My Stepmom's Traumatic Brain Injury Unthawed Our Icy Relationship

A car accident was the catalyst for a new start.

Stepmom teaching life lessons after traumatic brain injury swan24718968, halfpoint | Canva

In March of 1982, I received an urgent phone call from my aunt. "There’s been an accident. It’s your dad — and Denice. You need to get to the hospital now. Hurry.”

At twenty-two, I’d already lost my only brother in a car accident. Now this. A Chevy Impala crashed into Dad’s small commuter car, a Dodge Colt. The ambulance crew found him collapsed over the steering wheel, unconscious and broken. They radioed for Life Flight.


The rescue helicopter landed and flew up away fast with my father, rushing him to Emmanuel Trauma Hospital. Then, the emergency workers found Dad’s girlfriend, Denny, squeezed under the passenger dash. They rushed her to a hospital nearby, the not-as-good Willamette Falls Hospital.

I don’t know why they didn’t send the helicopter back for Dad’s girlfriend.

RELATED: My Husband's Tragic Accident Tested My Marriage Vows

Her injuries were bad. Later, Dad and I agreed they were worse than his — and his were grievous. His chest was crushed — a flail chest — one kidney ripped in half, his heart bruised. His right leg was destroyed. He was in an intensive care unit for weeks, going in at 210 pounds and emerging at 140.


But we agreed: her injuries were worse, as they affected her brain, her thinking, and her memory.

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) does a number on a person. I knew nothing about TBI’s back then. Denny hit the windshield hard. She was in a coma for two solid weeks. I visited her, and she lay under a white sheet. I had to touch her gently to see if she was warm.

When she woke up, she could talk, but not much. Both her legs and hands were broken. I was overwhelmed with caring for Dad — up at a different hospital and clinging to life, so I didn't get to visit her as often as I would have liked.


I worked full-time. My unusual love life — a guy and a girl — somewhat fell apart. The boyfriend, fourteen years older, helped but got annoyed fast. Dad was always a handful, and now he took my attention away 24/7.

My girlfriend understood. She knew Dad was my heart, especially as my little brother was dead and gone. Of my other immediate family, my sister moved away. Mom was drowning her grief for my brother in alcohol. And that aunt who phoned? She was taking care of my grandparents.

So, it was me. Just me.

RELATED: How Being In A Car Accident Changed My Outlook On Life

After several months, Dad and Denny got out of their respective hospitals. I moved home to take care of them. They were in wheelchairs and couldn’t do much. The hospitals kept them as long as they could. Then, they had therapy. Therapists determined they could be independent. That was a joke. They weren’t. 


I got help to build a wheelchair ramp at our family home and greeted the medical ambulance when it brought them home.

Thus began a year that was frustrating and difficult, but not without some learning for me.

As it turned out, my stepmom-to-be wasn’t the major floozie Mom said she was. Sure, she was a lead role in my parent’s marriage drama — as the queen of hearts who stole my dad. But I had given her the short shrift. She was a smart, sympathetic woman with a lot going on in her mind, and now she dealt with a battered body. A concert pianist, but now both hands were broken. I noticed and considered all of this. She was courageous, sitting at her piano and gently touching the keys. It would take three years before she could play again. She worked hard. I learned from her courage and persistence.

Denny never once blamed Dad for the accident. It wasn’t his fault, but her adult children — in their twenties, like me — made snide remarks. They blamed Dad.


“That car pulled out in front of us,” Denny said, “It wasn’t his fault!” She was his champion even as she shook pain medications out of their bottles. They were a solid team now.

When Dad and I were alone, he told me, “Deb, I’m responsible for her. She was my passenger. I’ll never leave her.”

I saw a new side of Dad. He was a protector. After a year, we came to realize the full extent of Denny’s injuries and how her life had changed. She had horrific seizures. This surprised Dad and me. She dropped to the ground, striking her head, and blackening her eyes. It was frightening.

We advocated for her hard, getting her set up with seizure medications and off the road — yes, she was driving again. Dad said, “Honey, you’ll hurt someone else.” She relinquished the keys to her red Mustang. From Denny, I learned grace and letting go.


RELATED: Why You Need To Let Go Of The Things You Cannot Change

In time, I moved out and began my life again, but Dad and Denny never forgot how I cared for them. I can’t say Denny was grateful — she couldn’t remember that much. She knew me as someone she could trust though, and said she loved me. And I loved her, too, despite many awkward moments with her. She was unfiltered at times and had a short fuse — as many people with TBIs do.

She did not hold back hard truths. That is perhaps the interesting aspect of a traumatic brain injury. She wasn’t an assertive or direct person before the accident, said Dad, but she was now.


When my sister sent me men’s socks for a Christmas present — I was a pretty young woman — Denny said, “Maybe that’s how she sees you, as masculine.” Hearing that, I felt devastated and hurt. Denny couldn’t help it. My sister shopped at discount stores. She’d promised me cute workout socks, to go with my white tennis shoes. These weren’t pink or aqua, that’s for sure. Black gold-toe men’s socks, size 9–11.

When I left crumbs on the kitchen counter, Denny said, “You’re just like your dad. Can’t you ever clean up? You’re such a slob.” Never mind I had spent the day driving her around, following and catching her when she fell, getting her lunch, and reminding her to take her pills. I took a deep breath and wiped the counter down.

Her temper was outrageous, owing to her brain damage. One night over a family dinner, my boyfriend asked her about my painting skills — long a debatable issue. I’d painted the interior of her home and dripped on a few baseboards. Denny became so furious she shook. She raged and screamed, and I feared she would have a seizure. Dad calmed her, and I kicked my boyfriend under the table and stared at him. He had no idea at that time of the severity of her health issue. After that, he was more cautious. He learned as we all did.

For decades, I treated her with the utmost love and kindness, and despite her injuries, she had much wisdom and empathy to share with me too. Denny was wonderful when my life fell apart. I will never forget her kindness.


I moved home from overseas, heartbroken because my marriage was in shambles. We sat in the living room and talked it out, over a box of See’s chocolates. Denny, my precious stepmom, listened carefully. I cried. She ate a chocolate and offered me one. We sat together in the living room, Dad nearby. He didn’t want to weigh in, as he feared I would rebel and move back overseas. He knew my stepmom would steer me right.

Finally, I disclosed the whole ugly story — my husband’s cheating and leaving me in a hospital, miscarrying a baby. I told her all the anguish and grief. My husband’s coldness. Sleeping alone, with no one to comfort me after my precious baby was gone from my body. I cried myself to sleep, holding a carved wooden bird in my hands. It was not a happy life. Not at all.

She said, “I would never advise anyone to divorce, as it’s miserable and difficult. After listening to your situation, I can tell you without a doubt it’s your only option. Get out of there. Never go back. Just stay here. You’ll rebuild your life. Don’t give him one more week of your life.”


I listened to her. I didn’t just rebuild a life. In time, I rebuilt a wonderful life of love and family and a master’s degree. I started a new career — teaching English at the high school level. I competed in triathlons, found a wonderful new partner, and went to bed with a man who laughed with me. A man who cried with me when our parents died. They are all gone now.

My second husband has been, for the last twenty years, the light of my life. Just like Denny said, I rebuilt my life.

For all of her love and advice, I remember my stepmother and placed her on a pedestal in my heart. How I learned from her. With gratitude, I lay flowers on her headstone. She made a difference in my life.

RELATED: To The Stepmom Who Made My Family Whole Again


Debra G. Harman is a memoirist and author. A publisher on Medium, she enjoys working with a team of writers. She's a retired English teacher and a world traveler.