmering moment when he said, “As long as I choose to be here and to be alive, I still need to be my little girls’ father, and to do something for them. And that is why I have created this grant program.”
Who knows if Matt is full-heartedly committed to the grant program, or if he has the motivation to raise money. But does it matter? It seems that as long as Matt is on this earth, he has chosen a significant purpose that will keep him alive during this very painful moment in time.
May his daughters Lily, Grace and Sarah continue to rest in peace.
Photo by: I believe I can fry