For most of us, the holidays are a time of happiness. It’s a time to gather with family and friends we haven’t seen in a while and to enjoy the time spent together. This is what most of us look forward to when the holidays draw nearer. For victims and survivors of substance impaired driving crashes, and for those who have lost a loved one due to impaired driving, the holidays may be a time of sadness. Many instead find ways to honor their loved ones, or themselves, during the holidays, to not let memories be lost in the hustle and bustle of the season. There are many ways victims and survivors are honored by their loved ones, not just during the holiday season but year round.
For Juan De La Garza, he has found many ways to honor his sister, Alejandra Vega De la Garza, who was killed while riding in a vehicle with her husband who had been drinking on January 12, 2014. This is the family’s second Christmas without Alejandra and they now have new traditions around the holidays to honor her. They put up a memory tree and decorate it with ornaments that remind them of Alejandra. They share memories of Alejandra and also release balloons in her honor. They share her story at the local Christmas parade and enter a float in her honor. Juan has been able to turn this tragedy into something good by using Alejandra’s story to motivate and educate others about the dangers of drinking and driving. Juan shared that being to tell Alejandra’s story to others is the best way he can continue to honor Alejandra, not just during the holidays, but year round.
Janakae Toinette Sargent was 20 years old when she was hit by a drunk driver while she herself was serving as the designated driver for some college friends on November 12, 2006. She later died and her mother, Kandi, buried her daughter the day before Thanksgiving. Kandi said it was the first of many family traditions that would be forever changed. Kandi shared that finding ways to cope with daily life has been hard but coping through the holidays is challenging at best. At the beginning to honor Janakae, Kandi would put up a Christmas tree each year at Janakae’s gravesite and ask family and friends to place ornaments throughout the holiday season. This continued for five years; they now honor Janakae with a balloon release that is held every year on Janakae’s “angelversary” and another one on her birthday, January 22nd.
Cathy DeWitt’s son, Cody DeWitt, was killed December 24, 2011 while riding with an impaired driver. The car Cody was riding in struck a tree and he and another passenger were killed. Cathy honors her son in many ways, year round. She admits that sometimes she tries to block out Christmas. She has found peace in visiting some of Cody’s favorite places such as a nearby creek, dam where he enjoyed fishing as well as his grandparent’s home where he spent a majority of his time. Cathy shared that leaving a sunflower at his favorite places brings her peace and is part of her healing. She also honors Cody by lighting a candle at the crash site each year while leaving a sunflower and also placing one at the cemetery. Cody was born November 10th at 5:04 a.m. Cathy celebrates Cody’s birthday by making a brownie, lighting a candle and at exactly 5:04 a.m., wishes her son a Happy Birthday.
Silina Kelshaw, 17, was killed in June 2002 when the van she was riding in with her family was hit by an impaired driver who ran a stop sign. Silina was just a few weeks from graduating. Pam, Silina’s mother, shared that the holidays, birthdays, crash dates, are all difficult for her, her husband Chris, and Silina’s brother, Avery. They each honor Silina in a different way. Pam shares Silina’s story every chance she gets by speaking at Victim Impact Panels for MADD. This is her biggest honor. Mother’s Day is also a special time for Pam. She spends part of the day visiting Silina’s gravesite and talking with her. Chris, Silina’s father, visits her gravesite each Father’s Day and shares this special time with his daughter as well. Their son Avery visits his sister’s gravesite on his own as often as time allows. On Silina’s birthday, April 13th, the family gathers together at her gravesite to celebrate her day. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is a place set for Silina at the table. For Avery too, if he is not able to make it home for the holidays. Silina’s favorite color was blue. Avery purchased an ornament of an angel wearing a light blue dress the family hangs on the Christmas tree together every year. Pam shared they will always be a family of four and each special occasion, holiday or anniversary, there is a place set at the table for everyone.
While the holiday season can be a difficult time for victims and survivors of substance impaired driving crashes, it is our hope that they can also be a time to honor loved ones taken away from us too soon as well as honored, as these families have shared.
This is a short story about the life and untimely death of a son and a sailor named Paul Anthony Brittingham …
Paul was born on July 30th 1987. He was our first born son. Paul grew up in a very loving Christian home with a younger brother named Heath. He was a very outgoing and loving child that made friends very easily. That loving child grew into a man in what seemed to be an instant--to know him was to love him.
He joined the Navy in January 2008 and graduated boot camp in March. After graduation he was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Pensacola Florida. He was studying to be an Air Frame Mechanic. We were overjoyed with his career decision and that he was so close to home. He became his class leader and was a very proud Navy Man! He exuded pride and confidence. But that was to be short lived.
On Friday September 19, 2008, the Sailors were given liberty, and Paul’s fiancé went to the base to pick him up for a weekend with her and our family. They made a stop at Wal-Mart and bought a movie and were headed to the beach that night. They were 1.5 miles from Wal-Mart when they were struck by a drunk driver. Paul was killed instantly, and his fiancé sustained several injuries. The driver of the other vehicle died on the way to the hospital. He was found to be 3.5 times the legal limit.
That day many lives were forever changed. We lost a son, and though his fiancé has recovered from the physical wounds, she still struggles with the emotional trauma. That day we all had to begin a new journey, a journey without Paul. His hugs, his infectious smile and his presence were ripped from our world.
The journey we are on now includes sharing Paul’s story as often as we can with others. We speak for schools, law enforcement, company safety meetings, military stand downs and at churches. We speak anywhere we can to bring awareness to all that the decision to drink and drive has real consequences, life changing consequences. And we speak to tell them that this is preventable!
Paul received full Military Honors and was revered by several of his shipmates and instructors. Paul’s memory will forever be with us …until the day that we join him in heaven.
Terry and Alisa Brittingham