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Heartbroken mother recalls day she lost her son

Christine Burke remembers how perfect the day was on July 25, 2011.

There was not a cloud in the sky. The sun was warm. It was truly a great day to be outside with her five-year-old twins — Peyton and Harrison — at her parents’ new dream home on Sylvan Lake.

She took her son kayaking out on the quiet waters. He sat in front of his mom, ever so close. She kissed his head. They watched some dogs jump into the water after sticks.

When they turned back toward home, Harrison dragged his hands in the water. He looked for fish and saw a few. It was very peaceful.

When they docked, he carefully got out of the kayak and walked off the dock to remove his life-jacket. He missed his cousin Megan and sister Peyton (now known by her middle name of Marlo). It was always Harrison and his girls.

Little did his mom know that less than 10 hours later, the son who liked to snuggle and was so thoughtful, sweet and kind, would be taken in a tragic drowning.

“It was such a perfect day — and it was the worst day of my life,” said Burke, 43.

Looking back, the day seems so surreal. Marlo was swimming with her grandfather while Harrison sat by the fire.

Burke was making supper. She looked outside to check on everyone and noticed that her father and Marlo were looking in the water and Harrison wasn’t around. Burke thought her son was in the front of the house.

Then her little girl ran into the house and said, “Mommy, Harrison is dead.”

She rushed out to see, not sure what to make of her girl’s comment.

“My dad is trying to get out of the water and there’s Harrison lying on the dock. He’s not breathing,” said Burke.

Burke, a former competitive swimmer who was qualified in first aid, performed CPR on her son while her father ran in to call 911.

Harrison, who knew how to float and had achieved five levels of swimming, was found in water less than 1.5 metres from shore.

The water was a lot higher than normal in 2011. It was just a moment’s inattention and the boy was in the water.

The family’s best guess about what happened is that Harrison lost his balance after reaching for something that he had seen earlier in the water. He knew he had to be on the dock with an adult or have a life-jacket on.

Paramedics and firefighters arrived quickly at the home in Norglenwold, a village on the southwestern shores of the lake, where they continued to try to revive the boy. For two hours, doctors at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre worked on Harrison before declaring him dead.

After Harrison’s death, Burke went through an unbelievable period of sadness. The pain was so hard to bear, it became almost physical. She’d enter his bedroom and just cry. She’d look at his picture and talk to him.

Her husband Ron “would come into the room and I’d say, ‘How could this have happened?’ ” said Burke. “I just saw him 15 minutes before he died and he wasn’t going to swim. I told him to put a life-jacket on and he said, ‘No Mommy, it’s too cold.’ ”

She remembers what a joy he was to have in their lives, although way too briefly. He was such a boy and yet so gentle. He loved to help and when asked to do something, he would do it without having to ask twice. He always smiled, loved playing on the Wii home video game, riding his scooter and plasma car, and was learning to ride a bike without training wheels.

“There was something old about him — his spirit was almost older than me,” said Burke.

She promised Harrison that when he got older they’d fly in a plane together. He’d get to climb to the top of a big mountain “just like Mommy and Daddy.”

Burke needed help to get through. She’s on anti-depressants. She’s been to grief counselling. Everyone is coping in their own way. Burke and her husband Ron have grown stronger as a couple.

“Ron is like most men in that they tend to keep their feelings in because they have to go to work,” said Burke. “He couldn’t afford to have the meltdown, not that he didn’t cry or have his moments. A psychologist told me that when something like this happens, it will hit men about a year or a year-and-a-half later.”

Ron was at the family home in southeast Calgary on July 25, 2011, so RCMP alerted Calgary Police Service that they needed their help in getting him to the Red Deer hospital as quickly and safely as possible. A Calgary Police HAWC helicopter flew him up. They are so grateful for all the help they received that day.

Their daughter, now six, decided in February she didn’t want to be called Peyton anymore, saying she wanted to be Marlo instead. It was the starting point for changing her future and who she was.

She misses her brother, her best friend. They fought, but not often. She played cars with him and he played dolls with her. Things were changing as they were growing but their closeness was unspoken. She doesn’t understand boredom, doing things on her own. Sleeping has been especially difficult for Marlo. It’s not that they slept in the same bed, but Marlo always knew that her twin was right across the hall.

Only now is she fine with Mommy staying with her until she falls asleep instead of sleeping through the entire night with her.

“Marlo is kind and generous, loving and sensitive,” said Burke. “She embodies them both now.”

They have a tiny new dog, named Willow, that has helped the whole family in their grief.

Burke’s parents, Allen and Diane Ireland, have had their own struggles, but are moving on with the support of friends and family.

Burke has learned so much from the toughest experience of her life.

“You can do everything right as a parent and you can have the most unbelievably astute and responsible child and still have a tragedy,” said Burke. “I think everybody has to realize that life is fragile.”

Recently, Burke volunteered at National Philanthropy Day in Calgary. One key message: it’s not about giving millions of dollars to charities, it’s doing the little things in life like holding the door open for somebody.

“I was so taken with the message,” said Burke. “Do the small stuff because that’s what affects people every day . . . and this is what I learned from my son, not that I didn’t know that already. But you get so consumed with every day and then you go through a tragedy and it either makes you crumble or you learn and grow and become a better person.”

She has become much more grateful — even for the blue sky.

There is so much good in the world, Burke said. There is so much beauty that has come from his passing, including the countless people who have rallied around the family, she said.

A memorial fund was set up in Harrison’s name at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. So far, it’s raised about $15,000 to support several get-togethers, including the annual Memory Tree event at the hospital, for parents who have lost young children.

Burke would also like the dollars to be used for families who need further grief support through Rotary/Flames House children’s hospice. Giving back in this way is so important for Burke.

“I need to do more, I need to reach out to others and I think that will also be a wonderful, helpful experience,” said Burke.

Fifteen months later, she still can’t believe Harrison is gone. Sometimes, she feels his presence. She misses what he could have become, all those milestones later in life.

She bought a necklace through the funeral home, one that has a few of Harrison’s cremated ashes inside the heart-shaped pendant. She used to wear it all the time, not as much now.

“He’ll always be in my heart.”



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