By Delia Foster
The spring of 2016 bloomed with promise. My husband and I were the proud parents of five grown children who had found their way in the world. Our youngest daughter, Rachel, was finishing her final semester of college and working fulltime as a preschool teacher. She already had jobs as an elementary school teacher and dance instructor lined up for the fall, which fit her passions perfectly.
Rachel, 24, was also pregnant with our first grandchild, a little girl we would call Savi Mia, and that spring felt like the culmination of all our dreams. As we happily celebrated the impending arrival of our granddaughter and the success of all our children, my husband and I also started talking about paying off our mortgage. After 30 years of hard work, we would retire and see the world.
Then on June 19, 2016, all of our hopes and dreams were destroyed, shattered into a million pieces. Three weeks after becoming a mother, Rachel was killed by a drunk driver.
The news, delivered by a police officer on our front door step, knocked me to my knees and left me screaming into the night. I didn’t think anything could hurt so badly as the tragedy of losing a child. I couldn’t imagine that less than three years later, our family would be the victims of another crime – this time the murder of our precious Savi Mia.
I called Rachel my porcelain doll. I loved dressing and lining up my dolls when I was growing up. When my husband and I got married, he had a daughter who spent parts of the summer with us. Then together, we had two boys – and when a third came along, our family was complete. Or so I thought. Then Rachel came along. She was my little porcelain doll from the minute she was born.
The way I can best describe her is determined. When she was 3 years old, she begged me to put her in dance classes. I told her she was too young, that it wasn’t for her, not yet. I had reason to think so. At the end of preschool, Rachel had refused to go on stage when her teacher dressed up in costume, and she’d always shied away from characters at Disney World. To put Rachel in dance class would be a waste of time and money, I thought.
But she was persistent, and by the time she turned 7, I gave in. She started taking classes and she was so good at it. Dance was her passion. She excelled in school and at home, too. I never had to tell her to do her homework, or to help around the house. Rachel was 10 when my mother had a stroke, and every week she asked to go with me to help care for her. That’s the type of person she was – caring and giving and treating everyone equally, with love and compassion.
In fifth grade, Rachel wanted to be on the safety patrol team at school, which helped get kids safely to and from the classroom to their buses or parents’ cars. She wrote a paper and applied all on her own. When she didn’t get picked, she begged her teachers to let her prove she belonged, that she was the right person for the job regardless of her size or how she looked. Rachel was right. She was just so determined.
In middle school, she applied for the dance magnet program through Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and she was accepted. All she wanted to do was perform. She continued the program through high school. After graduation, she earned an associate’s degree and then applied for the Young Americans College of Performing Arts in Corona, California. Two years there culminated in a tour of Europe in the summer of 2014. She performed and taught dance in seven countries, but she remembered most the places that had the least. Rachel loved connecting with children who had few opportunities, and the work was so rewarding to her.
It was no surprise, then, when she told us she wanted to be a teacher. Back home in Miami, Rachel began working on her bachelor’s degree. By April 2016, she had finished her final exams and accepted a teaching position, with plans to start in fall.
She wanted to spend the summer with her baby.
The night before Father’s Day 2016, Rachel visited us with Savi Mia for the first time. She was just 18 days old. We couldn’t wait to see her and take lots of photographs.
During the visit, Rachel, who was living with her boyfriend and his family, returned the clothes I had loaned her for the pregnancy. She washed and folded everything, leaving it neatly in my room. It was such a happy occasion for us, but Rachel seemed distant and disengaged. When she left later that night, I walked her to her car and asked if anything was wrong. I told her how much I loved her and how I was so proud of her.
Back inside, I watched through the peephole. She sat in the car with the interior light on, as if surrounded by a halo. She looked so beautiful. It was the last time I saw her.
The following evening I was finishing dinner at a restaurant with two of my children when Rachel called. She told me she needed a big favor; her boyfriend had borrowed her car and run out of gas on the Palmetto Expressway. She wanted to use my AAA card.
I told her no, that it was too dangerous, and that he shouldn’t have been driving her car in the first place because he wasn’t on the insurance. That he was a grown man and needed to be more responsible. That he should call his father or one of his friends instead of Rachel, who was home with a newborn.
It never occurred to me that his mother would ask a neighbor to drive Rachel to the Palmetto Expressway so she could fill up the gas tank herself. Or that 33 minutes later, while I was driving home, my daughter would die of a violent, instant death as she stood on a roadside.
Savi Mia was a ray of sunshine in the darkness of our sorrow. Although she remained in the custody of her father, she spent days – and sometimes weeks – at a time with us. She looked so much like Rachel with her big, expressive eyes and brown curls. We tried to give her everything we could no longer give Rachel. We wanted Savi Mia to have as normal a life as possible.
When Savi Mia’s father moved to Texas and took her with him the following February, we could only pray that they would come back. They did that November, staying for 10 months this time. Savi Mia even joined us at a Walk Like MADD event Miami, where we honored Rachel and all the other victims of drunk and drugged driving.
When Savi Mia and her father left again for Texas on Sept. 11, 2018, it was the last time we saw our granddaughter in person. We would speak to her one more time, that December, via FaceTime. The video call lasted half an hour. Savi Mia looked so happy, throwing us kisses and walking up to the screen, trying to kiss our faces.
On Feb. 19, 2019, after months of trying to get in contact with our granddaughter we received news that was nearly impossible to comprehend. Our precious Savi Mia had been murdered at her home in Texas. Her father has been charged with capital murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him.
Less than two months after we lost Savi Mia, our family attended the final court hearing in the death of our daughter, Rachel. The drunk driver who killed her pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter and other felonies and was sentenced to five years in prison. He’ll have to serve two years of house arrest following his release, then four more years of probation.
What keeps me going is knowing that my girls are together now. My daughter and my granddaughter have reunited and they are free and happy and they’re not suffering. Nobody can hurt them anymore. Both of them are angels.
Savi Mia’s ashes were brought back to Florida, so she could be put to rest with her mom.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been with me every step of the way. MADD Victim Services Specialist Sally Matson is an angel herself. She sat with us in court every two months for almost three years. She explained everything to us when we didn’t understand. She gave us desperately-needed hope and strength. She has been such a support to us. I don’t know what we would have done without her. MADD is like a family to me, and that’s why I’m always going to be part of it. It is so healthy for me to be involved with people who are so positive and so understanding of what I’m going through.
I participate in Miami’s Walk Like MADD events to honor my daughter. I must keep the memories alive. That’s why I like talking about her. I also share her story during MADD Victim Impact Panels to remind people how drunk driving is a crime that can destroy so many lives. My hope is that Rachel’s story – that my family’s story – will help put a stop to this 100% preventable crime.