As she prepared to walk across the graduation stage at Legacy High School on Thursday, Mackenzie McVicker carried the memories of an old friend with her.
Eleven years ago, her best friend, Nathan Dao, was killed. Atop McVicker’s graduation cap are a collection of photos of the two as kindergartners — along with a boldfaced message:
“Together we did it.”
Dao was the youngest of five children who died in a 2011 east Vancouver house fire that consumed his family’s home along with their father, Tuan Dao. Authorities said the fire was intentionally set by Tuan Dao.
“I’ve always carried his spirit with me since he passed away, I’ve never felt like he’s out of my life,” McVicker said. “I felt like he deserved to graduate with me.”
In the days that followed the tragedy, community members who knew the Dao family did their best to move on, confused and distraught by what amounted to be the deadliest fire in a half-century in Vancouver.
But for McVicker, who like Nathan Dao was just 6 years old at the time of the fire, the deaths were nearly impossible to process. She remembers asking her mother to drive her past the remains of the Dao home to help her understand what had happened.
“It was heartbreaking, traumatizing,” McVicker said. “But it felt like something I needed to see to make myself realize that it was real. It just felt like a bad dream.”
Though she’s learned to move past the tragedy that claimed her friend, she said Dao’s memory in her mind is as clear as ever.
At that age, McVicker said, kids often have only one or two close friends that they do everything with. She recalls they’d draw and read books together and usually spent recess after recess hitting the tether-ball in circles. Like most children, she said neither of them knew the real rules to the game — they had way more fun making up their own, anyway.
In the years that followed Dao’s death, McVicker said she found solace in Dao’s memory when she found herself struggling.
“This past year, I haven’t had many people to talk to. It might sound silly, but sometimes I’ll speak with Nathan when I feel like I need help,” she said. “I just feel like I get this sense of understanding in myself.”
Not only is carrying images of Dao on her graduation cap an honor to his passing, but it’s a tribute to the life she said he deserved to live — an acknowledgement of an accomplishment she feels she couldn’t have done without him.
“I want people to know that if you ever have a passing like that and it’s so strong to you, you don’t have to forget those people,” McVicker said. “It’s not something you need to push away, it’s OK to be sad and cry about it.”