observations and opinion
December 25, 2016. 5PM EST
Christmas Day has involved a lot of food, a long walk and a lot of lolling about. Bloated, people gaze at their phones, send pictures, click on links. I run my finger along the Twitter feed, wondering what awfulness is unfolding out there in the big terrible world.
And so I found out about the awfulness. Not terrorism, but tragedy; not on a grand scale (although there has been some of that) but on a small, deeply personal scale. Too personal, as it turns out.
The line on Twitter caught my eye: a Christmas fire in Ontario’s cottage country, had claimed the lives of a family. I clicked on the story – it was the first of many clicks to follow – and read of two lawyers, two boys, their two dogs – all unnamed but longtime residents on a lake. They were all lost. Horrific. Unsettling.
The authorities were quoted in the story as saying the names would be withheld from publication pending notification of the families.
I am good at solving mysteries and this one churned inside me. It felt… too close. Might it be a colleague? My mind jumped forward: what two lawyer couples do I know, with cottages up there? A blank, but a strange sense of unease lingered in me.
The address of the house was referred to in the news story: I googled it. I didn’t recognize the lake. But a reverse lookup of the address produced a name. The name was vaguely familiar but still, somehow, I was not sure. I tapped out some more searches online. Nothing. And yet…
Part of my disquiet, I knew, was that a household like this was very similar to my own: professionals with a country house, probably in a community of like-minded souls, friends and neighbours, year round and seasonal residents. Their kids had grown up on the lake, the story said, as ours had grown up on our lake.
Our lake. That was the key. Any lake with houses like this, with residents from the big city – will be organized. It will have a Facebook page for residents. I typed in the lake in the Facebook search bar. It had a group, just like ours. Just like ours except, the members’ names aren’t concealed.
I went back to the surname I had traced to the address. My finger tapped as I scrolled down the members list: there it was. A woman. A face I did not know. I tapped her photo and landed on her Facebook page. There she was, beautiful and smiling, with her sons and husband. The husband’s face was familiar and another couple of taps revealed who he was. Him I knew – not personally, but by name. He too was a lawyer, in practice a little longer than me, like me at one of the country’s largest law firms.
So this was the family: the two lawyers, the two sons, even their dogs were displayed on Facebook. Also, their friends – including mutual friends, some whom I have known for more than thirty years.
So it is on this Christmas evening I have come to know that this couple – people most blessed in the world and known dearly to some of my friends – are gone. Their boys are gone. They have been lost in a Christmas fire. It is strange, unsettling, upsetting to know this.
One’s head spins at what the loss will mean, when the people who loved them, find out. It is not hard – it is all too easy, actually – to imagine how such a catastrophe would strike my own lake community, people who’ve grown up and will probably grow old together. Tonight the news is trapped in me – it can’t go anywhere, not from me, not to them, not tonight. It’s Christmas.
Soon enough it will all come out: in a day, dozens – perhaps hundreds – of people will be heartbroken, shattered, bereft at the loss of people who lived big lives. The law firm will announce it, with agony and reserve – words that are very fragile ice over a lake of sadness.
I think of the mutual friends I shared with the lost family. Friends whose Christmas day posts tonight are jolly and beaming will go dark, or turn to grief-stricken remembrances. By Boxing Day their Holidays will be disfigured by the news. This is an almost staggering tragedy and there will not be words enough to capture the loss, to fill the gulf, to ease the pain their many, many souls are about to experience.
They will be sick at the thought of such loss. They will shudder. They will feel a swirling, guilty mix of dread and gratitude for what and who they have not lost. And they will check their smoke detectors. It’s what people do.
Like the couple who have perished, I am a lawyer. It is my business to know other people’s secrets and to keep them. And I do keep them. And I will keep this one, until is a secret no more. But there is something too real, too personal, too awful about this. It is as if a meteorite were about to strike the earth – I know it and, out of sheer decency – I cannot tell the people whose worlds are about to be damaged.
It is all sickening. A mother, a father, two sons. God rest their souls.
I must stop now. I’m being called downstairs to join my family. It is Christmas, after all.