Family bonds remain strong for Cleve Brown and his loved ones 20 years after he fell 25 feet trying to hang a Christmas wreath.
While thousands of Buffalo Bills fans cheered Sunday over the medical miracle of tight end Kevin Everett’s remarkable recovery from a spinal-cord injury, a local family quietly marked a milestone of similar magnitude.
Though not football fans — they didn’t even plan to watch yesterday’s game between the Bills and New York Giants — the Brown family knows something about what Everett’s family is going through. This month marks 20 years since Cleve Brown, 45, plummeted 25 feet from a ladder while hanging a Christmas wreath atop his parents two-story house on Eelpot Road.
Brown, a handyman with expertise in carpentry and roofing, broke nearly every bone in the fall — including his skull.
“He landed on his head and had the imprint of his orange hat for a long time,” said Cleve’s wife, Helen.
Cleve was in a coma for four weeks after the fall, leaving his family wondering if he would ever regain consciousness — or even live.
“We didn’t really have Christmas that year,” recalled Helen, who wondered if she would be raising their children, Elizabeth and Tanya, without a dad. When Cleve fell, Tanya was two and Elizabeth was one month old.
But the day after Christmas, 1987, Cleve gave his family a precious gift — he opened his eyes. Cleve’s father, William, who died several years ago, told the Messenger shortly after that experience that his son’s first response was to reach for his children and hug Helen.
That was the beginning of two years of therapy and rehab, and readjusting to a new way of life.
A stroke Cleve suffered after the fall left him without the ability to speak or use the muscles on the right side of his body.
“His stubborn streak and sense of humor got him through,” said Helen from their home on Route 21 days before Christmas.
A big Christmas tree with multi-colored lights shone prominently in the corner of the living room. The Browns’ two dogs — M.J., a black Lab, and Baby Blue, a beagle mutt — waltzed by Cleve’s chair for playful pats.
It took two years, but Cleve got back on his feet, and he walks with help from a cane. His speech is limited to a few words, and getting those words out takes time and concentration. Tanya recalled a fantastic moment two years ago when her dad came out with the word “wonderful.”
“I cried when I heard it,” said Helen.
In the beginning, he used a device called a Touch Talker to help him communicate. The machine enables those who can’t speak to convey basic messages using a keyboard. But through the years, his family has adjusted more to reading Cleve’s body language.
Communicating is still largely “a guessing game,” said Helen, who helps her husband do routine things like dressing and bathing.
Helen said when she trained years ago to be a nurse’s aid, she never dreamed she would have to use those skills to take care of her husband.
“You just take one day at a time,” she said.
For Tanya, 22, and Elizabeth, 20, their dad has been more like a brother.
“I grew up with him,” said Elizabeth. “When he was learning things, I was learning things, too.”
Elizabeth recalled that when she went to kindergarten, she didn’t know how to tell time. But it wasn’t because she couldn’t learn it. It was because the school used clocks with hands and at home, they used only digital clocks because they were easier for her dad to read.
In the end, Elizabeth said she thinks in many ways she is a better person because of her dad’s condition. She thinks she is more apt than most people to notice when someone needs help and respond. Sometimes it’s simple things like holding a door for an elderly person, said Elizabeth, a substitute teacher’s aide in the Naples Central School District.
Despite his limitations, Cleve displays a good-natured attitude. He has a twinkle in his eye and likes to hear his family tell stories.
Elizabeth recalled a favorite: the time her dad left home without telling anyone.
Elizabeth, who was in high school then, said the story goes that they were out of macaroni and cheese and her dad wanted some. So — without anyone knowing — he got in his wheelchair and headed down the hill from their Route 21 home to the village a couple miles away. He made it to Bob & Irv’s Shurfine, bought the stuff, and headed back home.
“He got pretty far with his macaroni and cheese,” said Elizabeth. They spotted him along the road on his way back, she said. “He had a smile on his face.”
Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at email@example.com