National Military Caregivers' Month

This May, Yellow Ribbon Fund is celebrating special women who are both Moms and Caregivers.

Angelia Wix, mother of three, has cared for her son, Jacob since he was injured during combat training and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which changed the lives of the Wix family forever. In addition to being a caregiver for Jacob, a wife and a mother, Angelia is also Yellow Ribbon Fund's Caregiver Coordinator for Central and Northern Kentucky.

Angelia and her husband David remember Jacob as always being such a happy child. Like many kids, Jacob loved playing outdoors, but when he had a basketball or baseball in his hands, that's when it was truly magical. The family lived on baseball fields in the summer and inside school gyms in the winter. An incredible natural talent, Jacob took after Angelia's grandfather who had been a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. A star pitcher and 2nd baseman for his middle and high school teams, Jacob also played point guard during those years--even playing up for the high school team when he was still in middle school. He absolutely loved sports.

Angelia was not thrilled when Jacob came to his parents and told them he wanted to join the Marines. "Well, truth be told, he went to David first, then they both came to me," Angelia recalls, "And I burst out laughing. I truly thought it was a joke." Her laughter turned into tears and Angelia felt like someone had punched her in the gut. Jacob was already attending college and had just finished his first semester with outstanding grades. "I mean, why the military?" Angelia wondered, "And why the Marines?"

Angelia argued and resisted but remembers the defining moment when her anger turned to support. She and Jacob were standing in the kitchen, and he said to her, "Mom, what's your biggest fear?" With tears streaming down her face she answered, "You coming home in a body bag." His reply changed everything: "Mom, if I do, it's ok. You can have comfort in the fact that I was following God's will for my life." From that moment on, Angelia was his number-one supporter, "Oh, I still cried like a big baby--don't think I didn't, but they were different tears. Proud tears. Jacob graduated Parris Island in Kilo Company Platoon 3050 and earning the Iron Man Award. Proud tears."

One afternoon around 2pm, Angelia got a call from a number she didn't recognize and let it go to voicemail. It turned out it was Jacob's commanding officer. He said it was urgent and that he would be calling back in thirty minutes. An immediate panic filled Angelia and she called her husband at work. David rushed home, and together, they waited for the phone to ring both knowing something was terribly wrong. Angelia will never forget the feeling after the call came through and they were told Jacob was badly injured and would be sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, "We were just two broken people looking at each other, crying and completely in shock. There was so much information given to us so fast, yet we still felt like we were clueless. From that moment, we were thrown into a life we knew nothing about. Google became my best friend. I had to have information in the form of abbreviations given to me in full sentences. That's one big difference between a spouse and a parent, I believe. As a spouse, the military life is your daily life. The rules, regulations and lingo are all things you can somewhat understand and piece together. As a parent, I was 100% clueless."

The phone didn't ring again until almost 1 am. It was a "Required Phone Call" from Marine Headquarters giving the official description of their son's injuries. As a mom, Angelia just wanted to be by her son's side, but she was told that would not be possible until Jacob reached Walter Reed and was stable. And because Angelia was not a military spouse, she couldn't go directly to Walter Reed and wait for him, she had to be "on orders" to be there. Finally, Angelia and David flew in to see their son. "Nothing prepares you for this. Nothing," she insists. Their son Trevor asked off from work and came home to stay with their young daughter, Elizabeth, while they were gone.

After several days, the distraught parents had to fly back home. They had to make arrangements for Angelia to move to Walter Reed full-time to become Jacob's NMA (Non-Medical Assistant) during his recovery. Leaving her unconscious son's bedside was one of the hardest things Angelia had to do. "Yes, he didn't know if we were there or not there, but I did. And it was heart wrenching to leave him. And it was also heartbreaking to think of leaving my husband and daughter. Who was going to take her to school? Pick her up? Make lunches. Laundry. Food. The house. I couldn't turn my mind off."

Angelia was told with brain injuries there was no set time for recovery, so she should pack for a month, set herself up for three months but plan on at least a year. She could not think like that, so she simply planned on nothing and just took everything one day at a time.

Angelia ended up living at Walter Reed for about a year. While she and Jacob had always been close, being at Walter Reed brought them even closer. They have been by each other's side day and night since his injury in 2015. "He's more than my son: he's my best friend and my hero," she marvels, "He has overcome so much. He couldn't use his legs, make or hold eye contact, feed himself, bathe himself or get dressed. All the basic things we do for ourselves, he had to relearn."

Angelia is grateful for my lifelong friendships she made with fellow caregivers from Walter Reed. They have a bond like no other. And she is grateful for all the organizations like Yellow Ribbon Fund that are there to support families who are navigating a devastating medical crisis like Jacob's. It took her several months living there for her to get comfortable enough to talk to others and to learn the ins and outs of her new military life and living at a base. "It was there living at Walter Reed that I realized for the first time, that the moment Jacob took his oath and became a Marine, we became a military family. Jacob didn't just join the Marines. We all did. We are a wounded warrior family."

After about a year at Walter Reed, the Wixes arranged things with a military facility in Lexington, VA to move all of Jacob's therapy and appointments there so that we could finally come home. Angelia was so eager, "Home. I was so excited things were finally going to be back to normal. We'll all be together under one roof as a family and everything will be ok. Living apart for so long it's almost as if we were living separate lives. Dave's raising Elizabeth and I'm raising Jacob all over again. We talked daily but it was like we were each doing our best to survive. We didn't understand what the other was going through. It was hard. And Elizabeth sounded so depressed. I knew it hurt her feelings that Jacob didn't know who she was several times when we FaceTimed. The doctor recommended that we have several pictures of Elizabeth through the years so Jacob could see and understand her growing up because he knew who she was at age five but not after that. David sent several pictures of everyone and it did help."

Angelia had no idea the impact all of this was having on their daughter. Her life was torn completely upside down. Angelia worried that she was away from home at an especially critical time for Elizabeth: her freshman year of high school. "Your freshman year is hard enough for anyone, but now her brother suffered a TBI and lost most of his memory and didn't know who she was. And her mom just up and left her and her dad," Angelia recalls. The gravity of how bad things were for their daughter didn't completely surface until Jacob and Angelia moved back home.

Though she was excited to leave Walter Reed and get back home to her "normal" life, Angelia's enthusiasm soon faded, "After a week of being home, I thought, 'What did we do?' I had no support here at home. And there was no 'normal' life to return to. The life that each of us had before Jacob's TBI didn't exist anymore."

One thing that had to take priority was getting Elizabeth into some kind of counseling. Through the help of a wonderful counselor, Angelia learned Elizabeth was dealing with abandonment issues and anxiety. When Angelia left for Walter Reed, it took several months for Elizabeth to get into a routine and establish a life without her mom being home. And just as Elizabeth settled into that life, Angelia moved back home again and disrupted her routine again. "And I also brought a stranger home with me," the worried mom recalls, "This was not her brother. This is not the Jacob that joined the Marines. She didn't know who this person and it scared her. My excitement for coming home didn't last. This was harder than I could have imagined."

The adjustment was hard on each member of the family. David expected to have his wife back the way she was before she left. And that couldn't happen because that person didn't exist anymore. Jacob had to learn to cope with his new surroundings. Angelia had to learn to prioritize and focus, and everyone else had to understand that her number-one priority had to be Jacob. What surprised her was how she began to view self-care, "It took me a long time to realize but I am my second priority. It may sound very selfish, but when you are a long-term caregiver you need to make yourself a priority. Somehow, some way, you just have to do it. I've learned I can't be there for anyone if I'm not ok. I go to counseling too. I didn't know I needed it until I went."

During one of her first sessions, the therapist told Angelia that she had permission to mourn the loss of her son. "I didn't know I needed permission, but I did," she remembers vividly, "I had one of the longest hardest cries of my life. It was very much needed." And then the therapist told her she also had permission to love and enjoy her life with her new son. She should have no expectations on holidays, but should just enjoy "the new-new". Angelia felt a weight leaving her chest. She advises others going through this, "If you're struggling like I was to get your normal or old life back pre-injury, I give you permission to stop and let it go. This is your "new-new life", and it's filled with a ton of blessings."

As she continues to connect and get to know other caregivers around her, Angelia likens herself to a unicorn: "It seems that the majority of caregivers are caring for spouses, but every once in a while, I will meet another unicorn mom and we'll just hug each other not really having to say a word. We just each know what the other is going through and it means so much to realize we're not alone."

Posted by Kate on 5/8/2018 12:37:26 PM