After the hit

Jack's mom

  • By: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2012 - 11:45 PM

Leslie Jablonski helps her son find a new path.

Leslie Jablonski looked at the empty, gray-blue walls of her son's newly renovated bedroom, trying to figure out a way to make it feel like home.

The last night Jack had slept there was Dec. 29. His room was strewn with sweaty athletic socks and cluttered with medals and photographs of him on the ice. He had stayed up late again, playing Xbox and texting his friends. Leslie turned out the lights and reminded him of his game the next day. He slept until almost noon before scrambling out the door for the holiday hockey tournament.

Now, in late September, two days before he would move back, the room was bare, the decorations of his old life too painful to see. Wide corridors were clear for his wheelchair. Metal tracks were bolted to the ceiling for equipment to lift and slide him from a hospital bed.

Leslie had read that the move might be a difficult transition. Jack wasn't eager to move back. After nine months of shuttling from one hospital to another and then moving into a temporary apartment, coming home was permanent.

And Jack would still be paralyzed.

Jack's injury had always felt temporary, especially at first. Leslie and Mike felt like they had an infant again. They washed and combed Jack's hair, fed him, gave him sips of water.

Itch! Itch! Itch! Jack used to plead from his hospital bed, summoning Leslie to scratch his face.

Max updated Twitter for him and texted his friends.

Everyone worked hard to keep the hospital room positive in those early days. Tell him a joke, Mike told Jack's hockey buddies in the hallway outside his son's room. Try to keep his spirits up.

With such support and Jack's determination, Leslie found herself believing Jack would prove the doctors wrong.

"There are miracles and there's technology ... I can't help but think in his lifetime, things are going to change," Leslie said a few weeks after the hit. "I'm not going to tell him that he's never going to walk again."

Leslie traded her public relations work, promoting shampoo and other products, for meetings with doctors in the months that followed the accident. Fueled on skim lattes and Diet Coke, she found tutors, interviewed personal care assistants, and fielded unending requests from reporters and questions from well-wishers trying to help.

A troop of friends who called themselves "Jack's other moms" sometimes stayed with Jack and ran errands while Leslie faced new tasks.

Nurses taught her to spot subtle signs of illness common in spinal cord patients. She learned how to move Jack from a chair but worried about dropping him.

"What are you doing, Mom?" Jack once squawked when she hoisted him awkwardly. "Trying to break my neck again?"

The family's tidy house filled with clutter: Cards and letters and posters and donations from strangers poured in. The grateful family wanted to acknowledge it all. Leslie set up bins marked "card only," "needs a thank-you" and "priority thank-you." But it was overwhelming.

"For the first time in my life," she sighed. "I feel like I can't get my arms around stuff."

Mike and Leslie swapped nights at home, getting Max to school and to hockey practice. One of them always slept on an extra hospital bed or foldout chair next to Jack.

Leslie sprang to his bedside when she heard his voice one night in February. His eyes were still closed.

Puck, she heard in his sleeping mumbles, then: coach. Jack was playing hockey in his dreams.

Some nights, Jack lay awake, thinking about the future and grieving for his old life.

I'm not going to be able to play again, am I, Leslie remembers him asking in the predawn stillness. My life was perfect. It was so good ... Why does it have to be taken away?

All Leslie could do was cry with him.

Reality hit in February, when Leslie walked through their house with accessibility specialists to discuss what Jack would need to move back.

They needed an elevator so Jack could get between floors. Wider corridors to accommodate his wheelchair. A bathroom with a roll-in shower and a chair. Rugs would need to be rolled up.

It would be easier to move, they told her.

Leslie stood stunned. Somehow, she had envisioned Jack being more capable by the time he got home. Would he really need all of those things? Did they have to bring the hospital home with them?

She had wanted Jack to come home fixed.

When the house was ready, friends helped Leslie unpack the family's belongings.

Her voice cracked when she talked about the special fund that builders, architects and friends had set up to make the house accessible.

"When you think about what people did to bring us home," Leslie said, "there are no words to describe the gratitude."

She rearranged some of her work boxes in her basement office, unable to imagine promoting shampoos again. That seemed frivolous now.

"It just doesn't matter anymore," she said later. "I'd rather be on a mission to make people's lives better than put volume in your hair."

A friend vacuumed the new basement man cave, a place for Jack and his buddies to hang out and watch TV.

Leslie was determined to make the room fun. She hung signed NHL jerseys on the walls. Someone hooked up the Xbox. She wanted to make it inviting for Jack's friends. It would be hard for him to go to their houses now.

The Jablonski family moved back home on a Sunday.

Leslie pulled up to the front of the house, stepped out of the car and paused. Her eyes filled with tears. She was walking into their new life.

That night, Jack was silent as she and Mike helped him get ready for bed. A couple nights later, as Leslie lay awake, Jack called for her.

I'm lying in a hospital bed in my room, looking at this, he told her. He stared at the lift tracks on the ceiling.

On Jack's 17th birthday a month later, his friends gathered in the man cave to watch football and eat tacos. Around the kitchen table, they sang "Happy Birthday," the orange glow of birthday candles lighting their faces.

Leslie thought about how much their lives had changed since Jack's last birthday, happiness to terror to now.

When the song ended, Jack smiled shyly, wheeled himself a little closer to the cake, took one deep breath and blew all the candles out.

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