I've heard it referred to as 'the new normal.' That gut-wrenching reality of having to exist on this earth without someone who was supposed to be a part of our lives forever. Someone most of us take for granted because we should not outlive them Ñ our children. My new normal began at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 24, 1999.

I was asleep when the phone rang. My boys, 9 and 13, were in bed, and my husband and 14-year-old daughter were taking her boyfriend home. A hospital administrator informed me that my husband had been in a car accident, had several broken bones and was in the intensive care unit. She clearly stated that his injuries were survivable. I immediately asked about my daughter. She told me she'd been taken to another hospital and gave me the phone number.

When I called that emergency room, they said she wasn't there. By now I felt someone was playing a cruel joke of some kind. Where was my daughter? I called the administrator back. She then informed me, 'The passenger in your husband's car did not survive.' My life has never been the same since.

After dropping off my daughter's boyfriend, she and my husband were heading home when a 52-year-old man crossed four lanes of traffic and hit their car head-on. There was nothing my husband could have done, but he still suffers from 'survivor's guilt' along with continued physical problems. Kelsey did not have identification with her, and the hospital thought she was older, which is why they said she wasn't there.

The worst part of this is how preventable it could have been. This man should not have been driving that night. He had been drinking and was coming down off the effects of methamphetamine. According to the judge, he fell asleep at the wheel from the drugs and alcohol in his system and extreme lack of sleep.

I know he didn't set out that evening to kill my daughter, but the decision he made permanently changed the lives of many, many people, including his own. We are no longer a family of five. We are a family of four with a huge missing part.

All any grieving parent wants is to have his or her child back. Knowing this will never happen is almost beyond belief and unbearable.

There are so many questions that will never be answered. Grief is a terrible journey that each of us must handle in our own way. What has kept me going is remembering the joy that my daughter had for life, every day, and knowing she would want no less from me.

I also have two teen-age boys, 13 and 16, who give me great joy and, of course, challenge my parenting. Being their mom has helped me cope with missing my daughter.

Trying to make sense of this tragedy, or any tragedy involving misuse of alcohol and drugs, is futile. One thing my husband and I can do is try to prevent another person from making a fatal and devastating mistake by speaking to high school students as part of an education program about driving under the influence. We do this in memory of Kelsey.

I've also become active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving and attend a wonderful support group, The Compassionate Friends, for parents who've had children die. Our lives are changed forever, as are the lives of many others who knew and loved Kelsey.

Remember: Drinking? Don't drive! And always buckle up!

Carolyn Harrington is a teacher living in Gresham.

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