Words frozen in time: ‘I’ll never forget you’
Man’s memory after 19-year coma is crux of problem between parents, wife
BIG FLAT Sandi Wallis found the love note on the coffee table, shortly after her husband, Terry, left to go cruising with one of his childhood buddies.
She smiled when she read it. It was so... Terry — filled with melodramatic proclamations of everlasting devotion and adoration.
Later, however, the pretty words would seem to have flowed from the pen of a man who sensed something bad was about to happen:
"I’ll never forget you. How could I? Some of my happiest times and finest moments have been with you..."
About six hours after filling the notepaper with his looping scrawl, Terry and his friend, Chub Moore, were found in a creek bed near the Searcy County line, along with the wreckage of their pickup. That was June 13, 1984. Chub died eight days later. Terry would remain in a vegetative state for the next 19 years.
And then, just before the anniversary of his accident, Terry, now 39, spoke. The first word he uttered was "Mom." Within days, he advanced from one- word comments to full-fledged conversations.
The medical miracle stunned doctors. It also spawned an international media melee here in the Ozarks, and a legal battle between family members, all of whom say they want only what’s best for Terry.
The bitter feud centers on single question:
How much does Terry remember of his former life?
‘LIVING TWO LIVES’ For 19 years, Terry’s family has lived in limbo, with many of their hopes and plans tethered to a man who lay blank-faced and silent in a nursing home.
Because of these extraordinary circumstances, Sandi hopes people don’t judge her too harshly when they hear her story.
"It’s like living two lives," says Sandi, 36, who has repeatedly refused to divorce Terry. "My life couldn’t go no further until something gave with Terry."
At the time of the accident, Sandi was 17. The couple’s daughter, Amber, was only 6 weeks old. They had been married four months, but living together since Sandi was 15.
On the muggy Thursday morning of July 10 — one month after Terry’s first words — Sandi still hadn’t been allowed in to see him. Angilee Wallis, Terry’s mother, has sole legal guardianship of Terry and determines who is allowed to visit. Sandi isn’t welcome.
Angilee and her husband, Jerry, disapprove of some things Sandi has done since Terry’s accident, Sandi says. And, she adds, they need someone on whom they can pin their frustration.
"Mothers think they know best," she says of Angilee. "She has hurt so much. He was her oldest son, and to me, it’s not hate they’re sharing — it’s pain."
Sandi paces in small circles, blue eyes wide and anxious as she describes what the Wallises don’t want Terry to hear:
Since the accident, Sandi has had two relationships, one of which produced three children. But even when babies entered the picture, she wouldn’t divorce Terry. Her former boyfriend raised the children, now teenagers, with a woman he later married.
"My real life was me, Terry and Amber," Sandi says. "This other — it’s been like living in a fantasy."
She muses over how things could have been — should have been — if Terry hadn’t been hurt. When she does finally see him, Sandi says, it will be difficult to tell him what she has done. "I am scared," she admits. "I don’t know how he’ll react, how he’ll feel."
She won’t tell him immediately, Sandi says. First, she needs to know what Terry remembers of their relationship, and whether he grasps just how much time has passed.
But then, someday, "I will tell him that regardless of the mistakes I made while I was waiting on you, we’re still here. You do still have a wife. I may have done things that I wouldn’t have if the wreck hadn’t happened, but you do still have a family."
Only one thing terrifies her more than the prospect of this inevitable confession. "What if I go in there, and he’s just laying there like he was?"
THE FEUD: When Angilee walked into Terry’s room at the Stone County Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center on June 12, she posed the usual question to her son: "Who’s here? Who is it who came to visit you today?"
After 19 years, her greeting was habitual rather than hopeful. But this time, Terry answered : "Mom."
Angilee nearly dropped to the floor.
Word that Terry was "awake" quickly reached his physician, Dr. James Zini. "I was shocked," the doctor recalls, "although probably not as much as his mother."
Zini later visited his patient, and the two men debated the merits of Pepsi vs. Coke. Terry prefers the former.
"What would you do if I gave you a Coke?" Zini asked.
"I would pour it out," Terry replied.
Terry has no trouble with these superficial discussions. But he claims to have no memory of his accident and seems to veer from topics that might be distressing — the death of his grandmother, for example. Or the fact that he no longer knows who the president is. He is a quadriplegic, yet believes his body works just fine.
"He feels like he’s normal," Zini explains, adding that right now, doctors aren’t sure how much Terry knows about either his past or present.
Because of this uncertainty, Angilee is protective of her son. She hates the thought of Sandi visiting because she fears her daughter-in-law might surprise Terry with revelations he’s not ready to hear.
"I don’t know what all he knows. That’s one reason I would not let her in — I don’t know how he’ll handle all this," she says. "Eventually, he will have to know. But right now? No. Not if I can help it, anyway."
Jerry indignantly recalls how Sandi once visited Terry while she was pregnant with her exboyfriend’s child. Sandi admits this is true, but argues that she hadn’t yet started to show.
There’s another complication, however.
"I dated his brother once," Sandi says, referring to Terry’s younger sibling, Perry. She adds wryly: "That one harelipped the whole country."
Jerry was furious when he heard about it. "I didn’t speak to [Perry] for seven months," he says, adding that he believes the pair are still involved. "They’re living together, aren’t they?"
Perry is living with her, Sandi says, but "strictly as friends" and only because he’s in the midst of a divorce and needs a place to stay. "This past September, we went out on three dates. We’ve been friends for over 30 years, since we were 5- or 6-year-olds."
The Wallises don’t resent Sandi for pursuing new relationships and dreams. They just wish she had divorced Terry first.
"From talking to her, it seems she believes that not divorcing him is standing by him," Jerry says. "But she didn’t come back around until he started talking."
At one point, he says, Sandi even wrote the Wallises a letter saying she was going on with her life. "It’s not that we’re wanting to talk against her," Jerry says. "We just don’t want her saying how she stood by him all these years. But we don’t blame her. She had that new baby... and [was] too young to have to deal with either of those things. It had to have been hurtful for her."
Sandi points to the numerous photos she keeps in a blue binder: pictures of baby Amber and Terry; her family with Terry ; Amber introducing her thenfiance to Terry. The pictures prove Sandi has remained a constant presence in Terry’s life, she says. "I was there."
She is thankful for Angilee’s strength during these difficult years. "Angilee is as good as gold. She has been there from Day One. They would come out talking about traches and tubes, and she was there to stand up and say, ‘OK, let’s do this. ...’ I was 17 and had no idea what they were saying."
Sandi visited Terry faithfully over the years, she says, at least twice a month, even when she lived in Jonesboro. And something else forever links them.
Sandi opens the blue binder and pulls out sleeping charts the couple kept during the first weeks of Amber’s life. Amber was born prematurely and had apnea, Sandi says, so she and Terry kept their new baby attached to a monitor and logged notes about her sleeping patterns on nightly charts. She points to the page containing one of Terry’s last entries, one of which proudly declares: "She woke on her own."
Amber’s medical condition was the primary reason Sandi put Terry in a nursing home instead of bringing him home with her when he was finally released from the hospital.
She had taken training courses to learn how to care for Terry, but at the last minute, Sandi changed her mind. There was no way she could care for a newborn and Terry, both of whom would be hooked to machines and monitors. What if they needed her at the same time?
"One night I had a dream," Sandi recalls. "I was standing in the trailer with both monitors going off and not knowing who to go to first."
A MOUNTAIN COURTSHIP Angilee became Terry’s courtappointed guardian on Dec. 14, 1994.
This was done with Sandi’s knowledge, Angilee says, adding, "She didn’t live around here, didn’t have any interest in him. She knew about [the court order]. She was... there in front of the judge with me."
Sandi said she thought she was simply giving Angilee the power to make medical decisions.
Both women agree, however, on the circumstances that led Angilee to petition the court. She did so after a choking incident that put Terry in the hospital for medical tests. The X-rays are in Sandi’s binder.
At the time, Sandi was in Jonesboro and couldn’t be reached. The resulting confusion convinced both women that Terry needed someone nearby to be in charge of medical decisions.
"Next thing I know, she has full guardianship," Sandi fumes. Her primary frustration has been Angilee’s refusal to let her visit Terry.
Sandi wants to challenge Angilee’s guardianship, she says, just as soon as she can find the money for a lawyer. Her three vehicles are now for sale.
"We would prefer that he have his own say," she says of Terry, citing a recent incident when Terry told Perry which friends he did and didn’t want to visit. "We figure if he can go that far, he should have his own rights back. If the doctors feel like he’s not capable, Amber or I one want to get the guardianship back."
Jerry cringes at this prospect, saying Terry’s not ready for Sandi. "She even told our grandson that she was going to go in and tell [Terry] that if he hadn’t been running around and wrecked that night, she wouldn’t have been with other men and had kids."
Everyone embroiled in this legal snarl lives uncomfortably close to one another. Both the Wallises and Sandi’s parents lay claim to Round Mountain. Sandi’s parents, Junior and Jo Ellen Stephens, live on the land Jo Ellen’s parents owned. And Jerry lives on what was once his grandfather’s property. "They live on one corner and we live on the other," he says. Most people on the mountain can trace their roots to a branch of either family, Sandi says.
Although Sandi went to school in Jonesboro, she spent summers on Round Mountain. And it was here, at an auction, that she met Terry. When Sandi was 14, the young lovebirds ran away together and stayed in an old, abandoned home they dubbed their "honeymoon house." She has photos of the home, which sits on the banks of the same creek into which Terry’s pickup tumbled.
At 17 and several months pregnant, Sandi married Terry. Her ring, fashioned by Perry, was made of bread ties, Sandi recalls, laughing. After a few weeks at the "honeymoon house," they moved into a small home on the mountain. No electricity. No water. And no windows — "just holes, no glass," Sandi says.
Terry found work as a mechanic. He also hung wallboard and laid stone for new homes.
The stubborn young man could do anything he set his mind to. "Terry didn’t know the words ‘no,’ ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t,’" says Sarah Boren, one of Sandi’s sisters.
For transportation, the young couple had a "big old purple LTD" that traveled only in reverse. Undeterred, Terry drove his pregnant wife backward down winding roads to her doctors’ appointments in Mountain View.
As the pair whizzed by other motorists, people paused and turned around to stare, Boren recalls.
"He was that kind of person who could do anything he wanted to do," Jerry agrees. "He was a good driver and bad driver at the same time. He wrecked — small wrecks that didn’t amount to anything —19 times. He ran a car into the house one time, and then a week later backed his grandpa’s car up with the door open and hit something."
One of Sandi’s biggest fights with Terry occurred after he insisted on racing a train across the railroad tracks.
When Amber was born on May 31, 1984, the same day Terry’s driver’s license expired, the proud father drove Sandi and his newborn daughter all over the mountain until Angilee convinced him to let the pair rest.
Today, Terry’s not always certain who Amber is. His last memories are of a tiny newborn. Now, he is somewhat confused each time he’s greeted by the attractive young woman with shoulderlength blond hair and her mother’s eyes.
"Terry knows that she’s his daughter, but it’s hard for him to accept it," Angilee says.
THE WRECK Sandi first heard of Terry’s accident at 6 a.m. It didn’t sound serious.
As she and Chub’s wife, Anita, headed to the hospital — Sandi with 6-week-old Amber and Anita several months pregnant — the women even made jokes. "I bet they went out and got drunk," they speculated.
"We were trying to decide who would have broken what," Sandi recalls.
When the two women arrived at the hospital in Harrison, they walked right past their husbands. They didn’t recognize them. "We even made comments about how bad those guys looked," Sandi recalls.
Medics loaded the men into a helicopter and flew them to a hospital in Springfield, Mo. Chub died eight days later from meningitis, Sandi says. Terry, whose prognosis was grim, clung to life, never emerging from his comatose state. Eventually, doctors sent him to St. Louis. For the first several months, Sandi was with him constantly, she says.
She reached her breaking point, though, when Amber began calling Sandi’s parents "mama" and "dada."
"That baby, she didn’t know her mama," Jo Ellen explains.
Told that Terry would never improve, Sandi put him in a nursing home. She continued to stay with him for days at a time, and spent so much time there that she eventually took jobs at various nursing homes.
It was what she knew.
Only once did she work at Terry’s facility, she says.
She quit on the day she got mad at him for the first time since the wreck. Amber was sick, Sandi was in the midst of a chaotic move, and at the height of her frustration, she stood glaring at her husband.
"I wanted to shake him and yell, ‘You were supposed to be the rest of my life! What happened? What the hell happened?’" The circumstances of the wreck remain a mystery. Both Searcy County and Arkansas State Police tossed the old police reports long ago. All that’s known is that Terry and Chub ran off the road and rolled into the creek bed.
The old bridge rail they hit is still there, Sandi says, and still bent.
A TAINTED MIRACLE "This young man’s decided he wants to live, and he’s working to come back," says Zini, the doctor.
He credits Terry’s parents and sister and the way they continued to take him home on weekends and treat him as an important part of the family.
Neurologists are currently evaluating Terry. Spinal cord specialists also are interested in examining him. Until Terry started speaking, physicians assumed his paralysis was due to his injured brain stem, Zini says.
But in researching old medical records, doctors have learned Terry also suffered a fracture in his upper back, making him eligible for help from various spinal cord foundations.
Doctors also are curious about what Terry absorbed during the last 19 years. He appeared at times to grunt or shake his head in response to things, Zini says. But no one was able to tell if this was comprehension or coincidental.
Terry has no short-term memory, Zini says. He remembers only events from long ago.
Perry believes Terry has been aware of his surroundings for quite some time now, however. It wasn’t until after the wreck that Perry started singing and playing the guitar. Yet when he asked Terry recently if he wanted Perry to perform for him, Terry’s reply was quick and adamant: Yes, Terry told him. "You sing good. You can sing anything you want to."
When Terry first talked, an excited Jerry and Angilee called a television station in Missouri. No one, they say, was interested. But the local paper picked up the story. And then Sandi called a Little Rock TV station, which featured Terry on its evening newscast.
Suddenly, the Wallises and Stephenses were besieged by phone calls from reporters as far away as London and Australia. At first, the stories were glowing, full of hope and promise.
Then things turned ugly.
One headline from Sydney screamed: "Family feud swirls around coma man (wife has 3 kids with [another] man, his daughter is a stripper.") Comedians made jokes on late-night television.
Amber, who works as a dancer at a Memphis topless club, will no longer talk to reporters.
"Enough of this," Sandi says. "It hurts."
It may get nastier.
If the guardianship battle weren’t already complex enough, the promise of book and movie deals is likely to increase the acrimony and press coverage.
Jerry and Angilee are no longer giving interviews, saying an "adviser" has told them to quit talking. They fret that Sandi wants guardianship only for the money and publicity. Sandi worries that Terry’s voice won’t be heard.
SANDI VISITS TERRY On July 13, Sandi visited her husband for the first time. In some ways, the encounter was anticlimatic.
Angilee was present. "Terry, do you know who this is?" she asked her son.
"No," he said.
"Do you want me to tell you?"
And then, just as Angilee began to do so, Terry interrupted.
"Sandi Stephens," he declares, leaving off the Wallis.
Terry remembers a vacation he and Sandi took, and Sandi tells him all about Amber. There is no discussion of the wreck, Sandi’s past or her expectations.
Sandi realizes that Terry may want a divorce one day. "I guess I would do it if he wanted it," she says.
She wants people to focus more on the miracle instead of family squabbles. "God has the final say, I believe, in all our lives. He can create miracles. That’s what this is, a damn miracle."
Also overlooked in all the fray is Amber, who has spent an entire life waiting to hear her father’s voice.
By age 11, the young girl balked at visiting her father, Sandi says. It was too upsetting. Many times over the years, Amber would hear from the Wallises that Terry had suddenly improved. Each time, she would race from Jonesboro, where she was living with Sandi, to Mountain View, only to be disappointed, Sandi says.
So when Amber heard that Terry was talking, she was skeptical and reluctant to make the trip. "She said, ‘I’m flat broke. I have $20 in my pocket. This better not be a joke,’" Sandi says.
Finally, however, Amber went to see her father. She called her mother later. "Mom," Amber said in wondering tones, "it’s really real."
Amber was crying, Sandi said, as she described her first conversation with her dad. "He told me three times I’m pretty. Then he told me, ‘No, you’re beautiful.’"
Perry describes his first visit with Terry in similar awed fashion.
"It was really emotional. At the time, he wasn’t talking just really plain. He was still struggling pretty hard to get his words out. Basically, he told me he was sorry he beat me up when we were younger."
He says Terry also told him: "Brothers shouldn’t fight."
During an earlier interview about her husband, Sandi also told the story of Perry’s visit and Terry’s apology. Her voice cracked, and she cried.
THE LAST LOVE LETTER Terry used to leave love notes all around the house for Sandi. She discovered the last one he wrote at 8:15 p.m. June 12. She used to carry it in her wallet, reading and rereading those last sweet sentiments often. But now, Sandi says, it’s time to put it away. Besides, she knows all the words by heart anyway.
"We’ve talked and enjoyed so much with each other that nothing could take away those special memories."
She wonders though — are those memories they shared still tucked away somewhere, deep within the recesses of Terry’s reawakening mind? Or are they lost forever?