Mother struggles as anniversary of daughter's boating death nears
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Every morning Lisa Gaines wakes up, looks at a pale pink framed photograph of her daughter, Victoria, and struggles with the reality of her child's death.
And the thoughts return.
"Am I never ever going to see her again, hug her, touch her, kiss her, hold her, hear her voice, see her face looking up at me . . . hear her say, 'I love you Momma'?"
Two days shy of her 8th birthday, Victoria was trapped in the cabin of a capsized boat in Oyster Bay after a July Fourth fireworks display last year. Cousins David Aureliano, 12, and Harlie Treanor, 11, daughter of the boat's owner, also died that night.
The 34-foot cabin cruiser had 27 people onboard, 15 of them children. In January, the Nassau County district attorney's office ruled out criminal charges; a final report is expected soon.
Gaines has been struggling with powerful swings of emotion since the accident. But in searching for ways to cope, she also has become stronger. She has worked hard for better safe-boating laws. She earned her boating-safety certificate from the state, even though she does not own a boat. Now Gaines is about to launch a foundation to raise funds for four children's organizations.
"I have been amazed how heroic she has been in light of this tragedy," said Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson, who has come to know the family since the accident. "She has just channeled a portion of her energy and grief into making sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."
But now with the anniversary approaching, Gaines' emotional pain is intensifying.
"I honestly just want to get past July," she said.
Overcome with grief
Sitting in her living room in Huntington Station, Gaines, 46, said she initially had other plans on that summer night a year ago. Then she got a call around 5:45 p.m. inviting her and her children -- Victoria and Ryan, now 13 -- to go out on a boat owned by Kevin Treanor and watch the fireworks.
At one point, Victoria turned to her.
" 'Mommy, I love these fireworks so much,' " Gaines recalled her daughter saying. " 'They are the best I have ever seen. Thanks for bringing us and I love you.' "
Gaines said she remembers feeling the boat overturning shortly after that and remembers screaming her daughter's name. She thinks often about Victoria's last words.
"What made her do that?" Gaines said. "It was like she gave me a gift with her last words."
Victoria, she said, was full of love, energetic and a "little old soul" who loved to dance.
"I love her beyond any words could ever say," Gaines said.
The day after Victoria's death, Gaines was in Nassau County Medical Center, hospitalized for emotional distress.
The next day, on what would have been Victoria's 8th birthday, the family picked out her cemetery plot.
For weeks after Victoria's funeral, Gaines said, she rarely left her bed.
She started seeing a therapist and grief counselor, but stopped after four months because therapy would not change the fact that her daughter was gone, she said. Gaines tried antidepressants but stopped because they made her feel worse, she said.
By November, she knew her behavior had to change.
"I would risk losing my son, my home, my job, and I know I couldn't let that happen," she said. Her concern for Ryan was the key. "He's suffered enough. I don't want him to suffer anymore."
Push for safety reforms
Gaines refocused on an idea she had in the weeks after Victoria's death to create a foundation for kids. And she continued her family's push for boating-safety reforms.
Gaines and her ex-husband, Paul, lobbied for new legislation they named "Victoria's Law." They focused on boat-capacity limits, boating-safety certification, and increasing the marine enforcement presence during special events on the waters.
A state measure passed earlier this month by the legislature would require anyone 18 or younger to take a boating-safety course starting in May, if the measure is signed by the governor. It would supersede a Suffolk County law approved in October that requires all adult power boat operators to take a boating-safety course as of November.
"Many of these accidents can be avoided," Gaines said. "I never want to hear about something like this again."
She completed the state's boating-safety course in October and joined the Neptune Sail and Power Squadron, a national boating-safety group.
In February, Gaines was asked to serve on the steering committee for the first Huntington Safe Boating Week.
During the weeklong event in May, Gaines stood on docks along Huntington Harbor, near where the cabin cruiser set off last July Fourth.
She watched vessels undergoing safety checks, and said she started feeling lightheaded and nauseated, but looked up toward the parking lot where Ryan stood. He wanted to be there but could not bring himself to go to the docks. He flashed her a thumbs-up.
People respond to a tragedy such as Victoria's death in many ways, said Dr. Victor Fornari, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ's Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens.
"Everyone copes differently and it needs to be respected," he said.
The first anniversary after a traumatic death is "very powerful," he said.
Gaines said she started feeling anxious in March and returned to therapy in May, as warmer weather triggered intense feelings of grief.
'It is the hardest thing'
That month, when she usually had prepared for summer vacation with her children, Gaines went to Washington Primary School in Huntington, which her daughter attended. Surrounded by face-painting, food and music, Gaines watched in disbelief as officials dedicated a playground named for Victoria.
Gaines said she has a difficult time comprehending what her life has become, a life that includes planning a memorial garden in a town park and launching Victoria's Love Children's Foundation.
"I decided to pursue that and focus on something positive and in a way to direct all this negative, horrible pain and energy," she said.
Gaines continues to work two jobs -- one in sales in the paper industry, the other as a bartender.
On a recent rainy afternoon, she sat in Victoria's room, painted a bright shade of pink, the girl's dolls and stuffed animals propped up on her neatly made bed.
Victoria's clothes are in her closet. Her toothbrush and cup are in the bathroom. A spelling test hangs on the kitchen refrigerator.
A purple sea horse necklace and orange bracelet dangle from one of the bedposts, gifts Gaines bought after Victoria's death.
"I still buy her little presents," she said.
There are a few things missing, including two pillows from Victoria's bed. Her mother and brother sleep with them now.
Gaines said she will not be on Long Island around July Fourth.
"I'll just turn myself off for a couple of days," she said.
And then she will return to her life, her home and Ryan -- grieving for one child, being there for the other.
"I know what it is like to want to die for one and live for the other," she said. "It is the hardest thing, but you have to do it. You have no choice."
Victoria’s Love Children’s Foundation
GOAL: To raise money for children in need. Its slogan: “Turning pain into promise.” Gaines is in the process of getting 501(c)(3) status.
RECIPIENTS: Sunrise Day Camp in Wheatley Heights, a full-day summer day camp for children with cancer and their siblings; Comfort Zone Camp, for children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver; the Foundation for Educating Children with Autism; and the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force. Foundation also will fund scholarships for Huntington students.
FIRST EVENT: Concert, Aug. 9, at The Emporium in Patchogue.
LAUNCH: Inaugural Ball — dinner, dancing and a fashion show — Oct. 8 at Oheka Castle in Huntington.
CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook.