VIDEO: Tragically Friends

She was a 25-year-old recent business grad, a quiet and thoughtful woman who loved to read, run and dance to the songs of Blake Shelton and Katy Perry. He was a 46-year-old father of two girls, hoping to eventually quit the night shift and utilize the business degree he’d earned in his home country of India.

When Jillian Lavallee flagged down Amritpal Singh Kharbanda’s taxi in the early hours of May 2, 2015, she had just left a beer festival in Calgary’s downtown. Her weekend ahead was full, including a hiking trip in the mountains after she caught a few hours’ sleep.

She gave Kharbanda her parents’ southeast address. Then, the taxi’s security camera recorded Lavallee and her driver engaging in friendly conversation as he drove her east along 12th Avenue S.W.

As Kharbanda approached a green light, a white SUV was heading north on Macleod Trail, at what police would later describe as a high rate of speed. Facing a red light, it kept going, first ramming into a Honda Civic, seriously injuring its 64-year-old driver; it then broadsided the taxi, hitting squarely where Lavallee sat.

Kharbanda died at the scene. Lavallee would die 12 hours later, surrounded in a Calgary hospital by scores of family and friends, who had come to say goodbye before she was taken off life support.

Days later, 20-year-old Ali Alejandro Montoya, the driver of the SUV, was charged with three counts each of impaired driving — two for causing death and one for causing bodily harm in connection with the crash. His preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 13-26, 2016.

On that night, Kharbanda and Lavallee were added to the list of 369 people who died last year on Alberta’s roads. A large number of those fatal collisions involved drivers who drank or were suspected of drinking alcohol prior to the crash.

This is not, however, solely a story about grim statistics, about an ongoing societal scourge that robs innocent people of their lives.

Rather, thanks to the Lavallee and Kharbanda families, theirs is instead a story about the power of love and faith — of how some ordinary, extraordinary people, their lives torn apart by tragedy, came together to help one another pick up the pieces and face the future with hard-won determination and hope.

Brenda and Dan Lavallee talk about their daughter, Jillian, who was killed by a drunk driver while in a taxi cab.

In the months after their daughter’s death, Brenda and Dan Lavallee, with their eldest daughter Caitlin, raised nearly $90,000 mark to help Harpreet Kharbanda raise two daughters on her own. 

“We taught our two girls from the time they were little to look outside of themselves,” says Dan of coming to the rescue of the family of the man trying to bring his daughter safely home. “It has helped them, but it has also really helped us.”

The assistance has been more than financial: over the past eight months, the two families have become as close as blood relatives. Brenda, a retired schoolteacher, is tutoring 15-year-old Japnoor, herself an aspiring teacher. The families regularly come together for dinner, sometimes at the Lavallee home, other times at the Kharbandas’s northeast home where they have lived since moving to Canada in 2010.

“We are sharing the sorrows, which has made a bond no one can break,” says Harpreet Kharbanda, who adds that Japnoor and her nine-year-old sister Rishan think of the Lavallees as honorary grandparents. “I get so much strength from them — if we are getting better, the credit goes to them.”

Over a few days at the end of 2015, Dan and Brenda Lavallee recounted the 36-year journey that brought them the joys of unexpected parenthood, the sorrow of unimaginable loss — and the comfort of yet another unexpected relationship.

“I was committed to being single,” says Dan, who was adopted as a toddler by a farm family and grew up near Meadow Lake, Sask. All that changed when he went home Thanksgiving of 1979; the then-27-year-old travelling lineman for a power company attended a gathering where Brenda, 21, was among the guests.

“I went back to work and told the guys I just met someone I think I could marry,” he says with a shy chuckle. “Being adopted, I never aspired to family, but meeting Brenda spurred a change of heart.”

The feeling was mutual. “I liked everything about Dan,” says Brenda, who, like her future husband, was raised in the Catholic faith. “He was very smart, very kind, very funny and hard working,” she says. “He was the kind of guy who’d give people money who were out on the street, he was generous with money and kindness.”

Two years later, the pair was married and living in Cold Lake, Alta., where Dan started working for Imperial Oil and Brenda taught at a local school. After several emotional years of trying to get pregnant, which included several miscarriages, in 1988 they adopted a baby girl.

With two previous adoptions having fallen through, “we didn’t have our hopes up,” says Brenda, who didn’t even have a crib on hand for fear it would jinx their efforts. “So we got Caitlin and all we had was a bag of diapers,” she says with a laugh. “Our friend showed up at the hospital with a baby seat to take her home.”

In 1989, the trio moved to Calgary. Soon after, what both call the second miracle of their life occurred: Brenda was pregnant. On Jan. 11, 1990, Jillian was born in Rockyview Hospital. Dan traded in his sports car for a minivan and got up for work each day at 5 a.m., so he’d be home in time to spend a few hours each evening with his kids.

“It was like winning the lottery,” says Brenda. “Never a day passed where we didn’t thank God for our little girls.”

Both daughters went to private Christian schools and were regulars with their parents at a local church. Their distinct personalities, though, quickly differentiated one from the other. Caitlin was a talkative force of nature, says her mom, while Jillian was a quiet observer of human nature, “an old soul.”

Both attended Trinity Western University, a private Christian liberal arts school in Langley, B.C.; like her older sister, Jillian studied business, graduating in May of 2014.

In the spring of 2015, Jillian was working for Solium, a Calgary equity plan management firm, and shopping for an inner-city condo. Her dad would often accompany her to open house viewings. “She wanted something small, downtown,” says Dan. “We were going to help her, but she was also a good little saver.”

Her parents were proud of the woman she had become, one who balanced fun with her friends with working hard at her job. “She never gave us a bit of trouble,” says Brenda with a wistful smile. “Sometimes I wished she’d just go break out and do something devilish.”

Jillian’s wildest act was getting a tattoo on her lower back. It read, “I climbed a Tree to See the World.” It took several months before she broke the news. “I just burst out laughing,” says Brenda.

On the evening of May 1, 2015, Brenda and Dan were in Montana on a mini vacation. 

Jillian texted to let her mom know she was heading with friends to the beer fest and would taxi home. “Sure glad you found a hotel with the hockey,” she wrote, also noting that her visit to the hair stylist went well. “They said it’ll get lighter in a couple of washes. Love you.”

At four in the morning, the Lavallees were asleep in their hotel room when Brenda’s cellphone rang. It was the Calgary police, saying they were downstairs. Brenda’s cellphone was still connected to the security buzzer at their Calgary condo. “He said our daughter has been in an auto accident, they needed to come up,” says Brenda. “I said ‘we’re not there,’ and then we got disconnected.”

Within minutes, the parents were in their car heading for the border. Brenda kept trying Jillian’s cellphone. Finally, someone picked up. “It was a police sergeant, very calm, very articulate. He told us Jillian was in very critical condition, at the Foothills Hospital.”

Harpreet Kharbanda, centre, and her two children, Risham, 9, right, and Japnoor, 15. Amritpal was killed by a drunk driver.

At 4 a.m. in Calgary, Harpreet Kharbanda heard a knock on her door. It was a police officer, there to tell her that the man she had known since she was a teenager — the happy, always laughing husband obsessed with making the perfect chicken dish — was dead.

Amritpal Kharbanda had only intended to work as a taxi driver for a short time, until Rishan was old enough to be home alone after school. The schedule worked for him and his wife, a professor of biotechnology back in India who was working at a Calgary hospital as a surgical processor.

“Our house was always filled with laughter and now we had lost him,” says Harpreet.

“He was a wonderful father,” says Japnoor as she holds on to her mom. “He used to celebrate birthdays really good.”

A few hours after both families received the tragic news, Brenda and Dan arrived at the hospital, where several friends and family had already gathered. Their eldest daughter Caitlin, who caught a last-minute flight from her home in Vancouver, would soon join them.

“Her little eye sockets were filled with blood,” says Brenda of her daughter, whose battered body was hidden under an inflatable blanket called a Teddy Bear tent, one arm left out for her loved ones to hold on to. “My sister Yvonne just kept dabbing the blood from Jillian’s eyes.” 

After everyone had a chance to say goodbye to the young woman known for her dazzling smile and distinctive, near deafening laugh, she was taken off life support. Jillian Lavallee was declared dead at just after 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

In the ensuing days, the Lavallee family responded in the most remarkable manner to the loss of Jillian. A week after her death, they participated in the Sport Chek Mother’s Day run, with Caitlin taking her sister’s place and more than 40 family and friends joining them.

Like her parents, Jillian’s older sister was determined to find beauty amid the horror.

“It was getting a lot of angry attention,” she says of the community outrage over the death of a young woman who made a responsible decision to not drink and drive yet died in a crash that resulted in impaired driving charges.

“I wanted to bring light and love to tragedy. My parents taught us that in tough times, it’s even more important to build love and community.”

Caitlin was armed with the practical tools to make her vision a reality: her employer, Charitable Impact Foundation, quickly set up a funding page, with West Springs Free Methodist Church the charity assigned to disperse the funds. The first $5,000 went to advocacy organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), with the remainder set aside to help Harpreet, Japnoor and Rishan Kharbanda.

The Lavallees are setting up a scholarship at Trinity Western University in honour of Jillian — raising money through CHIMP once more — with a Calgary fundraiser planned for March. 

They also pledge to continue to support the Kharbanda family in any way they can, not just for the early stages of grief and the upcoming court process — a choice, says their eldest child, that has benefited both families.

“Having those children around them has brought life back to my mom and dad,” says Caitlin. “They are turning sadness into love.”

“Life is never guaranteed,” says Dan of a loss he is still struggling with as he faces what would have been Jillian’s 26th birthday on Jan. 11.

“How do you put positive action into your life when the unthinkable happens?”

His wife quickly answers. “We’ve got our faith, we have our daughter Caitlin and her husband Paul and now, we have our purpose in helping the Kharbanda family,” says the mother who, in her family’s darkest hours, chose to run towards the light. “It’s what Jillian would have wanted.”

Source: Calgary Herald

Last updated on: 2016-02-01 | Link to this post