November 28, 2009

I am growing weaker much more quickly now. I have to admit I am grateful that the three of you have stuck around – but also very happy that you aren't hanging around this complex on some sort of morbid death watch. The scenery is so beautiful here! Hopefully it can bring you a bit of peace as you wait for Rudy's staff to give you 'the word'.

I want to reassure you again that I am not suffering. Rudy has made certain of that. I am also not afraid. Your father, your grandparents, Oscar and even Puzzles are waiting for me with warm, open arms. And I know I will see the three of you reunited with all of us one day...but hopefully not for a very long time.

Anyway, yesterday I was writing about how families draw together during times of trouble and crisis. We've sure had our share of that, haven't we?

One of the worst days for our family – and indeed, for the entire country – was September 11, 2001. I had just finished making bacon and eggs and was trying to persuade Adam that breakfast entailed more than a piece of toast and a gulp of juice when I heard Hannah's stricken voice calling from the den.

"Mom? Mom!!!" She sounded like she was choking. We found her staring at the television, where smoke was billowing from the top of the World Trade Center. CNN's caption on the bottom of the screen was shocking and left a huge pit in my stomach.

Second plane crashes into the World Trade Center.

"Go get your father," I told Adam, and as he summoned Steve from the shower, I sat down with my arm around my ten-year-old daughter and began to process the awful truth. Two planes. This was deliberate.

Steve came flying down the hall with Adam right behind him and the kids and I sat together on the sofa in a tight group, just....staring. Your father was already on the phone, trying to gather more information.

"It can't be real," Adam speculated. "Maybe they're making a disaster movie." He just kept saying that. "It isn't real...." Hannah was crying. There were tears in my eyes, too. So many lost, innocent souls...!

Your father came away from his call reassured – at least for the moment. He hadn't been able to reach Oscar, which was odd because since Oscar's very reluctant retirement the year before (at age 70), he'd become much easier to track down. But then your father managed to find Russ, who told him Oscar had been called in to consult at a security meeting at the Pentagon.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Oscar was an expert on terrorists and their motivations and goals. We'd be in good hands if he was helping steer Security forces in the right direction. The men in the White House Security Room were in direct contact with the consultants at the Pentagon.

The first indication that even more had gone terribly wrong was a brief announcement during the awful coverage of the Trade Center tragedy. There had been reports of a fire at the Pentagon. Rumors seemed to be flying everywhere, and we were glued to the screen, not wanting to believe anything until it was officially confirmed.

Less than 15 minutes later, the announcement came. CNN had confirmed a fire at the Pentagon. Your father was back on the phone but unable to get through to Washington. Hannah had seen enough and I led her back to her room where we sat and talked quietly. She had dissolved into tears in my arms and I was trying to console her when my ear picked up the next ominous announcement from the TV in the den. The South Tower had collapsed. Things had gone from horrific to totally unthinkable. Thankfully, Hannah was unable to hear this. She was already overloaded. The entire country was in a state of shock and overload.

When Hannah had sobbed herself out, she curled up in a tiny ball in her bed and began drifting off into a restless sort of sleep. I covered her with her blanket and headed back to the den. Your father was still unable to get through to Washington by phone. Like the rest of the country, we could only stare at the television as each new report was worse than the last.

It was more than 48 hours before we were able to reach Russ. That was when we found out that Oscar had never made it into the Command Center. He was less than a block from the parking area when the plane hit. Traffic wasn't moving at all, and when it became obvious what had happened, he abandoned his car and rushed to the scene to offer whatever help he could. He had already escorted several Pentagon staffers to safety and gone back inside when part of the west side of the Pentagon collapsed. The fact that he died a hero was of no consolation. Far too many heroes lost their lives that day. Even one was too many...and thousands of souls (who were only trying to live their lives and do their jobs) were gone.

Oscar was buried with full military honors and at the end of the service, five Austins stepped forward to place roses on the lowering casket and say their final goodbyes. I take comfort now in knowing that, just as he did in life, Oscar is waiting again to help guide me and smooth my way...

- - - - -

The entire nation was subdued (but not broken) after 9/11. I guess the same could be said for our family. For us (like so many others) it was personal. When Oscar died, we lost one of our own. Jenna had returned home from college and, after a great deal of thought, announced she would be taking the rest of the semester off. She was simply too shaken to continue. She assured us that she would return to her studies at the start of the new semester...and she did, taking extra courses each term so she'd still be able to graduate with her friends.

Hannah became even more introspective than usual, to the point where we decided to send her to a counselor, just to be on the safe side. After all, she was about to enter preadolescence and the lightning bolt of grief and loss that hit our family had struck her especially hard. We all attended several sessions, as a sort of re-bonding process and then Hannah continued on her own for several more months. The counselor finally told us that although she was quiet and more content on her own than in large groups, she was entirely within the norm – and in fact was extremely well-adjusted. Her journals and her creative writing were her lifelines and as long as she was willing to reach out to her family and at least a few close friends, we had nothing to worry about.

It was Adam's trouble that we didn't see coming. We had made the choice when homeschooling our children that they would each attend 'normal' high school when the time came. When it was Adam's turn, he'd seemed to flourish there. He excelled in every sport he tried out for and had even begun to date. Whether it was the after-effects on him from 9/11, adolescent hormones or teenage rebellion (or maybe a combination of all three), we still don't know, but in the second semester of his sophomore year, we got the call that every parent dreads. It was after midnight and we were already angry and more than a little worried. This wasn't the first time Adam had missed his curfew, but mothers' instinct was already turning somersaults in my gut when the phone rang. It was the police. Adam had been one of half a dozen teens found drinking in a car parked at a bonfire. Yes, in a car.

His protest that they hadn't driven anywhere after drinking fell on deaf ears. While it's true that Steve or I could have pulled a few well-placed strings and had Adam's citation dropped...we chose not to. This was a bed he'd made for himself, and we intended to see that he spent some time lying in it. He'd already made his appointment to take his first driver's test, but we immediately revoked our permission and forced him to wait another year to learn to drive. He paid every penny of the fine himself and when he was thrown off of the football team because of the gross infraction of the rules, we consoled him but did not intervene. It was one of the best decisions your father and I ever made. Adam's grades went back up to where they belonged and there were no further calls from the school...or the police.

Your father and I always did the best we could, but clearly Ozzie and Harriet (or even Mike and Carol Brady), we were not. The three of you fought tooth-and-nail at times, and sometimes went days (or longer) without speaking to each other. And yet, when one of you was in trouble, you knew you always had two of the staunchest allies in the world. When Jenna needed help convincing your father and I that a semester off was what she needed most, her brother and sister peacefully (but forcefully) joined the discussion. When Adam got into his trouble, his sisters were unable to convince us to negate his punishment, but they did show us that they still loved their brother, no matter what. And so did we. When Hannah was bullied on the playground, one word and a raised eyebrow from her older brother sent those bullies running...for good. The best times, the joyful, happy times, shone even brighter because you'd also seen each other through the worst.

One of the very worst was yet to come...when we first learned that your father was sick....

- - - - -

It started out so simply. Steve noticed a slight weakness in his limbs – the left arm as well as the bionic limbs. We'd cut back quite a bit on our old habits of swimming halfway up the coast and back or running up and down a mountain just for fun, so we assumed he was just a little out of shape. But it seemed that the more he and I tried to exercise together, to get those old bionic circuits flowing smoothly again, the worse he felt. Finally, we knew it was time to call Rudy.

- - - - -

The initial verdict from Rudy was fairly encouraging. Steve had put off his '10,000 mile tune-up' a little longer than the Doc would've liked, and he was sure with some adjustments and extra rest that everything would be okay. wasn't. Steve came home feeling fairly refreshed but soon began suffering what seemed to be mini-seizures in his limbs. Within a few days, he was too weak to get out of bed. Skipping the lab this time, Rudy put him straight into the hospital and ran every test in the book. This time, the news was grim.

The nuclear power packs, which had sustained him through all these years, were now killing him. It wasn't slow radiation poisoning (as Rudy had theorized at first), but rather the destruction of his central nervous system by the very means that had always kept him going. Rudy explained that as your father and I aged (and used the full extent of our bionics far less often), the power packs continued as they always had, supplying the same amount of strength. The intensity of that unused energy was proving itself to be far more destructive than anyone could have realized.

There were tumors, too, but they were in the earliest stages and would be of little consequence; his entire nervous system was shot. There was nothing the doctors could do other than make sure he was comfortable.

I had no choice but to gather the family together and give you the news. You were only 16, 21 and 24...far too young to lose a parent. It didn't seem fair. My heart broke a little more with every word, but you deserved to know. You took it in quietly, then each reacted in your own, personal way. Adam punched a dent in the living room wall. Jenna sobbed silently into a pillow. And Hannah...Hannah turned ghostly pale, looking like she was about to be sick as she thoroughly processed everything I'd said.

She voiced the next question for all three of you. "What's happening to Dad....will it happen to you, too?"

For that, I had no good answer. No answer at all, really. Rudy was already working on replacement power packs for me – non-nuclear, set at a much lower strength level – but it was too soon to tell if the damage might have already been done. All we could do in that regard was wait. And at that moment, rather than focus on what might happen to me...your father needed us.

We dragged out all the old photo albums and scrapbooks and spent every minute we could with him, reminiscing and just being together. I'll never forget the day the three of you brought your old toy instruments to the hospital for an impromptu Austin Family Trio reunion concert. Your father loved every minute of it, and so did I. Even Rudy cracked a smile. It was the best possible medicine.

Unfortunately, even the best medicine and the best medical care available work for only so long...

How does one write about the loss of the love of their life? The one person who has always been there, from the earliest, fondest of memories, through all the bad stuff and into the sunshine of deep, lasting love? It's a soul-crusher like no other, the knowledge that your heart has not been broken – half of it has been cruelly ripped away. I tried to keep myself at least somewhat intact, for the three of you, but in truth you held me up in the awful days after we lost your father.

You gave me the space I needed to grieve, but I knew beyond any doubt that you were there...that I wasn't alone. In one awful moment, I'd lost my best friend, my husband and the father of my children...but you were there, and that gave me a reason to keep going. You kept the house full of my favorite fresh flowers – in every room, even the bathroom. When I'd wake from the frequent naps that were an escape in the earliest days, there was always a tray with my favorite tidbits of food beside the bed, tempting me to eat. I'm not sure, but I think you even kept a waking vigil (in shifts) because whenever I'd meander out into the den, there was always someone waiting with a matter what the time of day. I should've been consoling you, but I think that – somehow – we all managed to begin to console each other.

After all, that's what families do.

- - - - -

December 5, 2009

I may not be able to write for much longer, and there are a few things I want to make sure get said, a few loose ends to tie up, so if this entry is a little disjointed, I hope you will bear with me.

There are so many things that I am thankful for! My life, which was more than twice as long as the fates originally intended. (Or was this what was intended for me, all along?) For that, I am grateful to Oscar for choosing me for this Project – when I was about the furthest thing from an obvious choice – and Rudy and his world-class team for saving me and taking such wonderful care of me ever since.

Rudy....I wish there was something I could say or do to wipe away the look of guilt that I see in his eyes. He has nothing to feel guilty about! Today, I finished making the necessary arrangements to ensure that Rudy's genius is recognized. He deserves that, and it's something he would never seek for himself.

In the three years since we lost Steve, Rudy has worked incredibly hard. He came up with those new, lower energy power packs for me, hoping to allow me to avoid the same fate. Six months ago, when my hand first developed a tremor, we all knew what it meant, but Rudy kept tirelessly pressing on, consulting with the best neurologists from all over the globe, trying right up until this last hospital admission to find some sort of a cure.

He has not failed – not by a long shot! While my time may be just about gone, Rudy's continued research has allowed him to begin fashioning a brand-new generation of bionic limbs. They are cost-effective, safe...and they work! Very soon, the world will know what I've known for over three decades: this man is the genuine article...a Hero.

And Oscar...he took a very confused and angry former tennis pro and turned me into someone who could fend for herself in the worst possible situations – and do it with confidence. He not only taught me to survive...he helped me to thrive. And he showed me that a single person who refuses to lose their cool is far more powerful and effective than a room full of self-important penguins clucking about and not accomplishing anything.

The greatest blessing of all, the one I am most thankful for, is (of course) my family. My parents, who taught me that the rest of the universe may be in perfect order but if your family is in disarray, you have nothing. They showed me how to love wholeheartedly, enabling me to do the same. I only wish we could have had more years together...

Then...Jim and Helen Elgin. They took me in when I was probably at my most unlovable, and firmly but kindly guided me back to the human race, never letting me feel like anything less than one of their own. We weren't related by blood, but you would never have known the difference. very best friend (even when I hated him). No matter how many times I pushed him away (or even worse, couldn't remember him), he never stopped loving me and always held firmly to the knowledge that we were supposed to be together. That's the very purest sort of love – one with no surety of ever being returned, but steadfast just the same. In our case, it paid off – in spades – with three beautiful, strong, intelligent children.

I know that the three of you have chosen three very different, separate paths in life, but I also know that those paths will always have their side roads....back to each other. When your family is your touchstone, your step will never falter.

- - - - -

From the Desk of Doctor Rudy Wells

December 10, 2009

Jaime held on for two more days after writing the previous page. The end for her was peaceful and pain-free and (thankfully) her children were by her side. I am writing this postscript to her legacy so her three children will know what a remarkable woman I have always believed their mother to be.

Jaime was one of the most courageous, warm and loving souls I've ever been privileged to know. She faced her brand-new post-accident life (as a young woman of only 27) with strength and quiet dignity. Every challenge she has ever faced, she saw as an opportunity for growth. If she complained about her troubles, the interludes were brief and only served to get it all out of her system so her true positivity could then shine through.

I know that she loved the three of you (and your father) fiercely, with her entire heart and soul. Her family was her life – everything else was secondary. Always.

I also know you're aware of the overtures she had recently made on my behalf. This morning, I testified before a Senate sub-committee on the nature and the accomplishments of The Bionic Project. The press releases she engineered are due to go out first thing tomorrow. Jaime told me that she intended to see that I was finally recognized for everything I've achieved throughout the years, and even though I told her that seeing her and your father living happy, productive lives was more than enough reward for me, she has seen to it that her promise will be fulfilled.

Perhaps now that bionics will no longer be locked away in a top-secret government vault, I can use whatever number of years I have left to invent new ways to aid the disabled with safer, non-nuclear limbs that will give them new mobility and strength. Your mother and father were the ground breakers, making such innovations possible – and your mother has made certain that it will be allowed to come to pass.

She was quite a woman. I love her, I miss her – and I am forever grateful.