Today marks the anniversary of a horrible tragic loss. Remembering that early morning call in 1997 from my father; there had been a knock on the door in the middle of the night asking him to come identify my little brother’s body. My dad’s response: “There’s been a mistake, my son is upstairs sleeping.” He proceeded to confirm the unfathomable truth that Hal had indeed left the house and hopped in a car with friends, never to return. Numb, I immediately got in my car, repeating “no, no, no” over and over, until I arrived in my hometown 2 hours later where my parents, big bro and other family members and friends met at our home, walking around like sobbing zombies, hugging in hallways and sitting on couches or at tables, taking turns crumbling and holding each other up. Little details stand out such as my big brother, Trip, and I passing each other in the foyer and him reaching out to give me the most life affirming embrace one could ever imagine. Actually if you've ever met Trip you probably know exactly the kind of hug I'm talking about, though this was the hug that seemed to keep my soul attached to my body and my family in that moment. And then while sitting around the breakfast table with Mom, Dad and Aunt May, who pointed and chuckled at the biggest bottle of extra strength pain reliever any of us had ever seen, sitting there like a centerpiece; an icon mocking the hilarity that anything could even touch, let alone even begin to heal the depth of the pain in our broken hearts. Though that be true and yes it did take many years to return to normality (if we ever did), believe it or not, there was another side. After all nothing can be 100% dark and evil, can it? Another starkly clear iconic memory from that day was the enormous cartoon-like rainbow arching perfectly over our home. Never before or since have I seen such a huge, perfect, brightly colored and clearly defined rainbow. And its exact placement curving precisely over our home. Interpret it how you will, but even then I knew in my heart what that rainbow meant. It took years for me personally to climb my own way out of the darkness of losing Hal, to put puzzle pieces together and get my head straight and feet on solid ground. We will never be "over it" but I can say that I am on the other side of the sheer blur of rage, confusion and grief that was somewhat blinding for some years.
Even in the early days of Hal's departure, it made me so proud to see my family hold one another up instead of tear each other down. I noticed we started discussing politics less and any past disagreements or criticisms simply faded away. Irritating habits we may have noticed in one another disappeared in comparison to the bonds we held, and those bonds became even stronger. We wouldn’t let anything keep us apart. That kept Hal with us. My parents could’ve easily become bitter, blameful, angry or depressed. Instead they humbly forgave the driver, an older kid with a car load heading to a summer party in the wee hours of the night (my then 15 yr old brother was the only one who did not survive the high speed flip-crash into a ditch). My parents even met with his mother to talk with her and ease her pain. After all, they said, it could've been Hal driving.
I think a lot about what Hal would have become. I still want the world to know him and celebrate his magic, his bold beauty. He was a poet, an athlete, a guitar player and an artist. He had a HUGE, bold, action-packed energy. With shining blue eyes I used to love to capture in photos, freckles, blond locks, Hal was over 6 ft tall at 15, had a huge heart, hot temper, broad shoulders and a sense of humor that could have me cackling with tears streaming down my face. He was by nature the comedian of the family. Even as a baby he had a comedic sense of timing and performance and at 3 years of age could have a room full of teenagers (my brother and our friends) laughing like crazy. He did this thing at church whenever the choir, my dad a member, would sing, Hal would stand up on the pew next to Mom and be the choir director, leading them with grandiose arm gestures and great gusto. Trip thought this was hilarious and I, the young teenage girl, was mortified and could not believe my parents could not control him better. Trip (big bro) and I have always been like yin and yang, thick as thieves, 17 months apart, complimentary opposites in many ways; him gregarious and demonstrative, me more contemplative and artistic. Hal, 10 years younger, was somehow the best of both of us, Trip says “pick of the litter”.
Here is an excerpt from a paper that Hal wrote when he was 14 that I still get a kick out of reading. In his own words:
“On one rainy cool April 8 in 1982, the Lord sent a blessing from the heavens: an angel with a great sense of humor, and an extraordinary mind. Hal Hilliard was born. Seriously I am 14 years old and have a good set of parents. I have a brother, 26, Trip, and a sister, 24, Honey. I also have a dog named Max. I have lived in Tifton all of my life, and I can’t wait to leave this town. … The way I plan to leave Tifton kind of ties in with personal and educational goals. I plan to finish high school and go to a really nice college in a cool town on maybe a baseball or football scholarship. While I am in college I will probably get an art or business management degree. I would really enjoy being a teacher, a chef or a graphic designer, maybe a tattoo artist! I feel like I have a pretty good personality. It is easy for all people, my peers, younger children and older adults, to like me. However, authority figures don’t usually find it easy to like me because most authority figures feel as if I’m trying to defy them. The truth is I have a very strong sense of fairness and I have a strong opinion on everything. Eventually I usually win my teachers over in the end. Basically I like to have fun. I love to laugh, and I’m pretty funny so I love to see other people laugh. I am a people person: I like to talk to as many people as I can. I try to have as many friends as possible.”
My parents kept all of our rooms in tact as we three siblings occupied the upstairs of the house while growing up and whenever home for holidays and visits. When I would go back home with my daughters and husband, sleeping arrangements were subject to change since inevitably someone would kick or snore, causing me to retreat to Hal's room to get better sleep. One such night when I was sleeping in Hal's room, I had a dream. Hal and I were being colors. We weren’t even human but instead, we were vibrations of the essence of fuchsia, and after being fuchsia for a while, then we were royal blue. It made perfect sense in the dream, and it was quite delightful "being" colors. Once I fully awoke it was difficult to remember but it was one of those dreams that was a real visit, a joyful experience, perhaps a hint of what the pre and after life holds, realities I believe we may not be equipped to understand while human. With today being the anniversary of Hal's transition, I sent my extended family this text: "Tho this day marks the worst tragedy, it can also be a day to celebrate Hal’s transition by celebrating life. He had SO much life and, I believe, has left us all with a piece of his pure, unadulterated, powerful joy, big love and energy. Thank you, Hal, and thank you God for that 💥 ❤️ 🙏"
If you are reading this, I hope Hal’s legacy can somehow bring you strength, joy and love, perhaps an appreciation of life or the ability to accept something truly difficult or to be quick to forgive those you love. This year, I personally claim July 13th to be a celebration of life, in honor of Hal, and you are invited to join that celebration. Cheers (with tears) to Hal!
Those baby blues. Yes I did have him pose with a bowl on his head.
Me, Hal, Trip. Also my necktie era, I sewed them myself :)
Hal & Mom, are they cute or what? They shared the same birthday.
I don't remember what I was playing for him but it was probably Prince or ACDC.
OH my sweetness. I think this was Trip's 13th b'day
Hal and our sweet mama
Best dad in the entire world, this man
Aunt May and Mom, Hal & cousin Hillary, peas in a pod.
Hillary, her lil sis, Lesley, Hal
As dressed up as Mom could manage to get us for the family photo of 1988
Trip, Hal, Honey, at the family cabin in ... 1991?
blurry pic, but can you tell how handsome?
Hal's first hunt, he got one
Hal loved music
Hal LOVED his friends! Jess Smith, Will Whittle and Hal