On May 25, 2015, my life changed forever. That was the day my son Liam Mikael Kowal was born. Of all the things I’ve done in my life that I’m proud of, none of them come close to becoming a father.
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To see my son grow and develop and to feel the bond between us grow stronger each day, was the purest of joys I have ever experienced — from the first time he smiled at me to his first hug to seeing him light up when I came home from work.
Although I’m a busy man, being a father always came first. Thursdays were always set aside for father-son time. I would take him to his swim class (I was the only dad there) or to the dog park when it was too cold to swim. He loved watching our dogs run around and play with other dogs.
As a parent, you’re always worried about your child’s health and safety. But as a professional MMA fighter, kickboxer and a Krav Maga black belt, I’ve always felt that I would be able to protect my family. Up until September 3, 2016, if someone would have told me that I wasn’t going to be able to protect my son against a 72-year-old drunk woman on prescription pills, I wouldn’t have believed him.
The Day Tragedy Struck
On September 4, 2016, my 15-month-old baby was declared brain-dead. The neurologists at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center had tried every way they knew how to save the love of my life, but nothing could be done. It felt unreal. It felt like a nightmare, and all I wanted to do was to wake up.
What I thought could never happen had become my reality. My 15-year-old sister-in-law had taken our son for a walk. While the two of them were in a pedestrian crossing, a 72-year-old intoxicated female driver plowed through without breaking, rendering my son brain-dead and my sister-in-law unconscious with a concussion and bones broken in one of her legs.
According to witnesses, the driver stopped momentarily before driving off. Thankfully, three good Samaritans followed her, blocked her in and performed a citizen’s arrest. She was originally booked on felony drunk driving and felony hit-and-run charges. This was later upgraded to include vehicular manslaughter.
Coping With the Loss of My Son
So, am I angry? Do I hate her? No, I don’t. It may be surprising to some, perhaps, especially considering that I’m a fighter.
People have asked me how, and the answer is simple: Her intentions that day were not to kill my son. Did she make an idiotic mistake that had horrific consequences? Absolutely. But I believe in my heart that if she could undo her actions, she would.
Anger is one of the strongest emotions during the grieving process, especially following a horrific event like this. I’ve noticed it when talking to other parents who’ve lost children. And from going through it myself, I realize how easy it is to get stuck there. All the “what if,” “if only” and “I could have/should have/would have” can easily become poisonous. I feel it too.
However, I refuse to let myself get stuck there. I can’t go back in time, and I can’t stand still in time. All I can do is continue moving forward. I refuse to not allow myself to be happy again.
Easier said than done, you might think, but this is my reasoning for why it really isn’t: Had it been the other way around and Liam had survived and I had been killed, I wouldn’t have wanted Liam to be sad for the rest of his life. Of course, I would have wanted him to remember me always, but I would have wanted him to go on and lead a happy, positive life.
Fighting for Change in His Honor
I know that Liam wants my wife and I to have that kind of life, too. And we will, but we will also always honor our son for the rest of our lives. That’s why we started a nonprofit — Liam's Life — the day after his funeral.
We also started a social-media campaign, #LiamsChallenge, with the hashtags #rememberLiam, #DontDrinkAndDrive and #DonateLife on Twitter and Instagram, to raise awareness for the need of organ donors, as well, since we made the decision to donate our baby’s organs.
Additionally, the “100 kicks a day for 7 days” challenge has gone worldwide, and many well-known UFC fighters have taken part in it. When we hosted our first fundraiser, we set a world record (currently being verified by Guinness Book of Records) doing a Brazilian jiujitsu marathon for 24 hours straight. And I wrote a book.
I did all of this to make a positive change in this world in my son’s name.
This world sees a lot of tragedies, and so many lives are lost. The greatest pain of them all is losing a child. Many tragedies can’t be prevented, but this type of tragedy can. Please don’t drink and drive. And, just as importantly, don’t let a friend drink and drive.
You can be part of making a positive change.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever lost someone you love to a drunk driver or other tragedy? How did you cope? What did you do to help yourself move on? Did reading my story help? Did it encourage you to make a change — whether it was signing up for organ donation or preventing drunk driving? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments section below!