All parents are faced with the same common questions while raising their children. We were no different. Will we be good parents? Will our boys be healthy? How will they do in school? What professions will they choose? Will they meet their soulmate and make us grandparents? These are normal, casual, and expected questions until your worst nightmare becomes a reality. For us, the nightmare was a fatal car accident that took our firstborn son and left our only surviving son with a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and a life without his brother, his best friend.
When we answered a knock on our door in the early hours of the morning expecting to see our sons, we were instead looking into the bleak faces of police officers as questions immediately started formulating. Because of the protective layer of shock that consumed my body, I couldn’t audibly ask the searing questions that I so desperately needed to be answered: What caused the accident? Did my boys suffer? How long did they wait for help? The agonizing questions kept swirling in my head, spinning like a washing machine stuck on the spin cycle.
The once casual questions of early parenthood turned into heart-wrenching screams, assaulting my heart like a machine gun stuck in automatic mode. Unfortunately, some of my questions were answered without being voiced: Aaron wouldn’t get to experience the magical moment of saying, “I do!” He was robbed of the joys of fatherhood. No more hunting trips with his buddies. No more quality time with his brother. Family beach vacations for the four of us are now memories of the past.
In the blink of an eye for our sons, and with an unwelcomed knock on our door for my husband and me, our family changed in a way that we could not even begin to comprehend. While we didn’t physically change addresses, it felt as if we had morphed into a new life full of unknowns. The chapter of our life as an intact family of four was removed from our parental handbook; in return, hospital staff offered a manual about TBI, and the funeral home handed us a brochure addressing grieving the loss of a child. These resources were meant to be a comfort, but all I wanted to do was find a shredder and do to those resources exactly what the accident did to me, tear them into a million pieces, with no chance of being put back together in the same way again.
The merry-go-round of questions left me feeling queasy from the never-ending thoughts of what’s next. The questions changed with each season of recovery coupled with each season of grief; Will Steven survive, what will recovery look like? How will I plan a life celebration for Aaron? How do I go about securing resources for Steven’s rehabilitation and recovery? How does a family recover from such a catastrophic loss? When will we grieve? Will our marriage survive the greatest test of our 32 years together? Will our family, friends, and community continue to be there for us?
As we watched our surviving son fight his way back to us, the recovery road wasn’t easy. There were insurance battles. There were tears when therapists gave up too easily. And then there was our favorite: reminding healthcare providers that Steven could answer their questions himself, and on top of that, they didn’t have to yell—his TBI didn’t cause deafness. If I sound a bit sarcastic, it’s because TBI has forced us to encounter the worst of the worst coupled with the best of the best. There are defeats that lead to tears and celebrations that are never taken for granted.
TBI alone causes a unique kind of grief, but when it collides with devastation from the death of your other child, it causes guilt for smiling. Laughter is followed by tears, not the kind of welcomed tears from a belly laugh, but tears from the remnants of a broken heart and ultimately experiencing a sense of sadness every single day, even when feeling happiness. It’s a complex journey.
I remember in the early days following the accident. Amid the chaos, and despite the unknowns, my husband and I joined hands and hearts asking God to give us the physical and emotional strength to make whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure that we were by Steven’s side providing security and support, all while doing everything humanly possible to keep Aaron’s memory alive.
As we approach five years since the knock on our door, we are thankful that Steven doesn’t let his TBI define him. We proudly watch as he sets, pursues, and achieves goals. TBI is an invisible disease; it can be very lonely if people are unwilling to get out of their comfort zone, become educated, and just show up. We are thankful for those that see beyond Steven’s TBI and have the privilege of being exposed to his positive outlook on life. He possesses a never-give-up attitude and an infectious smile that reminds me of his brother.
Each day my heart experiences a tidal way of emotions that threatens to sweep me off my feet. By the grace of God, I stay grounded, always asking myself two life-sustaining questions:
What would Aaron want me to do?
What does Steven need?
I choose to believe that Steven needs and deserves the same mom he and his brother have always known, a mom who offers unconditional love, puts family first, forgives freely and never gives up. I know this is what Aaron would want.
Life goes on with traumatic brain injuries, with the loss of loved ones, with broken hearts, and unanswered questions. I am committed to remaining by Steven’s side as he continues healing both physically and emotionally, and I will speak Aaron’s name daily to keep his memory alive. I will continue to travel this path that was paved for me with grace and faith, trusting in strength that comes from God who so graciously restores my depleted strength daily.