Freelance Writer
The Nixons Life Changed ‘In the Blink of an Eye’
09.02.13 | No Comments

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Then Senator Mitt Romney visited the Nixon family on Christmas shortly after the accident.

The Nixon family marks April 4 as the anniversary of an event that would forever changed their lives. On that evening 18 years ago, Sheryl and Mark Nixon’s sons, Rob and Reed, were severely injured in a car accident.

Reed, driving a minivan from a church function in Marlborough back to their home in Northborough, carried passengers that included his brothers Rob and Kent, his sister Natalie, and two friends. Quickly turning a corner with a van that had faulty rear brakes, that minivan collided with a telephone pole, then a curb, and flipped on its head into the wooded area.

Still, for a family you might not expect to think this way, their message is, “You can choose to be happy.” It’s their mantra, and if you spend any time with them, you quickly realize it isn’t a message that is casually thrown around; they live it.

Reed, now 37, is paralyzed from the neck down, needing 24-hour care. Rob, 35, has some movement in his upper body. He’s able to perform a lot of tasks, he’s a successful accountant and he’s married, living in Irvine, CA.

While the circumstances physically crippled two intelligent, thriving young boys, it did not cripple their will to live, and brought a family even closer than it had been. Now, this family inspires others to see the beauty in their own lives.

It was, of course, an evolution.

“I think it happened for Mark more early on,” said Sheryl of grasping the reality after the accident. “For me, it wasn’t for weeks before I think I actually started seeing what was going to happen.”

Sheryl said that the defining point for her, and perhaps for her sons, came during a meeting at the Roxbury VA hospital, where both underwent rehabilitation after their initial stay at UMass. Doctors and nurses held separate meetings to discuss Rob’s and Reed’s condition. When Mark and Sheryl heard Rob’s assessment, realizing he would be able to dress himself, feed himself, and even drive, they thought, “OK, we can deal with this.”

Reed’s assessment threw a blow that they could have never expected.

“When they held that second meeting with Reed, oh my God,” said Sheryl. “We just couldn’t imagine how life was going to be, because they said they didn’t anticipate him ever regaining movement in his body.”

Reed would need 24-hour care, for help with virtually everything, and would “always need someone within earshot.”

“Mark and I were both crying,” said Sheryl. “I felt beside myself. The head nurse said I could go into her private office, and i went in and cried and wailed for five minutes and I realized, this is only going to make me worse.

“I haven’t cried like that again, I don’t think, because it is what it is. And no matter how sorry we felt for ourselves or how sad we are for our sons, it doesn’t change the facts. We needed to unify as a family and pull together our faith and trust in God and do whatever it was that was necessary to pull it together and make it the best it could be for Reed and Rob.”

The rear quarter of the Nixon home is a spacious, bright addition defined by a large family space lined with windows to allow natural light to pour into the room. With high ceilings, soothing shades of painted walls, a large digital clock on the wall, overstuffed recliners and couches, and a large flat screen, off this room are two bedrooms and a bathroom.

All of it was equipped to satisfy the physical, and emotional, needs of Reed and Rob when they came home from the hospital. Reed and a personal assistant, Cindy, as well as Sheryl, spend a majority of their time in that area of the house.

Reed is engaging, upbeat, and speaks candidly about his situation, and the past, never shying away from tough questions or reality.

“It was a sad time,” said Reed, “but as I’ve looked back on that time, I really feel that the way that they look at spinal cord injuries …. they are always looking at the rehab phase and not as living life and enjoying life. I know they were trying to paint a picture of the future, but no matter what the situation, life can always be enjoyable. There are friends to have and love to share with people. Even though you’re not always happy with your situation, it’s not going to change and you can still enjoy and have a happy life.”

Doctors predicted that Reed, initially, would live three to five years. Then, they said it would be five to seven.

“Tomorrow, it will be 18 years,” said Sheryl, beaming at and clutching Reed.

“I still am hopeful and I hear of progression that has been made in the medical and electronics fields,” said Reed. “My health has improved. It may not be prevalent to someone in the medical field, but I lived more life and did more thnings than anyone expected or anticipated. You can never say one thing will be certain. New things happen and we learn new things and education changes and grows.”

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When Sheryl broke her ankle and leg slipping off a ladder in 2005, she ended up bedridden for six months. Not only did it open up a lot of mental space to re-examine the traumatic car accident that injured her sons severely years ago, it gave her time to sift through all of the journaling she had compiled during that time. She combed through the journals, as well as some songs (Sheryl is a professional singer and songwriter), and transcribed the cassettes Mark had recorded while driving to and from the hospitals.

“I’ve always kept a journal since I was young,” said Sheryl, “so it was already a habit that I had. Once the accident happened, I continued writing and had a lot of time sitting at the hospital with the boys.”

The result is a poignant recollection of the accident, and the subsequent acceptance and hope erupted from it. In the Blink of an Eye: The Reed and Rob Nixon Story painstakingly details the unfolding of the events that started with the accident, through the realization of her sons’ condition, through rehabilitation, to a profound acceptance—not only by her, but the sons who would never walk again.

Her song lyrics are peppered throughout the book to emphasize emotion, and provide a soulful transition between paragraphs. Sheryl also suffers from depression, as well as fibromyalgia, which she developed in 1989 after she was hit square in the face with a baseball. That, too, is briefly addressed in the book.

Deeply spiritual, she and the family often reference their faith as the anchor that helped keep them together, and heal. The outpouring of support, too, was remarkable, and included neighbors and friends donating airline miles, providing rides, holding fundraisers and a group of contractors who built the Nixons’ 1,100-foot addition. Sheryl said she was shocked at the reaction, particularly since the family had only lived in Northborough for a year and a half at that point.

“Because we had four kids in the schools around here, they were well known,” said Sheryl, “but we had been here for such a short time. When we went to move here, people said, ‘Oh, people in New England are so cold.’ Well, after only being here a year and a half, this town treated us like we were lifelong residents. Rob and Reed were on the cross country and track teams, and they had a lot of friends at school. This town was absolutely a miracle … this town and the surrounding towns.”

While she was working on transcribing and organizing these journals, never did Sheryl think it would materialize into a book. Originally, it was going to serve as a family history.

“No one was more shocked about writing a book than I was,” said Sheryl, who, sometimes self-deprecating, will remark, “I’ve always just been a homemaker and mother.” Reed, quick to counter his mom’s comments, will add, “Mom, that’s just not true. You’re an accomplished writer and musician. You’re very creative.”

The book, while it brings the reader through the tragedy, projects a strong message of hope and peace. Rob and Reed’s attitude, almost from the beginning, is what inspired Sheryl to publish the book for others, she said.

“Life goes on and you can choose to be happy,” said Sheryl. “People don’t realize that it’s a choice. Sometimes, they get stuck in those horrible feelings and are never able to pull out of it, so there is a negativity around it. Rob and Reed have shown from the very beginning that they chose to be happy, and wanted to be happy.

“At first, how can you look at the situation with Rob and Reed and think there were any blessings there? Well, they were alive, and their brains weren’t damaged. You have to step aside from the awfulness of the situation and think what is something I can be thankful for? The more you try to be thankful, the more your attitude is uplifted.”

It hasn’t always been easy, particularly when you’re “in the midst of it,” added Reed. When the information comes in fast and furious, life can be confusing and frustrating.

“When things calm down and you can focus, and realize this is going to be longer,” he said, “there are things you can do, and it won’t be the end all. There are lots of things you can do out there, whether you’re able-bodied or not.”

Sheryl Nixon will lead a discussion and sign copies of In the Blink of an Eye: The Reed and Rob Nixon Story on Saturday, April 13, at 10 a.m. at the Northborough Free Library. Reed will possibly join his mom for the event. Space is limited, and you can reserve your spot here.

Editor’s note: for excerpts of the Northborough Patch interview with Sheryl and Reed Nixon, click on the attached video. A full-length version of this interview will be also be soon be available on Patch.

This story originally ran in Northborough Patch, May 7, 2013

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