Kim Levine-O'Leary has been fishing often in the last few weeks.
It's a pastime that she associates with happier days – when her family headed to nearby waterways like the Puyallup River often to enjoy quality time together and catch a fish or two before heading home.
These days, she goes to the water, in part, for the sense of tranquility it brings; it's been about four months since her son, , was killed in an auto accident, and life continues to be difficult for Levine-O'Leary as she comes to grips with losing a child.
While she is blessed with a , her chosen fishing buddy in these recent trips is Brandon's best friend, Kyle Podolak. He also happens to be the man who was behind the wheel the night of the accident and who investigators said had a blood alcohol level of 0.16 – twice the legal limit in Washington state.
Earlier this month, with one count each of vehicle homicide and vehicular assault – a second passenger in the vehicle and Brandon's roommate sustained a serious spinal injury. Podolak's arraignment is scheduled for this Friday at 9 a.m. in Pierce County Superior Court.
For Levine-O'Leary, spending time with Podolak isn't about forgiveness – there was no need as the thought of blaming him for her son's death had never crossed her mind. It was more to fit in as much time to be with the young man as possible before the justice system weighs in on what consequences he might face for his actions the night of April 22.
It was their time to be away from everything, she said, as Brandon's death has bonded them in a way that defies words. Though she lost a child, he now has the burden of knowing the role he played in his friend's death. Their experiences are similar, she said. “We say to each other 'try and hurt my feelings,'” she said. “You can't. Nothing can compare to what we've already been through.”
Both have quietly endured their share of Groundhog Day moments in which they've had to painfully explain the circumstances of that night repeatedly for others who may not know what happened, thereby reliving it all over again, she said.
But where their experiences differ, Levine-O'Leary said, Podolak deserves leniency and she has asked friends and family to write to the Pierce County Prosecutors Office asking for just that. “It's a burden he's going to carry with him for the rest of his life,” she said, of Brandon's death. “I wouldn't want to carry that burden.”
Not Letting Go
Levine-O'Leary recalled seeing Podolak shortly after the accident in his parents' home. His arm was bandaged due to a fracture and he was sitting on the couch when she walked in the door. He made the motion to try and stand up and greet her, and she said she told him to stay put – she'd go to him.
“'He said, 'You deserve that much respect, for me to stand up and hug you,'” she recalled. “We haven't let each other go at all since then.”
In unsuspecting times along the river while they fished, Podolak occasionally broke their peaceful silence and told Levine-O'Leary things she never knew about her son. “He said, 'Brandon talked about you all the time,'” she recalled. “I'm his mother. He never talked to me about a lot of things so I never knew.”
Levine-O'Leary came to Podolak's defense when some of Brandon's friends and family initially had a hard time forgiving him. “I told them to put themselves in his shoes,” she said.
She's also comforted him in times when they both worried what Brandon's last moments were like. Having seen the wreckage and reports from the accident, Levine-O'Leary said she was certain that Brandon's death was quick, and she's taken comfort in that. “As a mom, you don't want to think about your kid lying there,” she said. “I didn't want him to be scared, and I know he wasn't; he didn't suffer.”
Brandon and his friends were out the night of April 21 as a belated celebration for his turning 21, Levine-O'Leary said. She recalled having a talk with him about safety precautions and particularly about drinking and driving. Brandon was never one to enjoy buckling his seat belt and the driver's side belt on his truck still sticks, she said.
According to Levine-O'Leary, Podolak told her he'd had two beers that night while the others, including Brandon, were much less restrained in their celebration.
They were all irresponsible, she said, “because we're all 10-feet tall and bulletproof when we're young.”
What aggravates the wounds even more, particularly for Podolak, said Levine-O'Leary, is “he was trying to be the more responsible one.”
Levine-O'Leary said her heart sank when she learned that Podolak had been the driver that night. “If it were a kid other than Kyle that I didn't know, I'd be mad,” she said.
The boys were friends from the age of 9 thanks to a mutual love of fishing, she said, and she always viewed Podolak as Brandon's protector. “I want him [Podolak] to know that he's not a bad influence. He's a good kid and he doesn't deserve this at all. … If he goes to jail, it's going to ruin him. He's not going to be the same when he comes out.”
Levine-O'Leary said she expects this first year after Brandon's death to be difficult, and so far it's proven to be true as the family marked Mother's Day and the Fourth of July – Brandon's favorite holiday. But in the hardships, she believes he's coming to her through family friends.
A friend recently told her about a dream she'd had involving driving with Brandon down a road. When they get to the end, he turned to the friend and said, “I know my mom hates that I'm here. Tell her I love her.”
A friend of Brandon's, who consulted a psychic, told Levine-O'Leary that Brandon said they were just out having fun that night and “I didn't feel a thing.”
The psychic's message was dampened by an additional message that Brandon couldn't pass through to “the other side” until Levine-O'Leary could let him go.
“I don't know how to do that,” she said.
Since Brandon's death, Levine-O'Leary had been using her son's pole on the fishing trips she'd taken with Podolak, and she never caught a fish.
Until this week. “We were both so excited,” she said.
No longer feeling the need to keep the pole, she's giving it to Brandon's brother.
It's just a fishing pole, but it's a start.