Three years after the loss of her sister, the show must go on for CHS senior Gracie Banzhoff

  • Barbara Higgins at the gravesite of her daughter Molly at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Saturday, January 26, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Barb Higgins looks over a tree that has been decorated in pink in honor of her daughter Molly at the Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Saturday, January 26, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Higgins visits the gravesite of her daughter, Molly Banzhoff, at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Saturday.

  • Barbara Higgins touches the scar from her recent brain surgery at the gravesite of her daughter Molly Banzhoff at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Saturday, January 26, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Barbara Higgins at the gravesite of her daughter Molly Banzhoff at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Saturday, January 26, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff stretches in the family living room as her mother Barbara Higgins looks at photos and videos of her daughters on Monday, January 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff and her mother Barbara Higgins in the family living room on Monday, January 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff and her mother Barbara Higgins in the family living room on Monday, January 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff with the Christmas tree in the family living room on Monday, January 29, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff (left) and her mother Barbara Higgins look at videos on Barbara’s cell phone in the family’s living room Monday in Concord. The family’s white Christmas tree remains in the living room, there since December of 2016, decorated with Molly Banzhoff’s violin. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Gracie Banzhoff sits in her family’s living room Monday in Concord GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Molly Banzhoff (left) is pictured with mother Barbara Higgins (center) and sister Gracie Banzhoff in 2015. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/30/2019 5:20:07 PM

The videos on mom’s laptop are a good way to introduce her two daughters.

In one, the sisters are in black cowboy hats and boots, two-stepping to a country tune at the Capitol Center for the Arts. The other shows them dancing in Portsmouth wearing sherbet-like colors – Gracie Banzhoff in lime-green, Molly Banzhoff in pink, of course, her favorite.

The sisters are in sync, their legs, arms and feet all moving as one, the familiar sound from tap clicking off the stage, into the audience.

“My duo partner, on stage and off,” Gracie said, sitting in her living room this week with her mother, Barbara Higgins.

The girls danced together and they sang together. They slept in the same bed, where they’d talk about being neighbors one day, choose the names of their kids, pick the types of dogs they’d have, look forward to attending Concord High School together.

“I was so excited,” Gracie said. “I couldn’t wait for Molly to get there. All of my future was connected to Molly.”

Molly was 13 when she died from an undetected brain tumor in May of 2016. Her death had a seismic effect on Concord’s school and arts community. The controversy alone had people talking.

There was a lawsuit, charges that Concord Hospital should have known something serious was happening once Molly was brought there, yet again, for the fifth time in a 10-week span.

The suit said Molly complained about pounding headaches, vomiting, numbness, dizziness, yet doctors at Concord Hospital resisted diagnostic testing, chalking up Molly’s condition to stress or lack of sleep or anorexia or, perhaps, a dramatic element to her personality.

Finally, after Molly had stopped breathing, a CT scan showed a large tumor. By then it was too late. She was removed from life support on May 7 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Gone was a precocious beam of light who danced her way into a city’s heart, to the point where signs are now posted near her grave site, telling visitors to stop parking on the grass so it has a chance to turn green come spring.

There are tap shoes and stuffed animals on the tombstone. There’s a plum tree that blossoms pink in the spring and has pink ornaments hanging off its thin branches, making the entire plot stand out from all other graves in the area.

Two weeks after Molly’s death, a musical, arranged by Higgins, was held at the Capitol Center, packing the place with people and tears.

And there on stage, out in front of the singers and dancers from the Concord Dance Academy – Molly’s home away from home – stood a heartbroken 15-year-old, her smile lighting up the darkness, belying what had just happened, the loss of her best friend.

“That whole night felt so surreal,” Gracie told me. “Molly had just died and I couldn’t believe that was real life. Performing felt awesome. I had never performed in front of a crowd that ginormous and the audience was so loud. I really felt the love that night.”

She continued: “When it was over, it was sad and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted it to continue on, everyone embracing Molly.”

We need to stop here and cite other areas of life that weigh on Gracie, a 17-year-old senior at Concord High, each day.

Higgins herself was recently diagnosed with five brain tumors, but they were all benign, and three have been removed via surgery. She’s got a scar lining the left side of her hairline to go with the one that will never totally heal in her heart.

Meanwhile, Gracie’s father, Kenny Banzhoff, needs a kidney transplant. He undergoes dialysis three times a week, five hours each session, while waiting for a donor.

All of which has left Gracie with a deep-seated fear that, maybe, she’s not finished enduring unimaginable loss.

“Gracie grows up with a sick father and then Molly dies and two years later I have brain tumors,” Higgins said. “Gracie is not in a place to be reassured by anyone. She has a list of things that could go wrong.”

Higgins keeps Molly alive with Facebook posts. At their Concord home, dance costumes remain in their garment bags, hanging on the banister, exactly where Molly left them.

The family’s white Christmas tree remains in the living room, there since December of 2016, decorated with Molly’s pink violin. Higgins and Gracie have only recently returned to sleeping upstairs after throwing blankets down on the living room floor for two years. Gracie never returned to the bedroom she shared with her sister, choosing to move into the spare room.

It’s one of the ways Gracie is fighting back against something she’ll never completely get over. Another way is her cross-fit training, something she started after Molly passed. Unlike dance, it is hers and hers alone, the weights she lifts helping her forget, at least somewhat, the weight she carries each day. Squats, clean and jerks, snatches, all push her mind to another place.

“My mom got me into it,” Gracie said. “She thought it would be good for me, and she was right. At dance, sometimes I wish I was at cross-fit. It’s a Gracie thing. I feel like myself there.”

Each member of the family has their own way of coping, their own timetable for building strength. Kenny says, “I think I’m getting better. I don’t find myself crying as much.”

Higgins looked at a video in which Gracie and Molly are in grade school, swimming, with mom’s voice narrating, “Someday, they’ll all be dressed up for their prom.”

That’s too much. Higgins, sitting on the couch, cried.

Gracie misses school from time to time. She also suffers panic attacks, which start in her diaphragm and build from there. She’s got a boyfriend, though, a Concord High wrestler who brings her chocolates and flowers when she needs a boost.

She’ll be done with high school in a few months. She plans on going to New Hampshire Technical Institute next fall. She’ll figure out the rest later.

Meanwhile, her struggle continues, a high-wire act without a net. She wants to watch videos of herself and Molly dancing, the ones that show their tight rhythm, two minds working as one.

She wants to recall those nights in bed, planning their lives, always with the other in mind, their arms and legs and feet and hands intertwined like a Los Angeles freeway system, making it impossible for Higgins, during those late night peek-ins, to differentiate between the two.

These thoughts make Gracie happy.

They make her sad.

“I’m on this path and this bomb blew up in front of me and now I have all this rubble,” Gracie said. “Where do I go? I definitely lost a part of me. One hundred percent.”




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