Wearing blue jeans and the little black shirt she borrowed from her mom, 15-year-old Monika Skrzypkowski walked through the kitchen that Saturday night and said goodbye for the last time.
"That's something only I can see and cherish," says her mother, Margaret Skrzypkowski. "I remember the feel of it, the smell of it, her movement, the hair brushing her face. I remember it. That was my moment."
The next time she would see her daughter, Monika was lying on the cold pavement where she landed after a drunken driver literally knocked her out of her boots as she tried to cross the street. That pain bubbles to the surface every time Margaret Skrzypkowski walks into a courtroom for her new job as a victim's advocate with the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, headquartered in Schaumburg.
Remembering how Twyla Blakely, victim service coordinator for AAIM, helped her, Skrzypkowski says she wants to be there for the new mourners initiated into the sad fraternity of people whose lives are ripped apart by drunken and impaired drivers.
"I hear the stories, horrible stories, somebody else's tragedies, somebody else's tears, but I become part of these," Skrzypkowski says.
"These people really need help. My wife helps them," says Artur Skrzypkowski, who says he sometimes goes to support meetings simply to cry.
"This is our daughter," the mom says, hoisting a small black box containing photographs and memories of her daughter. They take the box with them to church, restaurants, everywhere. "Get Monika," they'll call as they leave the house. Margaret Skrzypkowski clings to that box and to the hope that sharing Monika's story might stop someone else from driving drunk and ruining lives.
Artur and Margaret Skrzypkowski were watching TV on Dec. 6, 2008, in their Arlington Heights home when Monika called shortly before her 11 p.m. curfew, asking for a ride home.
An independent teenager, Monika no longer was the little girl whose dancing in front of the TV at age 4 coaxed her mother, a former Polish dancer, out of retirement and into teaching the Polanie Dance Ensemble.
The firstborn child of Polish immigrants, Monika developed into a talented artist, writer and poet with her own style. As a toddler, Monika would persuade everyone in the room to wear a hat. She poked thumb holes in the sleeves of her sweaters a couple of years before stores started selling sweaters with thumb holes. She cut her own hair and created new styles for her friends.
She sometimes went by the nickname Monia, and her father dubbed her Pyza, the Polish word for a dumpling as well as the name of a character in a children's story. Monika had been doing her own laundry since she was 10, and had an uncanny ability to mediate any sibling scuffles or ease the problems of her friends. One of four kids, each born in a different season, Monika was spring.
That night, Monika was at a birthday party at the home of her boyfriend in Prospect Heights. It was a modest celebration with his relatives and a few high school friends. With their youngest children, Kasia, 4, and Adam, 6, in bed, and 13-year-old Martin in his bedroom, both parents made the trip to pick up Monika.
As they drove by Hersey High School, where Monika was a sophomore, a police car, lights flashing, sped past. The hint of something bad, like an approaching fog, grew thicker as they followed the same path as the police car. They pulled up on a chaotic scene with ambulance lights flashing and people on the street. The worried father dialed his daughter's cellphone.
"Hello, hello," replied Monika's voice. "Hold on. Hold on. Someone's calling me. Let me call you right back."
Confused, but confident his daughter was OK, the dad didn't realize he had only listened to Monika's clever new outgoing message.
Kids were sitting on the curb, crying. Lights were flashing. "Isn't this your child lying there?" someone asked. Skrzypkowski heard the words "unconscious" and "hit-and-run" as she and her husband rushed to Monika, who was being tended to by paramedics.
"This doesn't happen. This doesn't happen," the dad kept saying as he covered his face with his hands.
"I felt this wave of something bursting out of me. I felt my hand shaking. I felt my heart pounding," remembers the mom. "I thought the hospital would fix everything, and I wanted them to take her."
At the hospital, refusing to stay in the emergency room waiting room, Artur Skrzypkowski and his wife bolted to their daughter's side, huddled at one end of the table as doctors and staff franticly worked on Monika.
"I held her foot for a time," the mom remembers. "I was trying to massage it and talk to her. I've seen that before in the movies. 'Monika, do not give up. Please, you can make it baby,' over and over. They put the electric shock on her. One, two, three and then her body would jump up and down."
For more than 40 minutes, doctors tried to ignite a spark of life where there was none.
"I'm sorry," they told the parents when nothing more could be done.
The parents stayed with their daughter's body for more than three hours, crying, holding each other, holding Monika's hand.
"Hope is such a strong emotion. You don't give up on life. You don't give up on your child," says the mom. Leaving only to go to the bathroom, she came back and took her husband's place.
"When he gave the hand back to me, it was warm. I would think maybe they made a mistake," she says, remembering how much she longed for that hope.
Hospital workers brought her a cup with ice chips, just like they did on the day Monika was born.
"I felt like something started and something ends when they brought me the ice chips again," Margaret Skrzypkowski says.
Monika's bedroom, with the yellow walls and touches of blue that were her favorite colors, still looks much like it did that night. Her drawings, souvenirs from dance performances, candid photographs remain, as do inspirational sayings such as "Live your life" that she scrawled on the wall.
"I know if that time comes, it will be very hard to take everything down," her mom admits. "I didn't even clean the mirror. I can't get myself to do that because maybe there is a print of hers there."
Monika's friends and classmates, wearing yellow roses with blue and yellow ribbons, packed the courtroom as Kevin Schuh, the 17-year-old drunken driver who was a senior at the same high school on the night of the crash, was sentenced to five years in prison. Schuh, of Mount Prospect, went to prison a month before his 19th birthday, and could be eligible for release and parole as early as April 30, 2014.
Friends and family celebrate Monika's birthday every April 19 with 15 yellow balloons for her age and a blue balloon for every birthday since. They gather again on the anniversary of her death. Her Polish dance troupe performs a touching piece to Brahms Lullaby in her memory, and a waltz where a fairy, once danced by Monika, uses a wand to reawaken dancers.
"I dance every day of my life," Monika wrote once. "People always ask me how I want to die, and one day I turned and said to them, 'I want to die on the dance floor.'"
The Polanie Dance Ensemble will perform Nov. 18 at the Prairie Arts Center in Schaumburg. Monika, who also attended the Emilia Plater Polish School, now in Schaumburg, had just learned the choreography for a dance honoring the dead, but she was killed before she got the chance to perform it.
The dances, her courtroom advocacy, everything reminds Margaret Skrzypkowski of their loss and their effort to honor their daughter's memory as they try to recover.
"We get to these places," Artur Skrzypkowski says, "in different ways and at different times."
"But we're going in the same direction," his wife says.
As painful as it is, she is driven to share their story.
"We're all about using victims to help victims," says Blakely, the AAIM advocate who says Skrzypkowski will be part of the group's annual fundraising luncheon Oct. 21 in Addison. "We are family. It's the worst family in the world to join, but the best family you'll ever have."
Margaret Skrzypkowski struggles with the emotionally draining toll.
"I go into detail. I don't know if that's the best message to get people not to drink and drive. That's the thing that needs to go into their heads. They need to realize this thing just didn't happen," Margaret Skrzypkowski says. "These are decisions. When you make this decision, it's not an accident. It really needs to be taught that these are not accidents and there are consequences to these actions. We're stuck with the consequences for the rest of our lives."