By Rick Collins
A few times this spring and summer, my son, Ricky, asked if we could ride our bikes down to the Beaver Brook Elementary School. We’d make the mile-long ride down Washington Street and cruise down to the rear of the building. Ricky would then walk around a well-worn area along the playground fenceline, head into the wooded area between the softball fields and the Shumatuscacant River, and he’d remember his friend Nate.
He’d stop by the half-buried rock that he and Nate spent most recesses trying to excavate. In the woods, he’d pick up a stick and insist it was the stick Nate used as a light saber in their Star Wars battles. He’d recall how they never were brave enough to try and cross the shallow river.
On more than one occasion Ricky would tell a story and then pause. “I miss him,” he’d say quietly.
Deirdre, Alexis, Kathryn, and Nathaniel were taken from us a year ago. It was – and remains – an unfathomable tragedy that devastated Abington as a community, and shattered those who knew the family personally.
“A year later it still takes my breath away,” said Melissa Cook, who first met Deirdre attending Center School PTO meetings. “A year later, they are with me all the time and I am not sure that will ever change.”
The loss remains raw for many of those who knew Deirdre, Alexis, Kathryn, and Nathaniel; a still open wound that aches when they drive by the family’s old house, attend a school event, watch a girls soccer game, or gather for birthdays and holidays. It’s also a loss made more painful by who it involved — a family specifically known for kindness, friendship, and selflessness.
“On a personal level, [they] are still with me and probably always will be,” said Jessica Heefner, whose daughter, Kylie, was friends with Alexis. “The memories, the grief, and the realization of what the world lost last October are ever present for me, and for my kids. There is no doubt in my mind that we, as a family and a community, are forever changed by the tragic loss of our friends. The sadness and the grief will become less raw with time, but the scars will always remain.”
“I am still very emotional about them all,” said Keri Westhaver, whose two sons were both friends with the three children. “ I can’t really think or talk about them yet without the sadness of their loss overtaking me.”
Deirdre’s friends call her the definition of an involved parent, a familiar face who volunteered for school events, an active participant with Keeping Pace With Multiple Miracles – a support network for the parents of multiple birth children — and a cheering mom at Alexis’ and Kathryn’s soccer games, all while juggling a full-time job. She was also a source of parental support and wisdom whose perspective has been missed over the past several months.
“When I think of Deirdre, I think of her kindness and willingness to help,” said Megan Spano, whose daughter, Kyleigh, was also close friends with Alexis. “She was busy, but never too busy to help out. When I broke my leg two and a half years ago, many of my friends helped me. I mean, I couldn’t have done it without them, but Deirdre was first. She was the very first person to come over with two huge trays of food. She brought brownies, cups, plates, napkins. Everything.
“That’s a testament to the kind of person she was. I cried and I’m crying now thinking of it.”
Cook said she did PTO with Deirdre for three years and doesn’t believe she missed a single meeting or school committee meeting.
“Deirdre’s name was synonymous with PTO and I never wanted to do it without her,” said Cook, whose three children were friends with Deirdre’s. “She always thought of the best interest of the children. She volunteered at the Christmas Shop one year, because she volunteered at everything, and said she would come back to help me next year even though she wouldn’t have children in that school because she thought it was ‘fun’. That is the Deirdre I will know and remember.”
Catherine Marino knew Deirdre both through PTO and planning school events, as well as through Keeping Pace. Her twin sons, Colin and James, were in the same grade as Kathryn and Nathaniel.
“She was always willing to lend a hand. I think of her at every meeting, especially when someone says ‘I’ll make a motion’ because that was always her thing,” Marino said. “She gave selflessly to the community and was such a strong advocate for what she believed. I often wonder what she’d think of all the craziness going on right now.”
Westhaver echoed these sentiments.
“When I think of Deirdre, the biggest thing that comes to mind is that she was so giving. She worked full-time, had three kids, but still managed to volunteer as much as she could. She helped me so much when I took a board position at PTO and I don’t think she ever missed a meeting. I swear I still wait for her to walk through the door.
“I think of Deirdre all the time, but especially with PTO and the start of school. We had some great conversations after PTO meetings. I often wonder what her advice would be with this school year or how she would feel about it.”
Carolyn Russo, whose three children were the same age as Alexis, Kathryn, and Nate, said she became involved in PTO and School Council because of Deirdre.
“Her energy and zest for life was catchy and I enjoyed being around her,” Russo said. “I love how she always listened and gave whomever she was talking to her full attention. She always made me feel so important. I loved how she always spoke her truth and asserted herself and said it like it was.
“Oh, and that laugh, it sure was contagious.”
Rachel Collins, Ricky’s mom, said because she and Deirdre attended so many of the same school and town meetings, they’d save seats for each other, in case one was running late.
“And then we’d spend more time after meetings talking about the kids, life, and our upbringings to the point where my husband would worry if I was coming home,” she said. [Editor’s note: this is true. But I also loved that she found a fellow mom she connected with like this.]
“She offered a kindness that was upfront, truthful and real. I’m way more uptight and worried, and she was always a friendly reminder that sometimes it’s best to not make waves if the water is calm. Not long before it happened we had texted back and forth about the kids being in the same 3rd grade class and my worries about how Ricky would do. She reminded me to ‘Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you’ I have kept this text. When life gets too overwhelming and I’m trying to have control to make it all work she comes into my thoughts.”
Deirdre’s ear-to-ear smile and big laugh is a common thread her friends point to as something they remember.
“I think of her smile and her laugh, and the way she loved her children,” said Heefer. “She was kind and loving with a great smile and a contagious laugh, and her kids were her world.”
“When I think of Deirdre I think of her ever present smile,” Cook said. “Life is hard, but she always had a smile on her face. I think of Deirdre’s ability to be unabashedly, authentically herself.”
Like Deidre, Carolyn Russo also had twins, but she met Deirdre in September 2012 when their oldest daughters began their first dance classes together.
“Saturday after Saturday, talk after talk, laugh after laugh, friends we became,” Russo said. “[We] bonded together every Saturday for 5 years at the studio. Our youngest daughters danced too. Many playdates followed.
“From birthday parties to our annual pumpkin parties, Deirdre and her family were always there. Always having fun and laughing and smiling.”
Deirdre, Alexis, Kathryn, and Nathaniel were familiar faces on the Beaver Brook Elementary School playground after school, when parents would gather and talk while the kids played.
“It wasn’t until first grade that RIcky and Nate’s friendship became full blown when we would play after school at the playground every day we could,” said Collins. “Ricky can sometimes have trouble making close friends, but his friendship with Nate came easy — just like being friends with Deirdre. She appreciated Ricky for who he was and we appreciated Nate’s silly humor and outgoing personality that always offered a friendly ‘Hello’ at pickup before they ran off to play.”
“My son Ryan played with the twins every day after school when they were at [Beaver Brook],” said Westhaver. “When school started last year, he was begging for a playdate with Nathaniel and Kathryn. I kept putting it off because we were going to Disney. We got home on Oct. 1 and he immediately asked for them and I told him ‘Maybe next week.’ It’s heartbreaking knowing they didn’t have a next week.”
The past year has been particularly tough on the children’s friends. Nobody is prepared for the emotional impact of a tragedy like this, especially not 9 and 11 year olds.
Last week I mentioned to Ricky that the anniversary was coming up. We talked about it for a couple minutes and then he asked softly from the backseat: “Can you help me think about something else now?”
Kylie Heefner said she still feels like her friend, Alexis, is with her.
“I think about her and miss her every day,” she said. “She was kind and caring and loyal. She was very funny and silly and loved to be with her friends. It didn’t matter what we were doing. She just wanted to be together.
“My favorite thing to do with Alexis was play horsie at recess. She would give me a ride on her back and run around pretending to be a horse.”
Kylie Heefner, Kyleigh Spano, and Violet Fish turned their grief into action last year.
“Kyleigh and some of her friends decided to honor their friend’s memory by spreading some of the kindness in the world, the same way Alexis did when she was here,” Megan Spano said. “They worked together to make Christmas ornaments and raise money for their cause, while quietly helping each other through some very tough times.”
The friends raised $1,700 selling their ornaments last year, and used the money to buy a book for every child in Nathaniel’s classroom; donate fabric to Kathryn’s classroom so they could make 15 blankets to donate to Annie’s Kindness Blankets; donate school supplies and a canvas wall hanging with a quote about kindness in Alexis’ classroom; and make a donation to the Abington Education Foundation. In addition, the girls made a donation to the Franklin Park Zoo to “adopt” a red panda that Alexis fell in love with during a field trip.
“In February, before the pandemic, the zookeepers at the Franklin Park Zoo offered us a behind-the-scenes tour of the red panda exhibit,” said Spano. “They gave each girl a certificate and a stuffed red panda. It was VERY cold, but the girls were all so excited to get an up close view of the adorable little red panda that Alexis loved so much on their field trip in May of 2019.
“In July, the same girls came together on a very hot day to celebrate Alexis ‘ birthday. They celebrated with painted rocks covered in Harry Potter quotes (her favorite) and affirming words, planting a lilac, getting ice cream, and laughing and giggling together more than they had in months.”
Inside Heefner’s home are two boxes filled with photos and mementos. They look through them from time to time.
“We tell stories of the silly games the kids used to play and the funny things they said. We remember the times that we shared at pool parties and group get togethers and water park adventures. We honor the birthdays, the anniversaries, and the sadness for what we’ve lost, but we also honor the friendships that we shared and the happy times that we were so lucky to have.
“We make a conscious effort to put the good into the world that they would have if they were still here. We attend PTO meetings in Deirdre’s honor, we make random donations, and we try to treat the people around us with the kindness that Deirdre and her kids were known for. Most of all, we try to keep their memories alive and remember the people that they were.”
Westhaver’s oldest son, Zachary, was also friends with Alexis. Her sons also keep photos of their friends in their room.
“A year later, she is still with us quite often,” she said. “We have lots of late night conversations about how much he misses her, especially with school starting. Alexis sought out Zachary all the time. He will tell you that she was the ‘nicest person on the planet.’
“He misses her fiercely.”
Collins said it was a discussion she had with Deirdre after a PTO meeting last October that inspired her to start looking for ways to improve the playground options for the Woodsdale School. And it was the loss that helped drive her to keep pushing the project forward.
“It’s a happy coincidence that on the anniversary, the Woodsdale playground is ready to be played on,” Collins said. “She is my driving force to stay on top of this project, to share it. Our kids needed it, and Ricky and Nate spent so many hours playing together on the Beaver Brook playground after school.”
As part of the fundraising campaign for the playground, the Woodsdale PTO sold bricks that will be inscribed with brief messages. Multiple friends purchased bricks in the family’s memory.
Pam Pace, the co-founder of Keeping Pace, said the organization is spending the month of October remembering Deirdre, in part because both the twins and Deirdre had birthdays that month.
“We miss her very much and she is in our constant thoughts,” said Pace. “Just the change in the air brings memories flooding back of her. Her laugh was bold, she loved her family, and we miss her very much.”
The organization placed a bench in front of their new West Bridgewater location containing four green hearts.
“[Deirdre] is constantly with us,” said Pace. “Just the other evening at one of our [meetings], one of our Moms said, ‘I normally would call Deirdre to ask this question, she was so good with my situation, I miss her so’.”
“I love and miss them every day,” said Russo. “I think of this Eskimo Legend and this gives me peace when I look up at the night sky: ‘Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.'”
Cook remembers driving to work in the days after the tragedy, crying.
“When I pulled into the parking lot, the sun was shining so bright and it just felt to me, it was them, and they were OK,” she said. “Whenever I catch sun beams in a particular way, I know that is them saying ‘Hi’.”