Ten years ago, the bottom dropped out of Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy’s life.
His son, Daniel, 19, a promising young hockey player, was murdered.
In a stark Thunder Bay hospital room, doctors broke the devastating news to Beardy and his wife, Nellie: There was nothing more they could do to save their son.
A black hole opened up in his life, Beardy recalls.
“There was suddenly a large void. It was like a part of you had been taken away,” he told me in an interview Saturday.
He rattles off the date — Aug. 1, 2004.
But just as their hearts were breaking from that tragic loss, another child walked into their lives.
News of Daniel’s injuries was big in Thunder Bay. Another little boy, Brayden Pelletier, just three at the time, was watching cartoons when the TV news came on.
There on the screen was a picture of the popular goalie a lot of youngsters followed to games in Thunder Bay. At the time he was killed, Daniel was the number two ranked Junior A goalie in the country and had hopes of an NHL career.
He was in intensive care for 30 hours before he died.
Brayden asked him mom, Audrey, why his friend’s picture was on TV. She explained that he’d been badly hurt.
The tot asked her to take him to see him.
“I can still picture what he looked like,” Beardy says.
“He arrived in shorts and sandals and a muscle T-shirt. He had chocolate on his face,” he says with a smile.
The grief-stricken family was still weeping over their loss when Brayden arrived. They gently explained to him what had happened.
“He came up to my wife and gave her a hug and said, ‘I am your son,’ ” Beardy recalled.
It was the worst of times.
Yet it was the best of times.
Stan Beardy had never met Brayden and knew nothing about him. All he knew was that Brayden idolized their dead son and that he was the child of a single mom — and that he’d touched their hearts at a time when they thought they’d never feel joy again.
From that time on, the Beardys have made Brayden a part of their lives.
When he’s in school, Brayden lives with his mom.
Weekends and holidays, he spends time with the Beardys.
In the early years of their relationship, when Beardy was suffering the raw grief of losing Daniel, Brayden would look up and say, “Pappa, let me know when you get scared, and I will hold your hand.”
Beardy drew strength from that.
“I spent a lot of time holding his hand,” he recalls.
“Looking back, 10 years later I don’t know how I would have managed,” he said.
The agonizing pain of losing Daniel left the Beardys frightened of ever loving another child the way they’d loved their son.
“We’re hoping through this story that people realize there are ways that one can heal their feelings and not be scared to be hurt again,” Stan said. “I’ve learned that by opening your heart there’s the possibility you’re going to get hurt again, but I think that’s secondary when you look at the big picture and what you can teach other people and what you can give other people even though you’re hurt.
“We’ve learned since the loss of our son that the more we give, the more we get back and that’s a really good feeling for us.”
Adopting a new “Pappa” has opened up the world for Brayden. In the summer, he spends a couple of weeks at their home in Muskrat Dam First Nation, a fly-in reserve 300 km north of Sioux Lookout. In the summer he swims. In the winter he goes ice fishing.
Beardy’s taught him to take pride in his native heritage and not let kids bully him or put him down because of it.
“He’s taught me that we’re not different at all. We’re all equal. That’s very important,” said Brayden.
His favourite subject at school is science. He’d like to go into engineering and he and his Pappa are already planning for him to go to university.
What does he want to do when he grows up?
“I’d like to be something great, like prime minister,” he says. And he pauses.
“And I’d like to be like Pappa.”