The pain never quits for two Red Deer parents whose oldest child was killed by a drunk driver.
Colton Keeler and his friends did everything right that Friday night in March, when they were laying plans to attend a party in Sylvan Lake.
They knew they were going to be drinking, so they made arrangements to have a couple of designated drivers bring everyone back home to Red Deer.
Brandee Keeler says her son would not have hesitated to call her for a ride home, except he knew that she was also out celebrating. It was her 39th birthday.
A few kilometres away, in Sylvan Lake, April Gail Beauclair was partying with some friends in an advance celebration of her upcoming 30th birthday.
Beauclair’s friends had no intention of letting her drive back to Lacombe, where she lived with her two children.
A bed had already been made up for her to spend the balance of the night.
By all accounts, says Darren Keeler, Colton and his friends had done everything right in laying plans for the night, as had Beauclair and her friends.
And still, something went horribly, tragically wrong.
Beauclair awoke from her bed at about 2:30 a.m. and decided to go home.
Family members gathered for Beauclair’s sentence hearing in Red Deer provincial court on Oct. 11 heard that she didn’t see the disabled car she struck as Colton and his friend, Tyson Vanderzwaag, tried to get it push-started after it flooded and quit.
Colton, 19, died at the scene. Vanderzwaag lost one leg and was airlifted to Foothills Hospital in Calgary with life-threatening injuries, including irreparable damage to his remaining leg.
He died six days later, one day after his 18th birthday.
Beauclair was sentenced to three and a half years in prison and her driving privileges are suspended for five years, to start once she has been released.
Brandee and Darren, whose marriage had ended years earlier, say that only someone who has also lost a child can understand the indescribable, searing pain that has become an ongoing reality for both of them, as well as for Colton’s brothers, Chandler, 14, and Gordon, 13.
“It comes in waves,” says Darren, 42. His attempts to cope include volunteering with MADD Canada’s efforts to keep people from getting behind the wheel when they have alcohol in their systems.
Sometimes, getting out and talking about it helps them cope. Other times, both parents feel they just need to be alone.
A few months after the crash, Brandee had Colton’s handprint tattooed onto her right shoulder.
“Colton’s a lot taller than me, so a lot of times he’d stand next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. …” Brandee’s voice trails off as she shows the art, copied from a shirt she and the boys had made for Darren.
She and Darren both admit that before Colton’s death, impaired driving had not been an issue on their radar screens and that they, like many other people they know, were guilty in the past of driving after consuming a few drinks.
On the first Saturday of December, they and Colton’s brothers helped collect donations during the Red Deer City RCMP’s annual Charity CheckStop. A portion of the money received in the event goes to MADD Canada’s local chapter.
Darren says his eyes were opened up to the number of people who drive drunk a few months after Colton died, when a friend of his was killed in a head-on crash in Calgary. The driver of a van that hit his friend, who was driving a motorcycle, has been charged with impaired driving.
“That was when it really started — my eyes opened up and I realized how widespread it is.”
Attitudes have to change, and it has to start with harsher penalties for people who are caught drinking and driving, says Darren.
Maximum sentences mean nothing if judges are confined to precedents in setting prison terms for people whose actions have such an enormous and devastating impact on the lives of others, he says.
People who have had a couple or more beer may worry about getting caught by police, says Darren. Their second thoughts might keep them out from behind the wheel if they were more aware that they could actually maim or kill someone, he says.
A person with a loaded gun would not want to shoot blindly into a stadium, knowing that those bullets might strike someone, he says. Yet that is the chance people take when they drink and drive.
He, Brandee and their boys have removed the word “accident” from their vocabulary. Collisions caused by drunk drivers are no accident, says Darren.
“Until you lose someone, you don’t realize how preventable it is.”