If anyone who ever met him wondered where Drake Bigler got his smile, they can just ask his parents. They won't tell you, they'll show you.
Their faces light up when they talk about Drake, their five-month-old son who was killed in the July 28 car crash. And then come the smiles. Yes, there are tears as well, tears that on certain occasions will run down their cheeks probably for the rest of their lives. But the Biglers are able to smile and laugh a bit, too, when they reminisce.
"He was very strong-willed, which went along with him being very energetic," Brad Bigler said. "He was a boy that didn't need a whole lot of sleep, which challenged his parents, but even with a limited amount of sleep it always seemed like he was in a good mood."
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler returned to his desk duties in September, a little more than a month removed from the car crash that killed his son, Drake, and left him with multiple injuries, including a collapsed lung. He was back on the court with his team Monday for the season’s first practice.
If you think a child can't make an impression in just five months, you'd be wrong. The Biglers have been left with a cavernous void in their lives. The crash is like others that serve as a tragic reminder of the effects of driving drunk, and this one turned the Biglers' world upside down and inside out. It also put Brad and Heather's grandmother, Sharon Schuler, in the hospital.
That was two-and-a-half months ago.
Today, the Biglers carry the memory of their son with them wherever they go. Life for the young couple isn't easy though. It's not a day-by-day battle they fight - it's more like second-by-second, minute-by-minute, Heather Bigler says. Life goes on for the family, but life is different now. In some respects, the Biglers have settled back into a semblance of their routine, but pain and heartache linger.
Brad Bigler, the leader and face of the Southwest Minnesota State University men's basketball team, was back on the court with his team Monday. He eased his way back into his coaching routine in September, but he didn't do it alone. Heather, SMSU interim President Ron Wood and Athletic Director Chris Hmielewski - his three bosses, he calls them - were each watching him closely right from the start even though there was no physical activity taking place. While doing office work, he was in contact with his players for a couple hours a day. As September wore on, his work increased to a near normal level.
"Physically I think I'm where I need to be," he said. "Did some rehab on my shoulder. Mentally, being around the guys has been very helpful. Getting back to having a busier schedule, getting back to having some sort of a routine. It's part of the healing process."
Bigler left the hospital broken and bruised, dealing with concussion symptoms, and with seven different prescriptions that became a bigger burden to him than his injuries. The medication was almost too much to bear; he dealt with it after being released from the hospital, but it was getting to him.
"My head just wasn't there because of how much medication I was taking," he said.
After Drake's funeral on Aug. 6, he decided he had enough and took himself off the medication.
"After the funeral a lot of things cleared up and my head was feeling a lot better," he said. "Just getting off that medication. It was nice to be able to feel normal."
The crash occurred around 9:20 p.m. on a warm July night on County Road 41 in Pope County in western Minnesota as the Biglers were headed to a relative's cabin. Heather Bigler was driving north on a two-lane highway and tried to swerve to get out of the way of an oncoming truck driven by Dana Schoen that had crossed the center line.
The vehicles collided head-on.
Brad's injuries included a cracked C7 vertebrae, a scapula that was broken in two different places, a concussion, several broken ribs and the injury that was most responsible for keeping him hospitalized: a collapsed lung. Heather Bigler's grandmother, Sharon Schuler, 74, of Granite Falls, was also badly hurt and will never have full range of motion in one of her arms. She had to have reconstructive surgery on an elbow and also suffered a broken scapula, broken ribs and a broken thumb.
The Biglers' other two children, Taleigha and Nash, were not in the vehicle. The Biglers left them behind at a wedding reception to let them dance with grandma and grandpa one more time. That decision, they say, probably saved their lives and, because of that, gives the Biglers reason to be thankful for what they still have.
"We know that we still have two beautiful kids, and we want to be great parents, so it forces you to pick yourself up and kind of makes you make sure you're there for them," Brad Bigler said.
Schoen, who wasn't hurt, was alone in the truck and drunk. Police at the scene said his eyes were bloodshot and watery, that he was swaying, and that his speech was slurred. According to criminal complaints, he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.351. Police reportedly found two empty Busch Light beer cans and four unopened Busch Light beer cans on the ground, next to the driver's side of his truck.
According to state records, Schoen was convicted of gross misdemeanor drunken driving in 2005 and for drunken driving in 2000. In both of those cases, his blood-alcohol content was greater than 0.25 percent. The legal limit to drive in Minnesota is 0.08 percent. Records show Schoen also has convictions for reckless driving and speeding. He was scheduled for a court appearance Wednesday, but it has been moved to Nov. 30.
The Biglers said they will follow Schoen's court appearances, but they don't want to lose themselves in the wrong kind of emotions.
"We want to be part of the process and help in any way we can, but at some point we need to kind of move past our anger," Brad Bigler said. "Just to see him feel pain, I don't know if that's always the right approach. I don't know what that actually does to help our process. You want to be careful."
But they are human and know they must fight the urge to let that anger consume them. Heather Bigler doesn't call what happened an accident because, as she said, it was 100 percent preventable. One person's poor decision, she said, changed their lives forever.
"When he gets out, their lives can pretty much go back to, you know, how it was, whereas one of my biggest struggles over the next 30, 40, 50 years, however long I'm here, is not being able to see Drake again," she said. "That's been really hard for me. It brings me peace to know I'll be able to hold him again, but it doesn't take the pain away."
Drake and his siblings
Drake, who was very close to Grandma Schuler, was a very alert child, his dad said, and loved watching his brother Nash and sister Taleigha. Drake and Taleigha, who is 4, were very close, so close that when Heather would leave the room, if only for a short time, she was there by his side entertaining him. When Drake got fussy, Taleigha took over, dancing by him, being a goofy big sister, trying to entertain him.
"She would sing to him," Heather Bigler said. "She knows now that he's not coming back. When she prays it's, 'Dear God, please send Drake back to us.'"
While Nash is only 2 years old and doesn't understand what has happened, the Biglers keep a close eye on Taleigha. They know she understands what happened and want to stay positive with her by doing things like talking about heaven.
"The other night we were looking at pictures of Drake and she said, 'Mom, please take a lot of pictures of me, so when I go to heaven you can remember me, too,'" Heather Bigler said. "You try to explain to her that Mommy will get old and go to heaven before you do, that that's the order it's supposed to happen. We need her to understand that this wasn't supposed to happen this way, but it did, so we just have keep praying about it and know that he's really happy with Jesus."
Heather Bigler didn't have to deal with physical setbacks because of the crash. Her pain came from her heart, mind and soul. But while she dealt with her loss, she also had to be there to support her husband and continue being a mom. Her mother moved in temporarily to help the couple with everyday living. Her mom helped with the kids, did the laundry and dishes. Her sisters and father helped, too, along with her brothers-in-law, Brad's sister and father. The grandparents chipped in, too.
"My dad tried to do what kind of work he could to try and keep up with his business, but he spent a lot of time here as well," Heather Bigler said.
She said the emotional triggers that occur on an everyday basis sometimes add up - those moments when she's shopping and walks past the baby section thinking if she needs diapers and baby food. Or when she sees Drake's empty closet or his crib.
Being in public, she said, is a challenge in and of itself.
"It's something that I'm still working through," she said. "To see other little kids Drake's age is difficult."
She's back working as a social worker/counselor at Marshall Middle School on a part-time basis. She doesn't call being back at work a normal routine, but it is what she's used to. Being at work, she said, is going well, but coming home is tough because "you're back to dealing with everything else. It's good to be at work, but coming home is always a hard thing. It's preparing myself to walk back through the door and dealing with the reality of everything you look at your children and there's one missing; you get in your car, there should be three car seats and there's only two."
She and her husband also continue to be overwhelmed with all the paperwork relating to the crash. Their mailbox is stuffed with it everyday, and Heather Bigler said going through it all has become an exhausting but necessary drill.
"You try to deal with all your emotions and move on, but it's those everyday reminders that just set you back," she said. "I just want to remember the good times we had with Drake."
Drunk drivers 'loaded weapons'
The Bigler family isn't going quietly when it comes to the state's DWI laws. They've spoken with area legislators about toughening them. Heather Bigler recalls a report she saw on TV about how many people in Minnesota have 10 or more DWI convictions, and said it's eyebrow-raising statistics like that that remind them how unsafe our roads are.
"The legislation is way too weak, especially for repeat offenders," Heather Bigler said. "I understand people make mistakes, but I just can't wrap my head around why people can have a few drinks and get behind the wheel of a vehicle; the laws are just way too lenient."
When Heather Bigler talks about the crash and about Minnesota's DWI laws, the sorrow she endures over the loss of her son is transformed to anger and frustration. And disbelief. Disbelief over how people can down a number of drinks and think they're OK to drive. Disbelief over the state's current DWI laws, especially when it comes to repeat offenders. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, one in 17 Minnesota drivers has two or more DWI arrests.
Heather Bigler said it's ridiculous that an offense doesn't reach felony stage until the fourth DWI offense. Minnesota DWI law for a felony drunk driving conviction will include three years in prison and a fine of not less than $14,000. And while the state implemented some stricter DWI laws for habitual offenders last July, it needs to go further, the laws need to be tougher, Heather Bigler said, and force people to think twice before getting behind the wheel. The new laws include a requirement that some offenders have a breath-testing ignition lockout device installed in any vehicle they drive.
"We're working on making the laws tougher for repeat offenders," Heather Bigler said. "When you get behind the wheel and you are intoxicated, you're a loaded weapon in my opinion. It's no different than unintentional murder. You're using your vehicle as a weapon."
The Biglers don't know how much time Schoen will serve if convicted. The Biglers say repeat offenders like Schoen take the risk of driving drunk time and time again because they don't fear the repercussions.
"There's a big difference between being one drink over the limit and being four times over the limit," said Brad Bigler, who noted that had Schoen did what he did in Iowa it would've been an instant 25-year sentence - "and in other states you would get life," Heather Bigler said. "We have the .08 - it looks tough, but everything behind it is pretty weak as far as consequences."
"A lot of times, Brad added, "the people who get caught are people who have been through it multiple times and they've went through the process and there's just no fear involved because it could be their fourth DWI, and they say, 'I'm gonna serve a certain amount of days, get my license back and go back to normal.'"
The Biglers know any change in law won't bring their son back to them, but if they can prompt change to state laws, maybe it will help others in the future.
"If we can make a difference with Drake's name to help other people," Brad Bigler said, "I think that's a great legacy."
The Biglers were overwhelmed with how everything was handled in the aftermath of the crash - by the first responders and emergency crews on the scene, to staff at Glacial Ridge Hospital in Glenwood and at Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, S.D.
They also want to thank everyone who sent cards, letters and gifts, as well as the Rehkamp and Horvath Funeral Home. The Biglers' support system came together rather quickly. As soon as Bigler was allowed visitors, they were there waiting.
The Biglers didn't have to do this story, but they saw it as a way to thank so many who have helped them during these last two-plus months.
"We really just want to show the appreciation to everyone who has been there for us," Brad Bigler said. "That's one thing I tell recruits, about how special Marshall is. Marshall is one of those towns filled with people who have been there for us, and we'll never forget that."
Brad Bigler said he has been humbled by how many people have sacrificed their time to do what they can for the family. He said he'll never forget all the visitors who drove to Sioux Falls to see him and let him know they're there for him and his family. While he was in the hospital, friends took over the role as housesitters back at home - cleaning, tending to yardwork and making meals.
"It really helps with the healing process and helps you fight through adversity," Brad Bigler said. "They all made a big difference."
The Biglers have also visited with other parents who have lost children and have found some comfort in those visits - not enough to make the pain go away, but enough to help them make that second-by-second, minute-by-minute lifestyle a bit more bearable.
"It's the same with all of them - that pain never goes away," Heather Bigler said. "Our next step we're trying to reach is, how are we going to live with the pain every day? We have to because we don't have a choice. We'll be OK, but it's just hard, and it hurts so bad. You just can't describe it."