- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) - Although he’ll never meet his sister, Olivia, in person, 11-month-old Lucas Bryant will know all about her.

Five years ago on Good Friday, John Bryant’s first wife, Kori, and their 9-week-old daughter, Olivia, died in the EF-4 tornado on April 10, 2009, that damaged more than 800 homes in Murfreesboro and nearly killed him.

“I talk about his sister a lot (that she’s) kind of watching over him. She’s his guardian angel, and I do think there’s probably a connection there. There’s some people who say in situations like this, a little bit of the sibling was born with the new baby,” said Bryant, who is seated on the den couch alongside his wife, Colleen, and their bouncing toddler. “This time of year, I reflect on the life I had, and I’m just very appreciative of the life I have now. I couldn’t be more blessed.”

April has been a difficult month for Bryant since the tornado in 2009. But last year, the month became one of celebration as he and Colleen welcomed their son, Lucas, on April 22, 2013.

“He’s an Earth Day baby,” Colleen Bryant said as her son jumped up and down on her lap. “We’re just thankful there hasn’t been any stress in regards to Lucas. He’s been healthy and thriving. We are so blessed.”

Bryant said he’s thankful, too, for even the smallest things in life. He recalls the weeks following the tornado - he was still reeling from the events - and he discovered he had no ketchup in his refrigerator. That small item, that one moment, was “unbearable,” he said.

“Not to have ketchup was the height of sadness and despair. It really hit home that I’d literally lost everything, from toothbrushes to every pair of underwear to … to ketchup,” Bryant said, shaking his head. “I lost everything I’d accumulated over 29 years, which is a lot of stuff. Photos as random or as small as they may be, they’re really important when you add up all the parts that make a life. All those little things become really significant when you don’t have any of it.”

“He appreciates messes and piles of junk mail, and crying babies is just like music to his ears because it’s life,” Colleen Bryant said. “John says it’s not possible for anything to be bad or a burden.”

After facing death, even the smallest moments in life - like kissing his wife or holding his son - are “amazing.”

“To have a second shot at life and love and parenthood and to do the things that you wish you could have or knew you should have … to call that person … to make up with that person … to do that thing that you’ve always wanted to do, all that becomes front and center after something like almost dying,” Bryant said.

Bryant only remembers bits and pieces of his harrowing ordeal in 2009.

He was working on the other side of Murfreesboro when his wife called from the home they shared on the corner of Haynes Drive and Sulphur Springs Road. She was worried, and he told her he’d come home right away. First, he told her to strap Olivia in the infant car seat for extra protection. He realized the tornado was headed their way. When he arrived home, the trio got in the central hallway of their 1960s ranch-style home, along with their pet dog.

“It got louder and and louder, like a jet engine,” Bryant recalled, leaning forward on the couch as he retold the story of that day. “I crawled outside the hall to look out the picture window out front. It was orange-ish outside, dark and strange and very windy. … I hopped over them to drag the mattress (from the guest bed) into the hallway. … I pulled it over the top of them. Before I could think about it, I jumped on top of it and tried to wedge it down. Then I started hearing creaking and three seconds later, you felt a pressure change and I looked up and the roof was gone. I’m looking up inside the tornado and I just closed my eyes. … I said, ‘This is it,’ meaning, ‘I’m gonna die.’”

He rose up into the vortex, still holding on with a “death grip” to the mattress. At one point he opened his eyes to look down and see his wife and baby still crouched in the hallway of their home. He remembered riding in the storm and looking down at the neighborhood below him.

“By the time I got across the street I was looking at the neighbor’s house and the house appeared slightly smaller than an iPhone and a little bigger than a Matchbox car,” Bryant said.

Shortly after that he blacked out and woke up in a ditch down the road with heavy power lines laying across his battered body.

“I woke up … screaming for Kori and Olivia,” he said. He kept trying to get up but was in such a shock, he didn’t realize how injured he was. A neighbor - he still doesn’t know who it was - pulled him up by his armpits and took him inside a home.

In addition to losing his family, Bryant lost the use of much of his body for a time. The force of the accident tore the muscles on his right side from the bones. He sustained four broken ribs and a collapsed lung, had nearly a dozen fractured bones and broke five vertebrae as well as his tailbone. He also had other internal injuries and his heart was racing at dangerous levels for days. Damage came from traveling what meteorologists estimate is about 300 feet into the tornado’s vortex and then landing on his side.

Doctors expected him to be in the nursing home three to six months, at least. Bryant did spend 10 days in critical care at the hospital, followed by another full week at a nursing care facility before he was released.

One of the first tasks he asked his family to do in the first few days of recovery was to bring what pictures they had of Kori and Olivia to surround him.

“I asked my mom to get pictures and anything and everything that was left. … So several people … put together a collage on poster board and I just sat there … and just looked at them and remembered and just cried,” Bryant said. “If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t be well.”

Those images helped him through the grieving process.

“Emotionally I handled it pretty well. Someone described me one time as being emotionally intelligent. I try not to bottle things up and dwell on things, or really get too high or too low over anything in this situation. I realized it was really important to grieve. … There was one day where I did the ‘why’ thing. I asked God why … and just cried and cried and cried. I was letting myself do that. I needed to do that,” he said.

Once he left the rehabilitation facility and was on his own, he filled much of the void by shopping at first, replacing all that he’d lost.

“Putting a life back together, for me, was the first thing I knew I could do (was to) buy stuff,” he said. “I was getting a lot of donations, too. It was unbelievable. I wouldn’t have made it without the support of the community. That definitely made a huge difference in my life.”

Slowly, life began to piece back together. Friends would try to set him up, but he said he just wasn’t interested.

“I didn’t think I could find a wife again. I didn’t know if my mind and body would heal. … I didn’t think anyone would accept me with the baggage I have,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in getting together with anybody. I could barely walk. I hurt 25 hours a day. I had trouble sleeping just because of the pain, so a girl was the last thing on my mind.”

Although Bryant had met Colleen before when she called and had his company, Skywalker Roofing, repair her storm-damaged home after Good Friday’s devastation, he was still reeling from the loss of Kori and Olivia.

Then he ran into her at a disaster readiness awareness event the next year where he was touting the importance of storm shelters. They embraced with a hug, he said as he recalled the “fluttery feeling” he got at that moment.

Bryant said it was “love-at-first-sight.”

“She’s like a big ball of sunshine, butterflies and sugar and spice and everything nice,” he said as tears welled in his eyes. He pauses in order to gain composure. “I just love her,” he added as his voice lowered to almost a whisper while choking back tears. “Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am or the man I hope to be. She’s a pretty incredible person.”

The couple married Jan. 29, 2011.

Bryant was told his injuries damaged his reproductive system beyond repair. But in the summer of 2012, they found out she was pregnant.

“We cried,” Colleen Bryant said, smiling at her husband.

From that moment on, Bryant has been “overwhelmed” with joy.

“Icing on the cake was to have Lucas to come out … and me get to hold him within three minutes of his birth was pretty special when you don’t think you’re ever gonna have that,” Bryant said.

Colleen Bryant said her husband talked about the healing Lucas‘ birth brought him.

Bryant said his first priority is being a husband and dad. But he also spends 12 to 14 hours some days running his own business. His wife and son are at the office for the business a lot, too. But no matter how tired he is when he gets home from work, he and Lucas spend the evening bonding.

“I come home and I feed him and I give him a bath and I read him stories and I put him to bed. That’s our nightly ritual,” said Bryant.

“To literally lose everything, to lose the beginning of a life or the next chapter, to lose your child and wife and home and pictures and memories, and to be told you’re not going to get it back. Then to hold Lucas, it doesn’t get any better. Then life starts again.”

___

Information from: The Daily News Journal, https://www.dnj.com


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