Family, friends gather in memory of Northampton’s Michael Lap, killed in car crash

  • Michael Lap, 24, of Northampton, was killed on Nov. 21 in a single-car crash in Boston. SUBMITTED PHOTO


  • Friends and family prepare to release balloons in memory of Michael Lap at Jackson Street School in Northampton, Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2021 7:45:42 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Family and friends of Michael Lap sent messages of love and mourning into the sky on Sunday, releasing dozens of balloons outside Jackson Street Elementary School in memory of the city native who was killed last week in a single-vehicle crash in Boston.

Lap, 24, a senior at UMass Amherst, attended Jackson Street, JFK Middle School and Northampton High School. He earned an associate degree in hospitality management from Holyoke Community College last year and planned to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in the same field.

More than 40 people gathered to remember Lap, writing “We miss you,” “I love you like a brother,” and other messages on helium-filled white balloons, then letting them drift silently into the air.

Lap’s sister Emily Lap said she was “in awe” at the support shown to her family in the last week.

The Laps’ neighborhood came together to donate Thanksgiving dinner items to his parents and three siblings; loved ones are also organizing a meal train online and a GoFundMe online fundraiser has so far collected $16,590 to cover funeral and other expenses.

“We just think that it’s Michael’s kindness returning back to us,” Emily Lap said. Before releasing her balloon into the sky, she said that she wrote “a message that I hope he’ll see. I have so many last words that I want to say to him.”

‘He’s here in our home with us’

Massachusetts State Police said Lap was killed and his two passengers — an 18-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man — were seriously injured in a single-vehicle crash in Boston’s Sumner Tunnel at around 3:20 a.m. on Nov. 21.

The cause of the crash remains under investigation, and the conditions of Lap’s passengers were not clear Sunday.

Friends and family said they do not know Lap’s passengers, and it was not clear why he was out driving so late, but they had known about his planned trip to Boston.

Calling hours are scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 5, from noon to 5 p.m. at Ahearn Funeral Home, 783 Bridge Road. A celebration of life will begin at 4 p.m. Burial is planned for Monday, Dec. 6, at 9 a.m., Spring Grove Cemetery, 5 North Farms Road.

On Saturday, Lap’s family made an offering of his belongings to the monks at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, part of a Buddhist tradition to ensure that Lap’s spirit reaches its destination. The items were blessed so that Lap can use them “on the other side,” Emily Lap said.

“My family believes that it wasn’t until [Saturday] that Michael realized he passed,” she said.

Lap’s mother has prepared his favorite meals for him every day since his death because they believe “he’s here in our home with us”; the family has not changed anything in his bedroom, which his sister said brings back strong memories whenever she needs to go in there to feed his fish and hamster.

“My family is Buddhist, but Michael was all religions,” she said. He joined a fraternity for Jewish students, she said, and was also known to wear a cross pendant.

Emily Lap described her brother as “Twitter famous” and said he would sometimes rent high-end cars to pose for pictures with them. He was a budding entrepreneur who invested in stocks and advised others to do the same; as a child, he always wanted to trade something with his friends, like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, or even bugs and frogs.

Lap’s desire for fame and wealth, his sister said, may have come from a strict upbringing that inspired him to work hard and pursue challenging dreams.

After high school, Lap bought a scratch-off map of the world to keep track of the countries he visited. By the time of his death, he had traveled internationally to the Bahamas and Canada and hoped to visit his parents’ homeland of Cambodia soon.

“I think his goal was to travel the world,” Emily Lap said.

‘I owe part of my life to him’

Damien Colon and Natalia Bernal have been a couple for more than four years and recently welcomed a baby. Bernal said that, when she moved from Maryland to Massachusetts five years ago, Lap was “the only person I knew here and the only friend I had. He’s the one who encouraged me to ask Damien out.”

Colon met Lap in middle school and said he was “thankful for all the memories we have together, all the people he introduced me to, for all the things I have right now. I really feel like I owe part of my life to him.”

Before Lap left for what would be his final trip to Boston, Colon said he told his friend, “‘Definitely be careful and I’ll see you soon.’” When he heard the news of Lap’s death days later, he said he was “confused.”

“How the hell could that happen?” Colon said. “It felt surreal.”

Gia Westerman worked with Lap at McDonald’s in Northampton about a decade ago, and they remained close until his death. She said she spoke every day with Lap, Colon and Bernal by group text.

“He became like a second brother to me,” Westerman said. “He wasn’t my blood brother, but no blood could ever make him more of my brother than he was.”

She said her own children called him Uncle Lap, and his signature feature was his ever-present smile.

“He was unapologetically himself at all times,” Westerman said. “Even when you were mad, you couldn’t be mad. He was just Michael.”

Westerman, Colon, Bernal and other friends will celebrate the holidays together this year, as they always do. Days before he died, Lap began planning the friend group’s Thanksgiving celebration, which will now take place in his honor, Bernal said.

Jing Farlow said she had known Lap since they were babies. She was two years younger, and Lap would drive her home when she was a freshman in high school. One day, she gave him a dollar, which she joked was for gas.

He framed the dollar bill and, years later, Farlow said that it is still in his bedroom.

“Being Asian in a very white 413 can be very nerve-wracking,” Farlow said. “I was adopted into a white family, and he would always say, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK to be different.’ It didn’t matter if you were Asian or whatever. He just embraced you.”

She said that Lap’s death began to feel real to her when she texted him and he didn’t respond. He was so concerned about other people, she said, that he would likely carry his love for them into the next life.

“He might have just gotten to heaven and thought, ‘How are my friends doing?’” she said.

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