Monday, May 25, 2009
How a Boy Made Family Stronger
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
The journey begins six years ago on a dark road just before midnight.
Carla Laweka is driving home to Albuquerque after a long day delivering eldest child Kayla's high school graduation cards to relatives scattered along the rugged countryside of the Zuni Pueblo.
She and Kayla give each other high-fives, happy the task is behind them. Snuggled and seat-belted between them is youngest son, Nicky, 4.
"He went with me everywhere," Carla remembers.
They called him "Little Man" because he possessed a sageness, an ability to articulate beyond his years, even if it often revealed itself in self-promoting tattles on Kayla and brother Kevin ("They didn't wash their hands, but I did").
Kayla was the first to see the headlights bouncing wildly toward them.
"Mom!" she screamed. Carla saw them, too, but she couldn't steer fast enough. Her arm flew up instinctively to protect her children from the impact.
But a mother's arm is no match for a one-ton pickup barreling head-on at 70 mph.
In the oily aftermath of twisted metal and broken glass, Carla realized she could no longer feel Nicky next to her.
The crash had torn the tiny boy from his seat belt, slammed his skull against the dashboard and smashed his small body under the floor board.
The brain damage was significant, irreparable.
"They characterized him as a vegetable," says Kenny Laweka. "My son and us. We were never whole after that day."
It was May 10, 2003, and the Lawekas' journey had veered horribly off course.
"It was a journey of obstacles," Kenny says, recalling the next years of struggling with health-care providers, devastated finances and a justice system that took three months to make an arrest in their son's case — and that, only after that man was involved in another drunken crash.
Randall Zunie, nursing director at Hopi Health Care Center, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in April 2004, still insisting that a mysterious hitchhiker, and not him, had been driving his truck that night.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the latest appeal in the case.
"This, though, is why we have become stronger — because of the obstacles," Kenny says. "And because of my son. What I have learned in this life, I have learned because of my son."
Nicky lost all functioning in the crash. He required a ventilator to breathe, a gastric tube to eat. He could not move, could not speak.
And yet, he told them what they needed to know.
"We found a way to talk to each other without speaking," Carla says. "We learned to read his grimaces, his tears, his heart rate. We learned he was our greatest teacher."
What Nicky taught them, they say, is patience and compassion and the strength to keep going despite those obstacles in the road.
Because of Nicky, they say, they learned to become strong advocates, unwilling to simply accept what doctors told them, unwilling to let Zunie and others like him go unpunished, unwilling to let people forget that no matter what had befallen their son, he deserved a quality of life.
They joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving, sat on victim impact panels, showed up every time Zunie tried to wiggle out of his conviction.
The latter tore the Zuni community apart, they say.
"That's why we are persona non grata back there — because we spoke out against one of our own," Kenny says. "It's family against family even now. But how could we not?"
To care for Nicky at home rather than in a hospital or rehabilitation center, Kenny quit his job as a jewelry maker and Carla quit hers as an education assistant.
"He was our life, 24/7," Kenny says. "And we accepted our life."
Carla developed an impressive, lovingly detailed daily instruction spreadsheet on how to care for Nicky. Included in the daily regimen were instructions on how often to turn him (every two hours), how to move him through his yoga, how to keep his brain stimulated and how to make his homemade vegetable broths and blue corn paste.
"The doctors were always telling us how well Nicky was cared for," she says. "He was a very healthy sick little boy."
They never gave up hope.
"I truly believed God was going to give my son back to me," Kenny says. "We hoped he was young enough so that his brain could rewire itself."
Before that could happen, the journey ended for Nicky.
Last week, the day after Mother's Day and the day after the sixth anniversary of the crash, Nicky passed away.
He was 10.
The Lawekas don't know specifically what finally took their son's life. In many ways, it doesn't matter.
With typical understated grace, they are learning to accept the latest turn in their journey.
They are thankful for the people who came into their lives to help assure Nicky's quality of life was always top priority, thankful to those who sought justice in their case.
They are thankful to their son, who even now they say guides them on their path.
"He made us strong physically, mentally and spiritually," Carla says. "We are who we are because of Nicky."
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.