This article was originally published on Banter M, our digital magazine.
Last weekend, the 15 month old son of an old friend of mine was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Hawthorne, California.
Liam Kowal was in his stroller with his teenage aunt when 72-year-old Donna Marie Higgins, ran through a red light and hit them before attempting to flee the scene. The aunt sustained some serious but non life threatening injuries, while baby Liam was found pulseless and not breathing. Medics performed CPR on the scene, and he was taken to UCLA hospital where he was later revived. Sadly his head was too badly damaged from the impact, and he was declared brain dead on Sunday night. Liam's parents decided to turn off life support and donate his organs.
"He tried to fight so hard. He even died at one point but they brought him back," his dad, Marcus Kowal posted on Facebook page. "He's a little fighter. His heart is still beating but his brain is no longer working."
Marcus is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and the story has had a deep impact on the community in Los Angeles and around the world. The outpouring of support has been truly astonishing, with the couple raising almost $125k in under a week to help pay medical bills and funeral costs.
I have personally been completely stunned by the shocking tragedy, to the point where I haven't really been myself for the past few days. Although I don't have much of a relationship with Marcus any more other than the odd facebook 'like' or comment, he was a good friend and mentor to me when I first moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago as a young man. He remains one of the most talented Martial Artists I've ever seen or trained with, and had a profound impact on my own evolution as a fighter and a man. I'm not sure whether he knows this, but I am forever grateful for the time he took helping me develop as a Martial Artist when I was in a new city with few friends and even less money. We grew apart and went our different ways in life, but reconnected years later through mutual friends.
I've followed him on Facebook for some time and have seen him post regularly and proudly about his little boy. Having several close friends with babies, I know just how life changing parenthood can be, and how much it must have meant to Marcus becoming a dad. Learning about little Liam's untimely and tragic death was beyond heartbreaking, and made infinitely worse knowing what kind of pain my friend must be in. It is one thing to see tragedy affect strangers, but something entirely different when it is someone you know. The anguish he and his wife are going through must be completely unbearable, and it is going to be a very, very long time before they can resume anything resembling normal life.
When something this horrific happens, it can have a tremendously clarifying effect. While working, paying bills, worrying about the future and dealing with whatever personal issues you might be struggling with is important, tragedy can put all of it into perspective -- and quickly. I haven't been able to concentrate on much since Liam's death, partly because of my connection to Marcus and the mutual friends we have who have been affected by it, and partly because it serves as a brutal reminder of just how fragile life really is. I recently got married, and my wife and I hope to have children at some point in the not too distant future. The thought of having to cope with a tragedy like that is beyond my comprehension -- a prospect so unbelievably painful that I quite literally cannot bear to imagine it.
We go about our daily lives without thinking too much about death and tragedy, yet one freak accident can change all of that in a split second. While there is love and happiness in the world, there is pain and death too, and it can visit us when we least expect it. Liam Kowal was 15 months old -- a happy little boy, surrounded by people who loved him with his entire future ahead of him. He was taken away by the reckless behavior of an adult who not only decided to risk lives by driving drunk, but fled the scene after ploughing into a baby and teenager with her SUV rather than attempt to help or call for assistance.
The only solace Marcus and his wife can take in the midst of this unbearable sadness is the astonishing outpouring of love they have received from friends, family and complete strangers. Wrote Marcus on his Facebook page yesterday:
Over the past few days, I've said "thank you" more than I have ever said it before. However, I have to keep saying it time and time again. We had no idea to what extent this event had grown, until the police came to our hotel to tell us about their concern for how many people they were expecting (parking, traffic, logistics). To see hundreds and hundreds of people show up to show their support - many people we have never met - was amazing.
We have received so much support via social media but to actually see so many people come out was truly a humbling experience.
So, to my amazing family, that I love so very, very much;To my extended Systems family and all my friends that have worked day and night tirelessly;To all the people that have done so many amazing things, such as drawings, poems, letters - someone even wrote a song;To all people that I've never met that are sending their love and support and telling their stories and who I wish I could respond to individually;Thank you.
While the pain I am feeling in all of this is insignificant and unimportant, I am determined to learn what seems to be the biggest lesson in all of this: be grateful for who you have in your life right now, and don't take anyone for granted. Because they can be taken at any point, and without warning.
Life is a precious gift, so appreciate it.
If you wish to donate directly to the Kowal family, please go here. Marcus and Mishel have also set up a non profit, 'Liam's Life' dedicated to the education and prevention of alcohol-related tragedies.