Summer time family vacations usually bring  wonderful lasting memories.

But for our family the memories of summer vacation and the Fourth of July holiday will never be the same. My family’s trip to Disney World on July 4, 2004 will forever resonate in our hearts and minds crippled by the sadness of losing our loved ones: my mother, Mary S. Whitfield, my daughter, Da’Ja Christophe and my cousin, Christina Cantrell.

My mother and her sister were extremely close and they decided that it would be a good idea to combine a “sisters vacation” with a trip to Disney World as a gift to the children, which included my aunt’s two children and my daughter, Da’Ja. This trip became especially important because my mother’s health had begun to fail and her prognosis was grim.  In fact, the day of the trip, she confided to us, her children and her sister, that she’d only been given two years of life expectancy from her illness. Therefore, the trip to Disney World became much more meaningful to her and to all of us.

The July 4th weekend was family and fun-filled for everyone. We spent the weekend in Jacksonville, Florida for a small family reunion. From the family reunion, my mother, daughter, aunt and cousins were set to depart on their week-long trip to Orlando. Reflecting back on the moment, I can say that it was a blessing that our family was able to see and bond with each other,  unknowingly sharing our last Earthly goodbye.

On July 4, 2004, my mother, daughter and cousin) travelled together from Jacksonville, Florida  to their vacation destination-My Aunt Irene and her son trailed behind them in a separate vehicle. In Orlando, my mother missed the exit en route to the hotel so she merged over to the left to make a turnaround. My aunt who was attempting to merge over behind her could not because an SUV was traveling too close at a high rate of speed behind my mother’s vehicle.  In an attempt to pass her on the highway, the driver instead crashed into the back of her car as my aunt and cousin watched in horror.

The impact of the collision caused my mother’s car to skid across the median into oncoming traffic where the passenger side of my mother’s car was again struck by another oncoming truck. My mother, Mary, and my daughter, Da’Ja, died instantly at the scene of the crash. My cousin, r, Christina,was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center where she died two hours later. The driver admitted that he had been drinking and was tested for driving while under the influence, for which he tested positive with a Blood Alcohol Concentration above the legal limit. He and his wife were uninjured and his wife had not been drinking at all.

Due to improper sealing of his bloodwork confirming his BAC over the limit, he was only convicted of a DWI misdemeanor and sentenced to probation.

My daughter Da’Ja was a seven-year-old, rising 2nd grade honor student who loved Mickey Mouse and singing. My cousin Christina was a 12-year-old rising 7th grade honor student, who was very artistic and also loved to sing. My mother, Mar,y was 56 years old and a loving mother, grandmother, a favorite aunt to almost all of her nieces and nephews, a dynamic nurse and a devoted woman of God.

What I remember most the night of the crash was being devastated from the news that my mother  was given a prognosis of two years to live and those years were taken away. I have never known a greater pain than losing a parent and a child at the same time during a time that was meant for family and celebration.

Thirteen years later, we are in a constant state of healing. Every time a family reunion occurs or the Fourth of July comes around, we are reminded of the tragedy we endured. My family and I have a strong faith in God and personally, I have come to accept what has happened and even forgiven the driver, but that does not negate the fact that the crash was senseless. The actions of the driver were senseless and thoughtless. His heartlessness to accept due punishment because of his actions and failure to apologize to our families was senseless and thoughtless.

We continue to celebrate our family members. Their strength and love shines through all of us.  They touched all the lives they encountered in a positive way. It is their exemplary lives that gives us the strength and courage to forgive and live life to the fullest. I am committed to continuing their legacy and help bring awareness and prevention to drunk driving.

Since the crash, I’ve written a poem every year for my daughter’s birthday. In February 2015, Da’Ja would have been 18 years old. As a dedication to their memory, Da’Ja’s 18th birthday and high school graduation year, I released a book of poetry entitled, “This Side of Heaven: A Poetic Journey of Strength and Survival” which is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All proceeds for this poetry book are donated to MADD as a way of giving back to ensure that we continue to prevent drunk driving crashes and support the victims of this senseless crime.

The Fourth of July and family vacations will never be the same for us, but while we’re on this side of Heaven, we choose to remember the lives they led instead of the lives we lost.