CLAY CENTER — After suffering every parent’s worst nightmare, Bryan Dame and Ashleigh Cheramie are searching for understanding and healing.
The couple’s son, 1-year-old Kael Dame, died in an accident Monday night after he was struck by an SUV in the grass parking lot near the ball field at Huntress Park on the west side of Clay Center.
On Thursday, Bryan, 29, and Ashleigh, 30, sat on stools at a wide, wooden table in the quiet basement of their home. Friends and family congregated and talked upstairs.
“We have a lot of support and a lot of family,” Bryan said as he smoked a cigarette and took small sips from a beer. “So, I guess we both have our moments, but we’ve got to be strong to an extent. There’s just a lot of people we have to be strong for, I think.”
“You would think it’s the other way around because it’s you that lost (a child),” he added.
Ashleigh, who sat across the table, also taking slow drags from a cigarette, agreed.
“It’s comforting in itself to be strong for everyone around us and just try to bring out all the positive that has come out of a negative situation,” she said.
The couple’s son, Kael, was hit by a Chevrolet Tahoe that was leaving the ball field parking lot at about 8:05 p.m. Monday, according to a Kansas Highway Patrol report. Kael was transported to Clay Center Medical Center, where he later died.
“We spent most the night at the hospital just with friends and family in grieving and —”
“Shock,” Bryan said, finishing her sentence. “Disbelief.”
They were afraid to come home at first, Ashleigh said, but eventually decided that’s where Kael would want to be.
When the family returned to the house, they went into Kael’s room, sat down and said a prayer. They and Kael’s siblings — Izayah, 10, Amayah, 7, and Macy, 4 — cried.
Later that night, Byran and Ashleigh slept with Kael’s pillow, blanket and favorite stuffed animal.
“I felt like Kael would have wanted us to come home,” Ashleigh said. “He would have wanted to be here, and I do believe that he is here.”
At about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, the cellphone rang. The caller was from an organ donation network.
“They had called us all night, but we had turned the phones off,” Ashleigh said. “We woke up at about 6:15 or 6:30 to the phone call from Midwest Transplants. They had asked us to donate his heart because it can potentially save two children’s lives.”
The caller explained that the valves in Kael’s heart represented a chance at life for two other kids.
“With no hesitation, we agreed,” Ashleigh said.
Bryan was for the decision, but admitted it wasn’t a completely easy choice.
“It’s hard, you know, because that’s what keeps the body alive,” he said. “That’s your soul. It’s your heart. You don’t want to give your heart away.”
Both said that, at some point, they’d like to contact the families of the children who received Kael’s heart valves.
“I am very adamant about that, because that is my son’s heart,” Bryan said. “I don’t know who these people are and I want to meet them, eventually, just so I know faces.”
Ashleigh said the families will forever be connected.
“I would just love to be able to put my arms around these children and express to them how special they are and how much they mean to our family and how much their family means to us,” she said.
As far as the accident is concerned, both Bryan and Ashleigh said it was just that — a tragic accident. They said no negative feelings are felt toward Peggy Ward, 58, the driver of the SUV in the accident.
Ward, who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, has been a part of their lives for some time now.
Ashleigh said Ward is a “dear friend” of the family. She helped raise Kael, his siblings — even Ashleigh. Bryan was close to her, too.
“She’s like a mother to us, and I can’t imagine what she’s feeling,” Ashleigh said. “Nothing about the situation is her fault.”
Like Bryan’s and Ashleigh’s families, Ward has been a fixture in their house in the days since the accident.
“We have a very strong social circle,” Bryan said.
The people in that circle will forever remember Kael as a carefree, charismatic and courageous toddler who, according to his parents, had a bit of a rambunctious streak that they loved him for all the more.
“He had the most ornery personality, you know,” Bryan said. “He was just so rebellious, extremely adventurous.”
But Kael, his parents said, also had the opportunity to forever affect the lives of two other kids.
“Not many people can say that, even in such a short time span of their lives, that they have accomplished something that widespread,” Ashleigh said.
Still, Kael will be sorely missed by his parents, brothers, sisters and others who had the opportunity to know him.
“We love and we miss our son every day,” Ashleigh said. “He was everything to us.”