PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – Josie Ledoux tearfully said goodbye to her dead daughter and, despite overwhelming grief, headed up three floors in the Saskatchewan hospital to meet her newborn grandchild.
It was a day of both life and death — one that will be marked Monday as little Aurora Sky celebrates her first birthday and Ledoux remembers the first anniversary of a car crash that killed her pregnant, 17-year-old daughter.
Ledoux cries, then composes herself, as she describes the past year.
Some days she finds it hard to walk into her daughter’s old bedroom in the family’s Prince Albert home.
It was once cluttered with zebra print clothing, makeup cases and curling irons. Those items have been replaced with diapers, a crib and safari animal stickers on the walls.
“It used to be my daughter’s room. Now it’s baby’s room,” says the 41-year-old grandmother.
Each time she looks at Aurora Sky, she sees the same nose, lips and eyes of her daughter, Brandi Lepine.
That, she says, brings her joy.
The little girl — born three months premature, weighing slightly more than two pounds — suffered a head injury during the car wreck while still inside her mother’s womb.
She spent five months in Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital, where doctors eventually placed a shunt in her head to drain fluid off her tiny brain.
At home, tubes still run from her nose to an oxygen tank, while her grandmother gives her daily medication and is on constant watch for seizures.
Aurora hasn’t met the milestones typical of other children her age.
She isn’t yet walking or crawling, is still trying to hold her head up on her own, and just recently started eating mushy baby food.
Doctors say she will likely have some form of disability for the rest of her life.
“People say she’s lucky to have us, but no,” says Ledoux. “We’re lucky to have her in our lives.
“I don’t care how she turns out … To my eyes she’s beautiful. She’s a gift and we’re very blessed.”
She says Lepine, the youngest of her two daughters, was a quiet but head-strong girl. When she discovered she was pregnant, Lepine dropped out of high school but Ledoux told the teen she was going back after her baby was born.
When Lepine later broke up with her boyfriend, Ledoux promised that she and Lepine’s step-father would help raise the baby.
The teen was excited to be a mom and talked on Facebook about the life she could feel kicking inside her. She had cravings, too, and often carried around jar of pickles, slugging back all of the juice, says Ledoux.
The night of the crash, Lepine went out with her friend Taylor Litwin, 21, to satisfy a hankering for a Slurpee. They were on their way to a 7-Eleven when the crash happened. Litwin was also killed.
Police arrested the driver of the other vehicle, 21-year-old Jeremiah Jobb, and charged him with impaired driving causing death. His trial date has yet to be set.
Days later, Lepine and Litwin were buried side by side under a tree at a local cemetery.
Litwin’s mother, Bev Gobeil, describes her daughter as a caring person who had recently graduated high school and wanted to become a child-care worker.
She says she still struggles with her daughter’s death and can’t imagine how Ledoux is managing to cope while also raising a special-needs child.
“I don’t know how that woman can do it, man. She’s got to be strong,” says Gobeil. “It would be hard to handle that baby. Every day you think of your girl.”
Both families have planned a potluck supper Monday at a church to remember the young women and celebrate Aurora’s birthday.
Ledoux says there will be a cake topped with photos of all three.
“I’ll never forget my daughter,” Ledoux says. “I’ll never forget her smile, her laughter, her silliness. The one thing I miss the most is her just hugging me and just kissing me really hard on the face and saying, ‘I love you Mom.’”
And each year, she says, it will get better.
The family has arranged to move in the fall to another house on the other side of the city, so Aurora won’t have to grow up in her dead mother’s bedroom and the family won’t have to drive each day through the intersection where the crash happened.
“As she grows older and older, it’ll get a lot easier,” Ledoux says.
“She’s not ever going to know her mom but I will tell her stories and show her pictures. That’s all I can do.”
— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton