ERIE — The Santon family spent Christmas in an Estes Park cabin, watching television, soaking in a hot tub and, as Mark Santon put it, “being tourists in our own backyard.”
“No one wanted to be here with the tree and the presents,” he said Thursday at this home. “It was as good as it could be.”
This Christmas was the family’s first without Betsy, the youngest Santon, who was killed June 16 in a car accident.
Betsy, 14, was due at a Gunbarrel baby-sitting job at 6 p.m. that day. Her brother, Mark Jr., had his learning permit, so Betsy asked her mother, Joan Santon, if he could drive.
At U.S. Highway 287 and Lookout Road, Mark Jr. turned the family’s Honda Accord left in front of an oncoming F250 pickup truck.
In the back seat, Betsy was killed.
Joan Santon, in the front passenger seat, suffered a serious head injury that put her in a coma for two months. At the end of August, she came home from the hospital.
“I’ve been told I’m going to have a full recovery,” Joan Santon said Thursday at her home. She started back to work Dec. 18 as a program coordinator for Boulder County Aging Services.
She still undergoes therapy at the Mapleton Center in Boulder, but generally shows no obvious signs of her injury.
“When I see the three of them, I know why I’m here,” Joan Santon said as she looked admiringly at Kathryn, 21, Mark Jr., 16, and Jenna, 22. “They’re incredible by anyone’s standards.”
• • •
That Friday afternoon, Mark Santon worked later than usual and came home to an empty house, he said. He knew Betsy was scheduled to baby-sit at 6 p.m.
“I didn’t know if Mark had gone with them,” he said.
At 6:05 p.m., Betsy’s clients began calling the house.
“I had no clue. I called cell phones; no answers,” Mark Santon said. “About 7 o’clock, I began to wonder, ‘What’s going on?’”
Someone from Longmont United Hospital called the house at 7:15 p.m.
“They said there had been an accident and they had Mark there,” he said, starting to cry. Mark Jr. had a cut on his head and would be OK.
Joan Santon was more seriously injured and had been flown to St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver.
“Then I asked about my daughter. They didn’t know.
“I didn’t know what to think. I guess, for a split second, I thought the worst,” Mark Santon said.
He decided to go the accident scene, just two miles from the family’s home. U.S. 287 was blocked, though, at Jasper Road, the same street on which the Santons live.
“I knew it was bad when I saw that,” Mark Santon said. “They wouldn’t let me go up to the accident. … They wouldn’t give me any information.”
After an hour or so, the coroner told him there was a fatality.
“I knew. I knew it before they told me, putting two and two together,” Mark Santon said. He worried about his son, who knew Betsy was gone.
But no one could be sure of Joan Santon’s condition.
“I didn’t know if I’d lost her as well,” Mark Santon said.
Mark Santon, his parents and Mark Jr. trekked to St. Anthony Central Hospital. Joan Santon’s neurosurgeon was pessimistic.
“We felt he was preparing us for the worst,” Mark Santon said. Her neurologist, however, had more of a “wait and see” attitude.
The crash caused numerous small bleeds in Joan Santon’s brain, but her skull was not fractured. She also suffered four fractures in her pelvis. A ventilator was helping her breathe.
After four or five days, Joan Santon began to stabilize. Doctors kept her at St. Anthony Central for about 21/2 weeks, then transferred her to North Valley Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital in Thornton.
“It was a gradual waking,” Mark Santon said. “Sometimes she was coherent, sometimes she wasn’t.”
• • •
During Joan Santon’s hospitalization, doctors and nurses repeatedly told her she had been in a car accident. She doesn’t remember the accident; her therapist told her Thursday she probably never will, she said. That’s fine by her.
“I don’t want to remember that,” Joan Santon said.
She doesn’t remember much of her hospitalization, either, but she recalled wondering why only three of her children were visiting her.
When she asked Mark Santon why Betsy had not visited — and even accused him of grounding their youngest daughter — he avoided answering until Joan Santon was healthy enough for the news.
But she didn’t really need to be told.
“From what Joan told me, she knew in her heart,” Mark Santon said.
Betsy’s funeral at Rocky Mountain Christian Church was recorded on video, so Joan Santon could watch the service after she returned home.
• • •
The Santon family has relied on its faith in God and the support of the community since June 16.
They are confident Betsy is in heaven.
“(I know) that Betsy’s OK, that Betsy’s with the Lord. In some ways, I’m jealous,” Mark Santon said. “I miss her terribly.”
Hundreds of people attended Betsy’s funeral on June 27, including seemingly every teacher who ever taught the Santon children.
“I saw my preschool teacher,” Kathryn said.
The care continued long after the funeral, however.
More than 100 people visited St. Anthony Central Hospital while Joan Santon was there, Mark Santon said.
Some brought lunch to the hospital. Other times, the family would come home to find “bags and bags of groceries on the front porch,” Kathryn said.
“That’s been very comforting to me, to know people were taking care of my family,” Joan Santon said.
• • •
While they all still are grieving and healing, members of the Santon family seem more concerned about each other than themselves.
Joan Santon is sometimes overwhelmed by what her family’s been forced to endure. And she worries about her son.
“I can’t believe he has to go through this,” Joan Santon said.
Mark Jr. didn’t say much during a recent interview with the family. When asked how he was doing, he simply replied, “OK.” His parents have encouraged him to seek counseling.
The eldest Santon daughter, Jenna, moved home from Dallas after the accident. While she takes college courses online and works as a waitress in Lafayette, she takes her mother to doctors’ appointments and therapy sessions.
Joan Santon often vents her grief during those drives, she said. “I cry at really inappropriate times,” she said.
Kathryn stayed in Dallas to pursue her nursing degree. “We still have everyone else in our family to take care of,” she said.
“Every one of them has been so supportive and so loving. It’s hard to believe,” Joan Santon said.