This is a post I’ve thought long and hard about doing. I’ve put it off, reconsidered, reviewed and revamped it so much. It is a hard subject for me and it is no way like anything else I’ve done or expect to do. You see, it has been twenty years this month since my son’s devastating wreck. It has truly been a life time ago, even though I can remember it so clearly. The past two decades have been such a journey, not only for me, and Luke, but his sister, our family and friends who have traveled with us. There are so many people I wish I could go back to thank and show them what has become of that very broken young man.
Luke has surpassed all expectations and then some. While my Luke of today is not the Luke I had the early summer of 1995, he is the one I have and I love him with my whole heart. Yes, he is a challenge and there are days I want to shake him until his eyes roll, but by all rights, I should not have him at all. Unfortunately, his story is a common one in so many ways. Too many young people are killed and maimed in vehicle accidents, and he is but one of them. However, our story is not common in just as many ways.
If his wreck had been five years or even one year before, the outcome would have been so different. In all probability he would not have survived at all. He is still a wonder and in some ways, an experiment. People with his injuries just did not survive and if they did, they were so severely damaged they could not live a “normal” life. There was not a road map telling us what to expect five, ten or twenty years down the line. We are just now understanding what the future can hold for traumatic brain injury survivors like him. And thank God we do have the Lukes and all we have learned from them over these years as more and more brain injured young men and women are returning home from military duties.
Funny how none of our kids had a broken bone in their childhoods. That would include three rough and tumble boys and four equally active girls. Then Luke had to break his head. Fortunately, he did break his head as his skull fracture allowed for the brain swelling. Even though it allowed bacteria in, that was important. For the longest time he was such a disturbing sight. All the tubes running in and out of his head and body, numerous IV drips, one eye completely swollen shut and the utter stillness of a coma. But Amanda and I climbed in his bed there in the ICU and talked to him and read to him and laughed because while she has always loved her little brother, what sister does not tease. I think he heard the laughter, because how could he not hear that sound?
I find it interesting that looking back and feeling back, what I feel is deep, unreserved love and comfort. I was surrounded by my family, who grieved with me but also celebrated his life and what the future could hold. I was wrapped by the arms of so many friends who loved me and supported me. I don’t remember the fear and the pain, just the love and peace they gave me. I found strength and comfort in my faith that I’d never needed to before. And believe it or not, there was humor. I come from people who love life so much we laugh in the face of adversity. So we whistled in the dark.
Then he woke up. And there was still so much of Luke there. Granted, it was a different Luke. Amanda calls him the Walk In Luke. I love that the only person he knew was his sister. He never hesitated as to who she was. Well, her and Reba McEntire. She was the first one who heard him speak and at first we had a hard time believing he spoke to her as he would not make a sound for anyone else. Then when he would speak, it was just to her. It took several months before he knew who I was, but that was okay, I knew him. When he was at Baylor, he called me Mrs. James, and said he knew that was my name because Mrs. James is nice.
There is a world class rehabilitation center specifically for brain injuries in Arkansas called Timber Ridge. The nine months he spent there were incredible. What they are able to do for people is nothing short of miraculous. He learned to walk, eat, take care of himself and thrive there. The staff spent a lot of time with the families too, explaining and teaching and trying to prepare us as best they could for what we could expect. But that was such a difficult task, because it was so hard to know what to expect. As I said before, there were few people who survived the injuries that just a short time ago would have been fatal and that were functional. There just were not that many long term survivors of Luke’s type of injuries to go by. In fact, we are still finding out new things as each year goes by.
One of the things I was told to expect, is that Luke’s emotions would be dampened. That meant that he would not feel extreme emotions at all. He would not get really angry nor would he get really happy. It was possible he would not laugh much, but then again, he would not feel deep sadness either. A curse followed by a blessing. Some of this has held true but not all. He can get very, very angry (usually at me, but then isn’t that how it goes?), but it does not last long. It is almost impossible for him to feel embarrassment. He does feel sadness to a point, but not to the depth of other people. And that I consider a good thing. He did feel sadness and grief when his grandparents died, but it was short lived and he dwells on fond memories.
But what I hated the most was not hearing him laugh. I had always loved the sound of him giggling. He would get so tickled and had the funniest “hee, hee, hee” laugh you have ever heard. Watching Tim Allen’s “Tool Man” routine would send him into gales of laughter that was as funny to watch as Tim was. The thought of not hearing that sound again hurt. Then, about a year after the wreck, a friend was over and showing me a book she had bought for her son, “The Stinky Cheese Man”. Luke was with me for the weekend and she was reading it to us. I laughed, she laughed and Luke grinned. Then, slowly he began to chuckle, then giggle and then came the “hee, hee, hees”. He laughed until tears rolled down his face and he had to hold his stomach. And oh how I laughed and cried. He still doesn’t laugh as much as he did, but he can really get wound up and it is such a joyful sound, my favorite sound in the world.
Today, most people don’t recognize that Luke is damaged. So many of the things we expected to happen didn’t. He didn’t have the great personality changes so many have had. In some ways, he became more of what he was. He was always gentle and kind, he still is. His patience with the elderly and infirm is amazing. He loves little children (unless they are too loud or crying, that upsets him). He does not judge, but that can be a problem sometimes. His best friend is an elderly black man across the street. I love seeing them head off to drink coffee. While his speech and mannerisms are more precise in many ways, he has to be reminded sometimes that there are some things that just are not appropriate to say. Basically, when one first meets Luke, one feels something is “off” but can’t quite tell what. Nort never knew the Before Luke, just this one. And he loves him and has more patience with him than I do most of the time.
Do I wish this had never happened? Hell yes. Do I think it was unfair? Hell yes. But I have my son and I love him so much and that is something that some people don’t get to have. I don’t play the What If game, ever. I do forget sometimes to remember the What Could Have Been and when I do, I’m brought to my knees. I could have lost him, and I didn’t.
So, this year we mark a milestone. Twenty years. Wow. And if that is not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. I am pretty sure that when I ask Luke what he wants to do to celebrate, he is going to say, “Go eat some seafood!” And you know what, that’s exactly what we will do.