Sandee Rager

Sandee at Re-Union

Sandee Rager stared at the girl in the photograph.

She looked so familiar, but who was she?

Had she been a classmate? A neighbor? Had she and Sandee worked at the same pizza place?

There was so much Sandee didn't know.

Her body had healed since the accident; she was walking and lifting weights two days a week and breaking boards in martial arts class and trying so hard to feel strong and to be strong.

But her mind was muddled.

She'd remembered her family and her boyfriend, but she'd lost many of the details of their lives together. She couldn't recall the camping trips her father said she'd enjoyed so much as a kid. She couldn't remember her first crush or her high school prom or the boy who wrote the most heartfelt offering in her yearbook -- "I still remember the time you cared enough just to talk. If you hadn't been there I wouldn't be here today." Had she kept him from leaving the German club? Had she saved him from suicide? Sandee didn't know.

Sometimes she would run into people at the mall or at dance clubs and they'd swear she knew them but she'd have to say no, she didn't. At least not anymore.

Now, the girl in the photo.

She stared and stared at the girl in the black sweater and pearl necklace with the blond pageboy and slightly mischievous smile.

Finally, after about 10 minutes, Sandee remembered.

"Oh my God," she said to herself. "It's me."

Sandee's story continues.

FOUR DAYS INTO 1995, Sandee, 24 and an irrepressible free spirit, was convinced it would be a good year.

She and Bill were back on track. Dear, sweet Bill. Whatever had been bothering him, making him pull away, seemed to be in the past. Sandee was so happy, she felt as if she were walking on a cloud.

In high spirits, she woke her younger brother, Matthew Rager. She pounced on him and tickled him and told him she was on her way to meet a friend.

She slid behind the wheel of her red 1989 Ford Escort and drove away from her family's Garden City ranch-style house into a day so bright that beams of sunshine seemed to dance on the snow-dusted ground.

She traveled down Cherry Hill and across to Middlebelt so she could turn onto the I-94 entry ramp.

Sandee & Mom It was shortly after 11 a.m.

If she ever saw the white Taurus coming her way, it was too late.

She'd already pulled in front of it.

HELP ARRIVED almost immediately after the Taurus hit Sandee's passenger side with such force her cassettes shattered and the key jammed in the ignition so far it couldn't be pulled out.

Sandee was unconscious.

Emergency workers cut her out of her seat belt and put her in an ambulance headed for Annapolis Hospital.

Doctors at the small Wayne hospital realized the extent of her injuries -- broken hips, broken ribs, collapsed lung and, most serious of all, head trauma -- and knew right away that she needed more help than they could provide.

They put her in a helicopter and sent her to the University of Michigan Hospitals in Ann Arbor.

The police went to Sandee's house to tell her family what had happened.

Nobody was home.

SANDEE'S MOM, Karen Rager, a teacher's assistant, was just back from a field trip with her class. She hadn't even taken off her coat when she got a phone call.

"Why are you calling me at work?" she asked her son.

"They said her heart never stopped beating," Matthew blurted.

"What?" Karen said.

Twenty-year-old Matthew, on leave from the Marines, had gone to lunch with friends. When he returned to his mother's house, construction workers repairing the street told him the police had been knocking on the doors and looking in the windows. He called the police station, and an officer told him Sandee had been in an accident.

"They put her on something to help her breathe," Matthew said.

Karen, 43, who had once worked as a nursing aide, felt smaller with every word her son spoke.

"A respirator?" she asked, knowing that meant Sandee's condition was critical.

"Yes," Matthew said. "They said her heart never stopped beating. Her heart never stopped . . ."

THE TRIP TO ANN ARBOR was taking forever -- Karen had gotten a ride home and met her husband, Joe Sizemore, and her niece, who was close to Sandee. Then Bill called and said he wanted to go to the hospital. Karen didn't think he should drive alone, so everyone rode together in Joe and Karen's van.

Karen's mind raced.

Would Sandee be conscious when they got to the hospital?

Would she be in surgery?

Would she even be .alive?

"Oh my God," Karen thought, "if she's dead, they're going to ask me to donate her organs. What am I going to answer?"

She pushed the thought out of her mind. "I can't think about this now," she said to herself. "I just can't. This is like giving up."

She turned to Joe. "You know, this could be very, very serious. Even if she lives, there might be years and years. If she needs care . . ."

"We'll do what we need to do," Joe said.

SANDEE HAD BIG DREAMS.

That's why her father and stepfather worried about her.

They wanted her to find a career and settle down. They wanted her to be more realistic. They wanted her to be able to support herself.

You have to give her some room, Karen said. She's an artsy kid. She's a little different. What's the rush?

Sandee, who lived with her mother and stepfather, talked about becoming a special effects makeup artist, although most of her efforts went into creating gory Halloween costumes; one year she made herself up as a car accident victim.

She talked about going into computer graphics.

She talked about becoming a professional dancer or actor and even moved to California with a friend who wanted to break into show business. After a few weeks in Hollywood, she called her mother and said she wanted to come home. If you're serious, buy a ticket on the Greyhound, Karen said. And Sandee did.

After that, Sandee pursued a career on the stage of Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, where she was working on her associate's degree.

She was comfortable there, although some of her theater friends thought she tried too hard to fit in. They found her a bit too loud at times, a bit too enthusiastic.

She adopted the interests and whims of her crowd. She let her academics slide when she had a production. She dressed almost exclusively in black. She darkened her blond hair. She pierced her nose and her navel. "What the hell would possess you to put holes in your body?" Karen wanted to know. When Sandee went out, she wore a chain connecting her nose ring and her earring.

Karen knew Sandee enjoyed shocking people. She knew Sandee liked being different. She knew Sandee was trying to establish an identity.

"It's just a phase," Karen thought. Besides, what could she do? Sandee was an adult.

Sandee stayed out late. She liked dance clubs. She dated a lot of guys who didn't treat her well. And yet, as flirty as she could be, she kept her emotional distance.

Sandee had been close to her family -- her mother accompanied Sandee and a friend on a trip to the Bahamas, and she and her brother often went out together for Halloween -- but she didn't feel an obligation anymore to stick around for family functions. She popped in to say hello and good-bye. And then she went on her way.

Even Bill DeAngelis had backed off after one date -- Sandee had seemed completely uninterested. Their romance didn't blossom until they ran into each other a year later and Bill decided Sandee was less aloof and somehow less intense.

She had stopped wearing so much black. She had let her hair go blond again.

She wore a ring that had the words "Carpe Diem" -- Latin for "seize the day" -- etched into it.

If it occurred to Sandee that she was unfocused -- that she had dabbled in community college for six years without earning a degree, that she'd held only a series of part-time jobs, that she'd never had her own apartment -- she didn't seem bothered by it.

She was too busy living.

THE EMERGENCY ROOM receptionist directed Karen and her group to a private waiting room, which Karen knew was a bad sign. They send families to rooms like this when someone dies, she thought.

"It'll be OK, baby. Don't worry," Joe said.

"What do you mean, 'Don't worry?' " Karen snapped. "Things are not OK."

In the first hours after the accident, Karen Rager made a rule: No matter how desperate things get, there will be no crying in front of Sandee.

But now, all these days later and after all the ups and downs, Karen was about to betray her own edict.

Sandee looked pathetic -- strapped into a hospital bed so she wouldn't fall over, drooling onto a towel that had been placed on her shoulder. But it was her face that was most devastating. Pale and blank, it made Karen's heart ache.

She rushed out of the room and into the cold morning air, taking refuge in an alcove just outside the hospital where she could smoke a cigarette and calm herself. Overhead, the blades of a life flight helicopter whirred as it prepared to take off. She watched as they turned faster and faster, stirring up a dusting of snow from the heliport that showered down onto her face. She felt awake and alive. And suddenly, everything seemed so clear.

"She's going to live and this is going to be our future," Karen said to herself.

She went inside and wiped off her daughter's face.

Sandee's story contines.

IT WAS A WONDER Sandee Rager, a 24-year-old part-time college student from Garden City, survived the crash. That's what the loved ones who held vigil in the waiting room at University of Michigan Hospitals in Ann Arbor decided.

The first 48 hours were so scary, with Sandee in a deep coma, her brain swelling, breathing only because a machine forced air into her lungs, tubes in her nose and arms, blood everywhere, her heart racing, her body shaking so violently Karen thought Sandee was having a seizure.

Sandee's boyfriend of more than a year, 23-year-old Bill DeAngelis, wanted to hold her and comfort her. Instead, he touched Sandee's right hand. Cold as death. He wondered if Sandee realized she had been in an accident. He wondered if she'd had time to get scared before the Taurus smashed her car. He felt light-headed. His face flushed. A nurse told him to sit down and put his head between his knees before he fainted.

Karen tried to stay cool. She adopted what her husband called her hospital persona -- the attitude she'd had when she worked as a nursing aide. She was businesslike, technical, numb.

Someone -- was it the hospital social worker or a nurse, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion and yet it was so blurry -- asked if the family wanted a priest for Sandee. And Karen exploded. "There will be no priest," she said. "That would mean last rites."

The group went back to the waiting room and sorted through Sandee's belongings -- the jeans emergency workers had cut off her, her oversize sweater, jewelry.

Bill reached for the ring inscribed with "Carpe Diem" -- Latin for "seize the day" -- and slid it onto the little finger of his left hand.

SANDEE'S FATHER, Jacob Rager, wanted a sign.

He held onto Sandee's hand and begged his unconscious daughter to squeeze if she could hear him.

All the visitors talked to Sandee, because there was no telling how bad Sandee's brain injury was, no telling what she might be able to hear even though she was in a coma.

"Everything's going to be all right," her brother, 20-year-old Matthew, told her -- even though he wasn't sure he believed it.

"Sandee, you've been in an accident," Karen said. "You've got to fight."

"I know you're going to be strong," Bill said.

"Hi, Sandee. It's Dad . . ."

Jacob felt Sandee's grip tighten around his left index finger.

"I think she's squeezing my finger," he said.

Karen told him he had to be mistaken, that Sandee hadn't responded when doctors probed her and pinched her to test her reflexes.

Jacob, a human resources manager who was practical and accustomed to watching the bottom line, didn't know as much about medicine as Karen did. "What did they say? What does that mean?" he'd ask after the doctors gave their updates.

But this time, he yielded to no one.

He wanted to believe Sandee heard him.

He needed to believe.

ON THE THIRD DAY after the crash, Sandee's eyelids fluttered. She squinted and finally managed to open her eyes.

Head injuries are tricky. They can rob a person of the ability to do things most adults take for granted -- even walking and feeding themselves. They can mess with body chemistry, making people unable to adjust to temperature changes. They can alter personalities. They can erase memories.

No one knew the extent of Sandee's injuries.

She didn't talk or show any evidence that she recognized the family members who stood beside her bed and told her they loved her and they missed her and that she would be coming home soon. No matter what.

Driving from the hospital to his home in Riverview one night, Jacob had a terrible thought: "What if she doesn't remember any of us?"

And then he thought of something even more horrible: "What if she doesn't remember herself?"

Sandee looked into her mother's eyes and told her she loved her.

"She knows me!" Karen Rager announced tearfully to the other families waiting for news about their loved ones.

Sandee also knew her father and stepfather, her stepmother, her brother, her boyfriend and her aunt, although she didn't remember many of the times they'd shared.

She didn't remember her Jan. 4, 1995, car accident, either.

You have broken ribs and hips, visitors said.

You have a collapsed lung.

You have a brain injury.

Sandee Rager listened and asked questions in her halting monotone. And then a few minutes later she would forget everything they said and start repeating the underwear commercial she'd heard on TV. "BVD, BVD, BVD," she'd say. Or she'd try to yank the tubes from her arms and nose. She'd ask her mother why a certain friend or family member hadn't stopped by only to be told that the person she wondered about had just left.

It was the same day after day.

And now it was Feb. 14, 1995.

Sandee's boyfriend, Bill DeAngelis, steered her wheelchair into the hospital gift shop, where they lingered, looking at the chocolate and the balloons and the flowers.

Suddenly, so much of what people had been telling Sandee clicked in her mind. She realized she was in the hospital and she knew why.

"God, I hate Valentine's Day," Sandee said.

"You always did," Bill answered.

THOSE WHO VISITED marveled at how hard Sandee worked, how determined she was to get better. Privately, some of her friends admitted that they never thought Sandee had so much strength.

She went to therapy every day, learning how to talk, how to walk, how to control her bladder, how to follow directions, how to be an adult.

It hurt, all the stretching and twisting she had to do to get her body and mind ready to move again. Her mother couldn't bear to accompany her to physical therapy; she couldn't stand to see Sandee in such pain.

Sandee's father, Jacob Rager, believed Sandee drew her strength from Bill and that more than anything, she wanted to get on with the business of being Bill's girlfriend. Her mood always improved when Bill was around. She became giddy -- more like a teenager than the 24-year-old woman she was supposed to be.

Which was exactly what Bill was thinking.

"SHOW ME WHAT you're doing," Bill would say to the nurses and technicians who took care of Sandee.

Against the advice of his parents -- and Sandee's mother -- he stopped working at the pizza carryout and started driving from his home in Wyandotte to the hospital in Ann Arbor every day.

He turned looking after Sandee into his full-time job.

Before the accident, he had talked about getting an apartment with her, although neither was ever able to come up with enough money to move out of their familys' houses. He had taken her to the mall to look at engagement rings, although he hadn't bought one.

Bill tried to forget that he'd spent the weeks before the accident wondering if he still loved Sandee. More than once he'd planned to end the relationship. But every time they were together she seemed so happy. So she remained his girlfriend. He remained her boyfriend. After the accident, he did what he figured any gentleman would do: He pushed the doubts out of his mind and became the guy people fussed over and worried about because he was so dedicated.

He covered Sandee when she was cold, only to point a fan on her a few minutes later when she moaned the word "hot."

Bill recognized that Sandee's injuries made her behavior unpredictable. She was overly emotional. Before the accident, she hadn't made a practice of telling her parents she loved them, but now she told them every time she saw them. Laughter turned to tears, and she couldn't explain why. She would ask to be taken for a wheelchair ride in the hallway, panic at the sight of strangers, hyperventilate and demand to be taken somewhere else.

Always, Bill would oblige.

Sandee's aunt Patty Boryski wondered how long Bill would be so understanding. As an occupational therapist, she had seen many relationships fall apart from the stress of head injuries and the changes they caused.

But Bill stayed.

When he tired of the hours and of the sadness -- Sandee had been so daring and free and now she was essentially helpless -- he remembered that he could have been in the car when it crashed.

He and Sandee had discussed the possibility of him going along with her the day of the accident. She'd said she would call before she left. She didn't. Bill figured that was just as well, because he was scheduled to work anyway.

Staying with Sandee was the least he could do.

SANDEE'S MOTHER, stepfather, brother and aunt huddled around her wheelchair and extended their arms for a group hug.

It was the end of February, nearly seven weeks after the accident, and Sandee was finally well enough to go home to her mother and stepfather's house in Garden City.

She would need around-the-clock care, of course, and she would need to enroll in an outpatient rehabilitation program. There would be months, even years, of work ahead of her.

But going home .she was so happy.

BILL WAS SCARED.

How could anyone think Sandee was ready to go anywhere?

She couldn't do anything for herself -- he'd even been carrying her to the toilet.

The new Sandee was a child. She was clueless. She kept introducing him as her fiance. Initially, Karen had told the hospital staff that Sandee and Bill were engaged so Bill could get into the family-only waiting areas. But now Bill sensed Sandee didn't know it had been a lie. He wanted to tell her but he didn't want to hurt her feelings. So he kept his mouth shut and kept his frustrations to himself.

Karen noticed he was uncomfortable. One day, she pulled him aside and said, "What's going on with you?"

"I don't know how to treat her," Bill, 23, confessed. "I feel like if I go to kiss her or touch her, I'm violating a child."

SANDEE WANTED ROMANCE.

She'd been home for a while. She was going to therapy four days a week. Now all she wanted was to be sweet-talked and caressed and loved.

Her mother and stepfather were out for the evening. She and Bill had the house to themselves.

They kissed.

And then Bill left. He didn't want to be near her. He didn't want to touch her.

She didn't kiss the same.

Sandee was in a panic.

She'd left her mother standing at the jewelry counter in JC Penney to look at an outfit on a rack a few feet away. Then she'd wandered across the aisle to another rack. Now she was lost. And scared.

She hurried from women's clothing to housewares. No sign of her mom. "Where's my mother?" she wondered. "How am I going to get home?"

Sandee Rager was 25 and she was all alone.

She'd felt that way so much in the nine months since her Jan. 4, 1995 car accident. She was uncertain of her place. She was an outsider, even in her own life.

She'd lurched from her coma in her Ann Arbor hospital room, able to recall those she loved but unable to recall many of the times they'd shared.

She couldn't remember vacationing in the Bahamas with her mother or camping with her father and brother.

She couldn't remember getting sick on pizza at her Sweet Sixteen party or learning to drive or graduating from high school.

She couldn't remember herself.

"Mom, what kind of person was I?" Sandee asked.

All she knew was people said she was different now. And that made her sad, because it meant others knew her better than she knew herself; they knew her well enough to know she'd changed.

"You act young," her boyfriend, Bill DeAngelis, 23, had said, although he suspected she didn't understand. "You had a darker side and that's really what drew me. You're not sarcastic anymore. You're just not flamboyant. Your attitude is gone."

They broke up.

Sandee fell apart.

She'd believed Bill loved her and that one day they would marry and live happily forever. The accident had taken so much of her past but with Bill in her life, she had a future and she knew who she was -- she was the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

Suddenly, she wasn't.

"I hate you," she said when she looked at her reflection in the mirror. "You're ugly."

After what seemed like hours alone in the JC Penney store, Sandee found her mother -- at the jewelry counter, exactly where she'd left her a few minutes earlier.

Sandee slid beside her and held onto the hem of her mother's jacket.

She still felt lost.

SANDEE CAME HOME seven weeks after the accident.

Her social worker had suggested that her mother, Karen Rager, place Sandee in a nursing home until she was well enough to care for herself.

"There's nothing they can do there that I can't do," said Karen, who once worked as a nurse's aide.

She strapped Sandee into the family's Aerostar van and drove her home to Garden City.

Sandee, her weight down from 140 to less than 100 since the accident, was so exhausted by the trip that she slept for most of the next three days.

Then she started rehabilitation.

She needed to learn how to walk. She had trouble figuring out how to place one foot in front of the other.

She needed to strengthen her withered muscles.

She needed to rebuild her vocabulary and improve her speech -- she talked slowly and her words often came out slurred, especially when she was tired. Sometimes Karen would hear Sandee, whose voice had grown higher in pitch, and wonder who was speaking.

It was all so embarrassing for Sandee, to be so old and yet so young. She was a grown woman and she couldn't do elementary school math. She could read, but she couldn't remember what she'd read.

On her first day at the outpatient rehabilitation center in Ann Arbor, Sandee was so overwhelmed she put her head on the lunch-room table and cried for 20 minutes.

KAREN HATED SEEING her daughter struggle.

It was true, Sandee was making good progress in physical therapy. She gave herself deadlines. I'll ditch my walker by Bill's birthday, she said. And she did, a month early -- although she sometimes tripped and stumbled.

It took her an hour and a half to shower and dress -- and that was with help.

She couldn't figure out how the household worked -- she stared at the microwave, amazed that she could put food in cold and take it out hot a few minutes later.

She couldn't make a peanut butter sandwich without step-by-step directions -- take the bread off the top of the fridge, take two slices from the bag, put them on the counter, take the jar of peanut butter out of the overhead cupboard, put it on the counter, unscrew the lid, take a knife out of the drawer, stick it into the peanut butter, spread the peanut butter across one slice of bread, place the other piece of bread on top of the peanut butter slice.

She panicked the day the doorbell and the phone rang at the same time because she couldn't decide which to answer first.

At a family barbecue, someone asked her if she wanted chicken or beef and Sandee wept because she didn't know.

Plus, eating took so much concentration and energy -- the brain injury left Sandee prone to choking -- that sometimes she nodded off at the table.

Karen cursed the unfairness of what had happened to her daughter. But then she started feeling guilty about her anger. It was a miracle Sandee had survived. "Why am I angry?" Karen asked herself. "I should be rejoicing.

"She will never be the same, but that doesn't mean she won't be better."

With that, Karen realized she had stopped mourning the loss of the old Sandee and accepted the new Sandee.

She wondered if Sandee would be able to do the same.

SOMETIMES AT NIGHT, Sandee retreated to her room, lit an incense stick, sat on her twin bed and tried to relax herself into remembering.

She looked at her high school yearbooks and read poems she had written. But instead of feeling closer to her past, she felt surrounded by the details of someone else's life.

Sandee hadn't realized the extent of her memory loss until she left the hospital. Relatives were in and out of the house visiting and wanting to talk about old times but Sandee realized she didn't have anything to say.

"Mom, do I like to read?" she asked when she noticed her bedroom bookshelf was stocked with nail polish, hair gel, mousse and hair spray instead of books.

"Mom, do I like crab?" she asked when confronted with a restaurant menu.

One day Sandee, who'd studied dance for years, came across a videotape of her performances at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn.

"Let's check out what I used to do," she said to herself as she settled into the living room recliner and aimed the remote control. She didn't recall the recitals, but she could tell from the gleeful way her likeness danced that she had enjoyed performing.

Seeing herself moving to the music, instead of frozen in a photograph, made her realize what she had lost. Now she could barely walk across the living room floor.

"God, I'm so pathetic," Sandee thought.

A YEAR HAD PASSED since the accident, and even though it made her mother nervous, Sandee was driving again.

She was traveling down Cherry Hill one day when another car whizzed into her lane and cut her off. She got so so angry that she forgot where she'd been going. She pulled into a parking lot and tried to remember. She tried to calm herself by counting to 10. It didn't work.

"I wish I were dead," she said to herself.

She clenched her fists so hard her nails dug into the palms of her hands.

Then she raised her right fist toward the window.

Sandee took a detour.

Instead of going the roundabout way she always traveled to her friend's house, Sandee took the quicker route -- even though it meant driving herself through the intersection where she'd almost died 10 months earlier.

She'd been by the site once before, riding in the family van with her mother, Karen, and stepfather, Joe. She couldn't recall the Jan. 4, 1995, car crash; she'd suffered a head injury that erased much of her memory. But when she realized they were approaching Middlebelt Road and the I-94 entrance ramp near Metro Airport in Romulus, she wept. After that, she avoided the area.

On the morning she took the detour, Sandee Rager awoke in her Garden City home feeling healthy, rested and, most of all, strong.

Her stomach flipped and her hands tingled as she approached the ramp.

But she was tired of being an accident victim.

Tired of collapsing on the living room sofa and crying over her lost memories.

Tired of saying "I hate you" when she saw her reflection in the mirror.

Tired of the way her body ached even though the broken bones had healed.

Most of all, she was tired of being afraid.

"Please, do not let me get hit again," she said to herself as she prepared to make the turn onto the freeway. "Breathe. Don't hyperventilate. Remember to watch traffic. Turn on the green, not on the yellow."

Within seconds, she successfully navigated the intersection. She laughed. She'd won. She'd beaten the accident instead of allowing herself to be beaten by it.

She would try to do that more often.

Even the day she got cut off in traffic, forgot where she was going, raised her fist to her car window and wished she was dead. Even then, she managed to pull back before she smashed her fist through the glass.

She had to take control.

She had to create new memories.

Otherwise, she'd never be able to get on with her life.

SATURDAYS WERE THE WORST.

The phone would ring, then someone would wander in wanting a makeover and someone else would want foundation but didn't know what shade and Sandee would have to log onto the computer and look up the colors and prices and the phone would ring again.

A year and a half had passed since the accident and Sandee's doctor wanted her to get a job.

Before the crash, Sandee had been a cook at a pizza place, a clerk at a video store and a part-time student at community college.

She had never been career-oriented or especially concerned about her future.

Her father, worried about her lack of direction as she neared the end of high school, talked to her about options. You can go to college, he said. You can work. Make sure you can take care of yourself because you never know what might happen.

"Oh," Sandee said, "that's scary."

After the accident, she was just as unfocused.

Unable to remember her own interests, she latched onto the interests of people she admired. If she didn't know enough to be like her old self, she could be like the new people she encountered.

She met the staff at the rehabilitation center and decided to be a physical therapist.

Then she saw "Profiler" on TV and decided to be a criminal psychologist.

After that, she read some of her mother's true-crime books and decided to be a writer of true-crime stories.

But in the summer of 1996, Sandee, 26, was working at a Merle Norman makeup salon at Westland Mall, and everyone wanted something.

The brain injury made it difficult for Sandee to organize her thoughts. She applied the wrong kind of facial cleanser, giving a woman with dry skin a product meant for oily skin. She lost her place while describing the benefits of a specific cream.

"What do you do for a living?" Sandee asked on those occasions. She didn't really listen to the clients' answers. She encouraged the women to talk so she could use the time to refocus. She almost always found her place and went on with her product demonstration. She was proud of the way she recovered. Still, sometimes she was so tired from thinking that at the end of the day she went home and went straight to bed. After six months at the makeup studio, Sandee quit.

She took a job at a hospital cafeteria because it paid more, but she was laid off after a few months.

She took a job at a video duplication service that was so fast-paced she had a full-blown panic attack. She had them often when she was stressed or scared or pressured. She would cry, hyperventilate, shake and drool and, afterward, she'd be completely exhausted. Eventually, she had to quit the job.

She took a job as a housekeeper at a retirement home but eventually resigned.

After that, she found a job at a funeral home.

All the paperwork made her tense. Once she lost track of a box of cremated remains. She found it quickly and apologized to the family and accepted full responsibility for the mistake. It was a turning point, she thought. From then on, things seemed to go more smoothly. She believed she was doing the best she could; the boss seemed happy.

Late one Friday afternoon, he called her into the office.

Sandee figured she was about to get a raise.

Instead, she got fired.

SANDEE WAS CLOSER to her family than she'd ever been.

She surprised her brother by sending him cards for no reason. She asked him questions about his job and seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say about life as a marine and, later, as a prison guard.

She spent time with her grandfather who had Alzheimer's and lived in a nursing home. She'd avoided him before the accident because he yelled at her and said he didn't want her around. But there she was now, sitting next to his bed, telling him that he looked handsome and that he really should eat something. "I understand why Grandpa's so frustrated," Sandee said after a visit to the nursing home. "He can't remember."

Joe Sizemore, Sandee's stepfather, was amazed at the depth of her feelings. When she hugged him and thanked him for standing by her through her recovery, he sensed she meant every word.

He'd always thought Sandee was a good kid. But before the accident, he'd also wondered if anything gave her joy. She seemed so morose so much of the time, dressed in all that black. She was self-absorbed. She was impatient. Now she craved family time -- dinners, chats, nights in front of the television, breakfast with her father, sleepovers with her aunt, cuddling with her baby niece. She shared herself. That's what surprised Joe the most. Sometimes Joe laughed and said Sandee was "new and improved." The way he saw it, it had taken almost dying to bring her to life.

And to cement her relationship with her mother, Karen Rager.

Sandee had always enjoyed her mother's company and valued her opinions, but now she relied on them.

She needed her mother's comfort when she had difficulty at work or thought she was ugly.

She needed her mother to explain the past. "Why is this making me sad?" Sandee asked, pointing to a picture of her grandmother. And Karen had to tell Sandee that maybe she was sad because her grandmother, whom she had loved very much, was dead.

Sandee needed Karen to help her with manners. The accident had erased many of Sandee's inhibitions and much of her common sense. Say hello to guests, Karen would say. Thank them for visiting. Ask them if they would like something to drink.

Sandee relied on Karen to be her companion. They went to garage sales together. And Sandee loved grocery shopping with her mother. "Let's get some bad food," Karen would say, and then they'd go home and eat chips or Little Debbies. Late at night, they watched TV together. Once, someone asked Sandee to name the place she felt safest in all the world. "The family room," Sandee said. "Because that's where my mom usually is."

SANDEE WAS in love again.

She'd been dating and becoming infatuated with every man who took her to dinner or the movies. This time, he was a guy she met at the mall. He told her he was a model.

Since her spring 1995 break-up with Bill DeAngelis, Sandee had been longing for a serious boyfriend, a man to hold doors for her and tell her she was beautiful and make her feel she was the center of his universe.

Only later did it occur to Sandee that maybe something else fueled her search. Bill had walked away because he said the accident had changed her. If she could find someone else to love her, she could reclaim something the accident had taken -- a man in her life.

At first, Karen refused to let Sandee go anywhere with any man.

Sandee was too vulnerable and immature, Karen decided.

She wouldn't be able to fight back if some guy tried to take advantage of her.

She probably wouldn't even be able to find a phone if she got stranded.

Plus, she was so desperate to be loved. Sandee thought she would meet a nice guy, go out on a few dates, get married and live happily ever after. She didn't understand that men don't always call when they say they will and that sometimes that's for the best. Or that very few first dates lead to marriage. Or that sometimes people lie. The head injury made Sandee so naive. She seldom questioned anything anyone said.

Karen ordered pizzas and rented videos and told Sandee she and her dates could hang out in the living room.

Eventually, Karen had to relent.

She couldn't treat Sandee like a child. In the hospital, Karen had even reprimanded a nurse for calling Sandee "kiddo." If Sandee wanted to go out, she should go out.

That's exactly what Sandee did.

The guys usually disappeared after a couple of dates.

But the man who said he was a model was sticking around and that irritated Karen. She thought he seemed shady, although she didn't want to insult Sandee by telling her. She wanted Sandee to put the pieces together herself.

"Why doesn't he have a phone?" Karen asked Sandee.

"Why does he always want you to drive when you go out?"

When he stopped coming around, Sandee got the hint and, once again, she was heartbroken.

In January 1998, Sandee met J.J. Zetts at a coffeehouse poetry reading.

He lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and was visiting a Detroitarea friend who knew Sandee. She was attracted the minute she saw J.J.; she thought his hazel eyes were sexy. He gave her his phone number and she called him in Ohio and soon they were speaking almost every day. He came back to visit Sandee. They spent the night talking. They kissed. She drove to Youngstown to see him. They grew closer. She confided in him. She relied on him to prop her up when she was upset about work and to talk her through panic attacks.

She loved him. And he loved her for who she was now, not who she had been. They decided she would move to Youngstown, where J.J., 32, owned a brick Cape Cod. She would get a part-time job and study at a local university and on weekends they'd visit his family and go out with his friends. And everyone would know her as Sandee Rager, J.J.'s girlfriend. No one would compare her to the woman she'd been before the accident because no one knew who she'd been. Everything was so perfect.

Until J.J. started having second thoughts.

He pulled Sandee aside during a weekend visit and said, "Are you latching on to me because I can supply you with a life?"

Sandee looked stunning, her long blond hair curled into ringlets and piled elegantly atop her head, her close-fitting backless red gown skimming the floor.

She would be moving on soon, leaving her mother and the rest of her family and everyone else who knew her well enough to realize she'd emerged from her wrecked car bruised, broken and not at all her old self.

But before she could go, 28-year-old Sandee wanted to look back one more time; she wanted to attend her 10-year high school reunion -- Dearborn Edsel Ford Class of 1988.

Who knew what she might remember?

She and her date arrived early and took a table near the dance floor.

She twisted in her seat so she could see the the faces of former classmates as they sauntered into the banquet room and picked up their name tags.

She studied the photo collages and the senior year video. Nothing seemed familiar, although she laughed when she heard that some guy had mooned the choir bus; she'd sung in the choir and figured she was probably on that bus.

"Do you remember me?" a woman from her class asked.

"No," Sandee said, not explaining that the car accident four years earlier had caused a brain injury that changed her personality and erased much of her memory.

"I don't know what to say," the woman whispered, sounding put off.

Once, such an encounter would have sent Sandee into a depression; she would have felt little and lost. But she had come to accept that the holes in her past might never be filled. Occasionally a word or an object or the sound of someone's voice triggered memories, and she always got excited when that happened. But she no longer counted on remembering.

Shortly after dinner, Sandee rose from her chair and wove her way to the back of the room toward a woman named Lisa.

"Acting class!" Sandee said. "Did we do a scene with three other people from 'The Breakfast Club?' "

"Yeah!" Lisa said.

Sandee smiled and walked to her seat.

SANDEE RAGER HAD never written and directed a play before.

But there she was, sitting on the edge of the stage in the summer of 1998, urging actors to speak up and emote.

She'd studied theater at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, and her one-act play about a woman in a coma had been chosen for production as part of the school's new playwright's workshop.

About 40 people showed up for the premiere, including her mother, who brought tissue and cried from the opening line to the closing bows. But even if no one had shown up, Sandee would have considered the play a success. It created an emotional divide between Sandee and the accident. Often, she became so wrapped up in the technical aspects of the show she forgot the actors were telling a story based on her own experience.

It was the first of many triumphs for Sandee that summer and fall.

She earned her blue belt in hapkido. She could break a board with her foot, she could flip opponents onto their backs and hold them down by sticking a knee in their chests.

And she finally found a job she enjoyed, at a bookstore coffee bar not far from her Garden City home. She smiled when she recalled that she'd disliked the taste of coffee before the accident and now she craved it; her mother and stepfather had even given her a cappuccino machine for her 28th birthday.

Sandee looked forward to going to work, and even on bad days when her mind moved slowly she kept herself on track. She proudly recounted the day the coffee bar was busy and she was the only person working and the cups were dirty and she didn't have time to start the dishwasher and all she wanted to do was scream. Instead, she poured coffee into paper cups and joked with customers about forgetting their orders. And everyone seemed so understanding.

At break time, Sandee retreated to the employees' lunchroom and cried, although no one noticed because she bent her head and pretended to read a book.

"When you're in public, you've got to control this," her mother always said. Sandee thought how happy her mother would be when she told her how she'd fought off a panic attack.

Sandee liked herself.

SANDEE AND J.J. cuddled on the couch.

It seemed like ages since J.J. had questioned their relationship, since he'd told Sandee he was uncomfortable with her mood swings and neediness.

J.J., a 32-year-old computer analyst from Youngstown, Ohio, had been shaken the night she started to hyperventilate and had to leave the crowded bar where they'd gone for a concert. He wanted a girlfriend, not a patient. "How are you feeling?" were almost always the first words out of his mouth when he called her.

He told Sandee he worried she was just using him as her ticket back to an adult life. After all, he could provide her with stability -- he had a house, a steady job, a promising future.

Sandee sobbed.

J.J. spent the night thinking, and the next day he told Sandee he wanted to continue the relationship.

"Now, I have doubts," she said.

She wasn't sure she wanted to be involved with a man who didn't accept her.

When previous relationships had soured, Sandee felt bad about herself and thought about ways she could change. He'll like me better if I'm more interested in football, she'd say. He'll like me better if I change my hair color.

She refused to do that now; even though no one had been killed in the car accident, it was clear to Sandee that the woman she used to be was dead.

She spent almost two weeks thinking about J.J.

She realized she loved him and she wanted to spend her life with him.

J.J. realized he missed Sandee's voice on the telephone and missed her enthusiasm; everything seemed new to her. On their first date, he'd surprised himself by telling her about past relationships -- he'd had two serious girlfriends and the breakups had been upsetting.

"What are you doing?" he asked himself every time he told Sandee more. Driving to Detroit from Youngstown to see a woman he barely knew was out of character for J.J. But with Sandee, he was different. His friends told him he seemed less serious. Even he recognized she had a certain power over him. When he was with Sandee, he wanted to hold her hand. He wanted to tell her she was beautiful. He wanted to be happy.

Sandee and J.J. decided to give love another try.

A LITTLE AFTER 1 o'clock on Jan. 23, 1999, Sandee climbed into the driver's seat of her pickup and adjusted her seat belt.

She'd already taken her truck in for service and withdrawn money from the credit union.

She'd cleaned out her closet and made her bed one last time and rubbed the belly of her Buddha statue for luck.

She'd said good-bye to her neighbors and friends at a pizza party her mother gave two nights earlier. It had been small and informal and Sandee had spent much of the night sitting in a folding chair, waiting for guests to approach; sometimes she still had difficulty being socially graceful.

Sandee was leaving her mother and stepfather's home and moving to Youngstown to live with J.J.

The bookstore had agreed to transfer her to a store near J.J.'s house. Youngstown State University had agreed to review her application; Sandee wanted to pursue a career in journalism.

Sandee couldn't remember most of her past.

The future was all she cared about now.

KAREN RAGER, SANDEE'S MOM, was already in Ohio.

She and her sister and stepdaughter and niece had taken a load of Sandee's stuff down in the van. They were spending the weekend with relatives who lived about a half-hour from J.J.'s house.

They were also delaying the inevitable -- the moment Karen and Sandee would have to say good-bye.

Karen, 47, admitted that since the crash, she was more protective of Sandee than of her son or stepdaughter or two nieces who had lived with her. She got upset when Sandee forgot to call to report she'd reached her destination.

During a lightning storm a few months earlier, Karen and Joe had gone out to look for Sandee because they worried she'd run off the road. They found her pickup at the coffeehouse where she attended poetry readings but were too embarrassed to go in. Tell Sandee to call home, they said to a friend of hers who was on his way inside.

Karen kept telling herself -- and those around her -- that the move was the best thing for Sandee.

And Sandee agreed.

She knew she was closer to her mother than to anyone else. She knew she could rely on her mother to be honest and tell her when she looked good and when she didn't, when she behaved well and when she was slow. Her mother knew everything. Even before Sandee said anything about problems with J.J., Karen had known. "My mother," Sandee said so often, "knows me better than I know myself."

Karen remembered every one of Sandee's birthdays.

She remembered the family picnics and the vacations and the prom and the dance recitals and the plays and graduation open house and all the hair colors Sandee tried over the years.

She remembered all the things Sandee didn't.

She remembered who Sandee had been.

Now she had to let go of the woman Sandee had become.

SANDEE'S CLOTHES, her books, her CDs, her dresser, her kitchenware, everything, had been unloaded into J.J.'s house.

"Tell me what you're feeling," Karen asked in the businesslike hospital tone she used when she tried not to get emotional. "Are you happy?"

"Yep," Sandee said.

She pulled Sandee aside from the small group of relatives who had come to help -- and to check out Sandee's new surroundings -- and they cried in one another's arms.

"It's just that you're not coming home," Karen said.

She whispered in Sandee's ear: "Take care of yourself and take care of each other."

Sandee nodded.

"I think you're going to be happy here," Karen said. "I've got to get out of here before I cry any more."

Sandee followed her mother outside. She stood on the porch and waved at the van as it pulled onto the street. It occurred to her that she'd finally gotten the very things she'd spent four years trying to find -- a job, a relationship, a peace with the past and an appetite for the future. Most of all, she'd figured out who she was.

She bit her lip and looked like she might cry.

Instead, she laughed

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