The spring of 1982, my middle daughter Jen helped me drive from Utah to Virginia. Beginning of my new life. About three years later, she and her younger sister were in a catastrophic life changing accident that forever altered our lives.
Life Is Difficult
M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, now a classic, begins with three words I’ve never forgotten. Life is difficult. As I believe it’s meant to be, affirmed by the late LDS/Mormon author Truman G. Madsen in his book Eternal Man:
In [Christ’s] relationship to us, “all things are possible” that are possible. But some things are impossible. We cannot have crucial experience without having it. We cannot unfold into His fullness except in His way. We cannot develop without stress nor be perfected without suffering.
I’ve learned the truth of Peck’s and Madsen’s words through my own crucial and painful experiences. The first very painful one was playing out in 1978, the year Peck’s book was first published. This was two years before my husband of eighteen years, who had earlier declared he’d been having sexual relations with men, left me and our four children children to live with his lover. Emotionally devastated, I turned to friends and family. Then, finishing a bachelor’s degree in English at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) I applied to the creative writing graduate program at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia). I was accepted and also granted a teaching assistantship in the English Department. Seventeen-year-old Jen wanted to stay in Utah with her older sister but she insisted she go with me to help me drive. A family in our neighborhood would follow along with us, a family and business trip for them. You can read about this journey in my post Lost in Youngstown.
A new beginning. Then, three and a half years later, the fifth of February 1986, another beginning when my two youngest daughters were in the catastrophic accident I dramatized in my memoir.
Jen graduated from high school in 1983. Boys got blue robes.
She threatened not to graduate in washed out white (ha ha). She went one year to Brigham Young University, then settled in with me and her younger sister and brother in Virginia, trying to decide what to do. By the first of February 1986 she said she wasn’t going back to college. She wanted to go on a church mission. Her twenty-first birthday was in June, the age back then when a young Mormon woman could serve. Meanwhile, she needed to earn money, and was excited when she found a cashiering job at the BP station just around the corner on Galesbury Lane, a three or four minute walk to work from our townhouse. They wanted her to start Thursday morning, February sixth.
Wednesday morning, February fifth, my Datsun stalled in the rain on my way to work. I called our mechanic friend Tink. “Pray for your car,” he said as he hooked it to his tow bar. I said, “I’ve never prayed for a car.” “I mean it,” he said. “Okay. I’ll pray.” “Do you want me to drive you to work?” he asked. “I’ll see if Stephanie will let me borrow her car,” I said.
A senior at Chantilly High, Stephanie was taking her last three classes she needed for graduation. Because she was so skilled, she had completed her cosmetology course her junior year and was doing a work study after school at the Hair Cuttery less than ten minutes away. She said okay, she trusted me. I could use her car. Her boyfriend would drive her to work.
Mid-afternoon when I got home from work (thirty hours a week at a citizens lobby that no longer exists) Jen was putting the last picture of her life in her photograph album, ready to start her new job in the morning. “Well, Jen,” I said as I turned the pages, “you’ve had an interesting life.” Later I would remember how I felt: as if we were waiting for something – something – that quiet drizzly winter afternoon, never expecting my good-driver non-drinking daughters would ever be in a catastrophic accident.
I’ll never forget that day, Jen and I sitting side by side on the sofa eating ice cream and watching television. Eight days earlier the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after lift-off into space. I still have President Ronald Reagan’s image in my mind that tragic day as he gave a haunting eloquent tribute I can now find through the miracle of the personal computer that didn’t exist back then.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
I’ve never forgotten the last time I saw my daughters either, about to embark on their new journey.
Stephanie with her boyfriend, a picture taken not long before the accident.
Photograph of the Old Jen wearing the new vest she bought a few days before the accident. A vest that would be shredded when they cut her and her sister out of the mangled car. I think I took this picture with my “old fashioned” camera – no digital anything in 1986. I do remember her standing in the foyer, in front of the door, at quarter to nine that night, ready to pick up her sister from the Hair Cuttery. “You don’t like night driving,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go?” “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Mom. We might be a little late. I need to stop at the pharmacy on our way home.” Then she opened and closed the door behind her. Goodbye.
Upstairs, my son’s door was closed, a slit of light at the bottom. No sounds of the Grateful Dead, his current musical interest. Maybe he was reading. I needed to read for my graduate class the next evening. My eyes kept closing.
I awoke with a start. Ten minutes after ten. Stephanie and Jen must have come home. But the light I had turned on in the hallway was still on. One of them should have turned it off. I remembered Jen wanted something at the pharmacy less than ten minutes from home. Where were they?
I was drifting to sleep again when I heard the phone ringing and ringing and ringing. I stumbled downstairs. A man’s voice. My daughters. An accident. What happened? What happened? At the moment of impact I freeze, but I have to keep moving. I called my Mormon bishop who drove me to the emergency room where a police officer, a kind man with children of his own, had to submit an accident report that I once upon a time scanned into my computer, and amazingly still have.
Names, dates. The people involved. A young woman driving a pickup truck legally into the intersection, not realizing in time that my daughter Jen was turning on the green light into the truck’s path. Stephanie would remember leaning toward her sister and crying out, “Jen, look out for that truck!”
The impact crushed Stephanie’s pelvis and twisted Jen’s brain stem – closed head injury, bruised brain. Later Stephanie would feel guilty. If only she had driven her car home. Accidents happen, I told her. What’s important is how we face our trials; how we help each other.
Years later Stephanie told me she felt “someone” with them that night. I believe there was. When our friend Tink told me he never found anything in my Datsun that would have made it stall that morning, we both believed the accident was to be. It’s our faith that God, who knows the end from the beginning, knew Jen would turn left on that green light; knew the girls would be badly injured.
Knew they wouldn’t be wearing their seat belts.
Before the Accident
Two days after the accident, Tink drove me to Willow Springs Towing to see the crushed car. Both of us shivering in the snow he said, “If Stephanie had worn the belt, she wouldn’t have been able to lean toward Jen. Her legs might have been crushed.” Crushed in the mass of metal that had once been her beloved car.
Would it have helped Jen if she’d worn the belt? All depends on the how and where of impact. We’d never know, but I was grateful Stephanie’s legs weren’t crushed. A crushed pelvis wasn’t good either, but the doctors hoped it would heal in traction, which it did slightly off-center. What about Jen? The emergency doctor said, We can’t predict anything with brain injuries.
At Willow Springs Towing I took a deep breath, praying for strength to face the future. I sensed it was going to be a very long journey, but I never felt alone.
I knew Stephanie would ask about her beloved car, and she did. I told her we could replace her car but we couldn’t replace her.
In Traction: Visit from her Older Sister
Stuffed Animals From Her Boyfriend
Six weeks after the crash, mid-March of 1986, Stephanie came home to a wheelchair a friend loaned us, and crutches from the hospital. Chantilly High School sent an English and history tutor to our house three days a week so she could graduate with her class. She walked across the podium without her crutches. Family and friends cheered, including her father.
He had flown from Utah for the ceremony, and afterward a neighbor took our picture. A beautiful blue-sky-flowers-and-sunshine day. Father, mother, three children all smiling. We look like a happy family. Not quite. Jen comatose at the hospital, father soon to fly West to his partner, Stephanie on crutches. My son cried when his father left, and I almost did too. I still missed the life we had together for nineteen years.
It would be over four months before Stephanie could go back to hair cutting part-time, and almost a year before she could work full time. Every day for several months, outside on crutches. She was determined.
Senior picture before the accident, and her favorite graduation picture. Mine, too.
Twice a week Jen had some physical therapy. No progress. Fairfax Hospital didn’t have the rehabilitative resources she needed. Mt. Vernon Hospital in Alexandria had one of the best rehabilitation programs in the country. But I had no insurance, and my ex-husband’s company, a small organization, wouldn’t pay anything. I didn’t know what to do except pray. Church members prayed too, and fasted for my daughters. God’s hands were working behind the scenes as I would soon discover.
A few days after Stephanie’s graduation Jen’s daytime nurse told me Mt. Vernon Hospital had an agreement with Fairfax Hospital to take two patients who couldn’t pay. Because of Jen’s alert eyes, the head physiatrist at Mt. Vernon chose her for their rehab program. The state would pay for therapy as long as she improved.
Jen still couldn’t move anything voluntarily on her body six weeks later when my children and I attended a family conference. Nurses weren’t smiling. Neither was the doctor as he looked at the papers on his lap and said we should probably start thinking about a nursing home.
I cried out in my mind no, remembering a priesthood blessing a month after the accident: You will astound the doctors and nurses. I had witnessed the power of the priesthood in my life, and couldn’t believe she was going to live the rest of her life as a vegetable. I asked our friends Tink and Brent to give her another blessing. Brent told Jen, It’s up to you.
Two days later, July fourth, Independence Day as Jen now calls it, her daytime nurse was smiling. All of the nurses were smiling. Jen had voluntarily moved the pointer finger of her left hand when they asked her a question. They were going to keep her at Mt. Vernon. Moving a finger, just one finger voluntarily, classified her as no longer comatose.
At the next family conference everyone was smiling. “Every time we think Jen’s leveled out, she does something astounding,” the doctor said. My heart leaped. The priesthood blessing: you will astound the doctor and nurses. Progress seemed slow to us but not to the medical staff. They considered it astounding that she could turn her head toward sound; that she could move her eyes up for yes and down for no; that she could point to letters on a communication board and spell sentences. (Photo: visit from her sisters, Stephanie holding the communication board.)
One day when the hospital staff were wondering out loud how her mind was, on the communication board she spelled my-mind-is-fine with the index finger of her good left hand. (Another miracle: she was left-handed before the accident, and this is her usable hand.) I was ecstatic! Now we knew that she still had her verbal abilities.
Another day in this time period her daytime nurse asked me, “You’re Mormons, aren’t you?” I told her we were. She she said knew how we helped each other. Could I ask the people in my church if they’d visit her? She was at a point where mental stimulation was crucial.
I visited her every day, and groups of young people and their leaders, along with the full-time missionaries, took turns coming daily. There were many priesthood blessings. I wrote what I remembered after each one. Jen was told: “You will probably have some pain for the rest of your life, but you can learn how to endure it. Trials are given to perfect us. In the Spirit World we didn’t know what pain was. We had to come to earth to experience it.” She was definitely experiencing a lot of pain, and so were we. Emotional pain.
Worst case of contractures they had ever seen. The doctor casted her arms and legs, hoping the casts would straighten them. He removed the casts, and the arms and legs contracted again. He put fluid into her arms, hoping that would loosen them. It helped a bit. He cut the tendons behind her knees the way a seamstress snips a tight line of stitching to loosen the material, cautioning us not to think this would help her walk. It would only loosen some of the tension. Some days when I visited she looked pretty droopy. But step by step she got perkier. (This is a good-day picture.)
When they removed the trach from her neck she couldn’t talk but she could wail. Some days exiting the hospital elevator, I heard wailing and knew it was Jen. She also moaned in physical therapy. It was painful because her muscles were stiff and spastic.
Not so painful speech therapy, but very difficult as well. To talk, said that therapist, she first had to re-learn how to swallow food, precursor to using her vocal cords. Some days I arrived at the hospital to watch the struggle. Martha got Jen just after physical therapy. Made it difficult sometimes for Jen to stay awake, she said. She tried to get a schedule change but couldn’t. Jen did progress until finally, two days before Christmas of 1986 she talked.
Almost eleven months since the accident that day when I drove to the hospital through the cold and the snow, a hospital that now seemed like a second home. It look cheery, decorated outside and in with seasonal lights. I felt lighter than I had for months. All week I had felt that something wonderful was going to happen. But Jen didn’t look any different than three days earlier when I visited, propped upright in the bed in a fresh hospital gown, bright-eyed and alert.
Her evening nurse Carol and several others stood around her bed, all of them smiling as Carol motioned me toward Jen’s beside. Something was different. I felt it even before she opened her mouth and began saying, pausing a moment between each word, “I—love—you—Mom.” The words halting and a bit slurred but clear enough to understand.
Tears blurred my eyes as I turned to the equally tearful nurses. Tears of gratitude, tears of joy. We can’t predict anything with brain injuries. How true. But none of us – family, friends, and therapists – ever gave up. Through the grace of God and the skill of the medical staff she could talk, a wonderful Christmas gift.
She could now tell us how she felt. She could begin to piece together a new life, a reconstruction that was difficult and exhausting for all of us. But there were good times during those last nine months in rehab. One late-summer day her father was in Virginia on business and visited her. I went with them to the cafeteria as someone still needed to feed Jen. I was glad I could so I write this scene afterwards, example of her wit restored, even heightened, through therapy.
“You need to get enough sleep, Dad. You need to get to bed early,” she said.
“You think I should, huh?”
“You know, Dad, it’s early to bread, early to rise.”
He laughed. “You haven’t lost that wit.”
“I’m wit it,” she said.
There’s more about Jen’s time at Mr. Vernon in my memoir. About the wonderful and knowledgeable people who helped me get what we would need – wheelchair, tub seat, commode, hospital bed. I think I would have collapsed without their help. A therapist also taught me how to transfer her from wheelchair to car to bed a week before she was released.
And we brought her home. Thirty-one plus years ago. In this photo she’s in the yard of this first of many homes and places we have lived together. This is the time when for a year an aide van took her to the hospital to work as a volunteer – part of their out-patient program – simple clerical duties that she loved because she loved the people. She loved to talk, which she now does very well. Now they can’t shut me up she will say.
Her right arm is fused at a 45-degree angle, movement limited. Left leg doesn’t move voluntarily. Twisted brain stem left her with no balance. She can’t stand by herself, but she isn’t paralyzed and can bear weight. Otherwise I couldn’t take care of her. For twenty-two years she’s stood almost every day in this box some friends constructed. It’s kept her legs strong enough for standing and transfers. She’ll never walk in this life, we’ve accepted this, and as she ages her short-term memory weakens. I’m her full-time caregiver. We qualify for homecare, but aids are often not very reliable. Being human I sometimes worry about the future. Then I tell myself we have always had help, and my faith in God returns. I try to live in the moment. One step at a time.
In 1986 there were no Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). If the accident had happened today, she would have been discharged from Mt. Vernon long before she talked. She might not even have been admitted because in February of 1986 the hospital wasn’t approved for Medicaid. A few months later they were, and in the end what Medicaid didn’t pay the hospital wrote off. I am still so very grateful to the awesome staff at Mt. Vernon and to God for the gifts. If I ever had the means to donate to this wonderful hospital that brought Jen back to the world I would.
There are thousands of online resources for traumatic brain injury. I found this synopsis on Brain Injury Clubhouse blog that speaks to Jen’s case: Traumatic brain injury is more common than you may realize. Such injuries common to car and motorcycle accidents, as well as sports participation, can range from mild to severe. TBIs, as they are known, cause immediate changes in everyday life for most victims. A TBI can seriously alter daily living and may result in permanent loss of functioning. A TBI is the most severe injury the brain can suffer and is often the result of a head impact. During that impact the brain actually jars, moves or twists within the protective skull.
How fragile we humans are.
Hi From My Amazing Daughter Jen