Standing near the fireplace in a room overlooking a snow-covered meadow, it was easier for Carol and Tom Insley to talk Monday about how they built this new home for young adults with traumatic brain injuries than about the son who napped at its center in a wheelchair.
For a decade, the couple’s days have revolved around caring for Aaron, now 32. The additional labor of the last few years — building and just last week opening the new facility in West Lakeland Township, north of Afton — is a testament to their devotion.
When Aaron on Monday became the third resident of the 4,600-square-foot Granite House — a fourth will move in next week — it marked the culmination of the couple’s dream, but ushered in a new reality: “Tom and I have to repurpose our lives now,” Carol Insley said.
On Thanksgiving weekend in 2007, Aaron and his brother Richard were less than a mile from the family home in Lake Elmo when their car went off the road and hit a tree.
Richard, 23, did not survive. Aaron, then 21, suffered a severe brain injury. After five months in a coma stimulation program, he was stable but had not regained full consciousness.
A year after the crash, the Insleys brought Aaron home, opting against long-term care facilities filled with residents who were much older and more fragile than their son.
“It’s a different dynamic with adult children,” Carol said. “Aging parents transitioning into a nursing home is a natural part of life. There’s nothing natural about being there at 21.”
Shortly after moving Aaron back home, the Insleys floated the idea of creating a place where young adults like Aaron could live in a family-like setting built to support their needs. In 2014, one of Aaron’s caregivers, Anna Bohnen, asked Tom and Carol if they were still interested.
“If you build it, I’ll help run it,” said Bohnen, now executive director of Granite House.
Within a year, the Insleys started a nonprofit, assembled a board of directors, launched a website and acquired about 5 wooded acres in West Lakeland Township.
Since retiring as a chemical engineer four years ago, Tom Insley has hardly stopped working on Granite House. He’s quick to point out the projects left: windows that still need trim, the porch yet to be screened in, a hydrotherapy tub to install, a sensory garden to be planted come spring.
Tom and Marge Norris had cared for their daughter, Tammie, at home for more than 50 years before she moved into Granite House. She suffered brain damage from an illness when she was just a toddler.
“Tom and Carol are saints,” Tom Norris said. “This place is a great relief and an answer to our prayers.”
‘In a good place’
The name, Granite House, was Tom’s idea. He and his two sons had summited Montana’s Granite Peak on separate occasions, and he and Aaron made the 12,800-foot pinnacle just a few months before the crash.
For months before the big move, Carol Insley talked to her son about the home they were building for him, about his father’s work, about the reason for the home’s name.
She will probably never know how much of it he understood, but on Monday as he was introduced to Granite House and his new housemates, Aaron was calm. Gone was the anxiety he sometimes shows in unfamiliar places. He seemed to recognize staffers, many of whom had worked with him before.
Maybe Aaron also sensed his parents’ mix of emotions that morning, their relief and pride and love and heartache. Maybe he could see how every part of the house was designed for families like theirs.
Both parents lingered at the house on Aaron’s first morning, delaying their goodbyes and the short drive to their own home, an empty nest once again. As founders, they’ll stay busy with the nonprofit; as parents, they’ll spend time visiting Aaron. But the possibilities of a real retirement are almost overwhelming.
“Every day for the last 10 years, I’ve thought, ‘What have I done today that hasn’t been affected by the accident?’ ” Carol said.
On Monday night, after a quick call to check on Aaron, Tom and Carol made dinner together. The next morning, Carol slept in, no longer needing to worry about checking on Aaron if he woke up in discomfort. “We are just really confident that he’s in a good place,” Carol said.
One of the first items placed in Aaron’s new room was a photo of father and son on the summit of Granite Peak, grinning and holding hands. Looking at the photo Monday, Tom grew quiet and discreetly wiped his eyes.
“It’s just terrific to have him here,” he finally said.