May 11, 2014

Faith, family and friends: A mother’s amazing tale of strength

Mother’s Day: After losing her children in 2009 crash, holiday holds special meaning for her home, church families

Crystal Hewitt plans to celebrate Mother’s Day with all her children – first with a Sunday morning at her home-away-from-home Chapin Baptist Church and then with a meal on Lake Murray.

It’ll be a joyous day, with abundant hugs and exuberant love from her large biological and church family. The mood will be remarkably different from four years ago, when she just wanted to get away from everyone except her husband, Craig, on Mother’s Day.

Faith, family and friends eventually conspired to pull her out of the unimaginable trauma of losing her first two children – 5-year-old Parker and 3-year-old Haley – in a highway accident in 2009. Now, her amazing strength of faith boosts others on a daily basis.

“It’s a peace that goes beyond understanding,” said Crystal, 35. “It is still hard as anything, and we still hurt like crazy. But we know there’s a God there to comfort us, and we seriously feel his arms around us when we are having a very difficult day. It is a peace you cannot explain.”

That peace is personified on a Tuesday morning as her children – 1-year-old Emerson and 3-year-old Ellington – played happily with colored markers on the coffee table in front of Crystal and Craig in their home. On the walls, on the shelves, everywhere in the house, there are smiling photos of Emerson and Ellington, of Crystal and Craig and, especially, of Parker and Haley.

This mom still has four children; two just aren’t here physically.

Early on June 29, 2009, Crystal was driving her 2001 Honda with Parker and Haley in the back seat when she stopped at an intersection in Lexington County. The driver of a garbage truck coming up from behind swerved to miss the car, but the truck flipped and smashed into the Hewitts. Parker and Haley didn’t survive, and Crystal suffered life-threatening injuries.

While Crystal fought to survive and then recover physically, Craig, a professional photographer, dealt with his grief compiling family pictures into a slide show that he shared online. To this day, it prompts both tears and smiles, even for people who never met the Hewitts. (You can view it at www.craighewittphotography.com.)

Although Crystal survived, doctors told her she likely wouldn’t be able to have children because of injuries sustained in the crash. That was doubly devastating.

“Just hearing the news that (Crystal) wasn’t going to be able to have any more children, that was very, very hard to hear because of how our lives were geared around our family and how much our family and kids mean to us,” Craig recalled.

In fact, Crystal was in training to become the children’s pastor at their church before the accident shattered that plan. When she and Craig returned to the church, she couldn’t bear to walk down the children’s hall.

Late in 2009, Crystal and Craig were elated when she became pregnant with Ellington. But then doctors told them Ellington had spina bifida, a congenital disorder that leads to a malformation of the spinal column.

“I honestly never asked why with Parker and Haley,” Crystal said. “I kept trusting that He has a plan for this, we’re going to get through it, He’s going to show us.

“But when we got pregnant with Ellington, that is the time I did ask why. I went through about two weeks there, and I asked ‘Lord, why?’ He healed me, I was a millimeter away from being paralyzed. I could easily have lost my legs. I was asking ‘Why take (the use of) her legs? I would rather You take mine.’”

Ellington also was born without the corpus callosum, the thick band of nerve fibers that separates the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Doctors suggested she might never walk and likely would have severe developmental problems. It was long past the time when most people would have been cursing their plight, but the Hewitts put their trust in God.

“We felt a peace come over us saying ‘I have got this. Stop worrying about it,’” Crystal said. “We felt like God was going to heal her. From that moment on, we kept praying and trusting that God’s got this. He wouldn’t send us a child I couldn’t take care of. We just believed wholeheartedly that he was going to heal her completely.”

Three years later, the Hewitts refer to Ellington as their “walking miracle.” Despite some of the health problems associated with spina bifida, she gets around on strong legs, and she has a good start on writing her name with a perfect capital E. The school district speech therapist has declared Ellington too advanced with her speech to qualify for therapy. A stranger meeting Ellington would have no idea she was any different from any other 3-year-old – other than being remarkably outgoing.

And with the arrival of Ellington, suddenly Mother’s Day had added meaning. It was a day to celebrate with Ellington and fondly remember Parker and Haley.

Then along came Emerson, a healthy boy whose favorite new saying as he nears his second birthday is “What are you doing?”

More questions are bound to come, including those about the siblings he never met. Ellington and Emerson will feel like Parker and Haley are part of the family. In addition to the photos on the walls, the Hewitts have come up with multiple ways to keep their spirit alive. Last year, they opted to stage the Hewitt 5K to raise money for a memorial pavilion at the church.

“We looked at dates, and the only date available was the anniversary (of the fatal wreck), and that’s a date that we kind of stay to ourselves usually,” Crystal said. “We’re like ‘OK God, you’re pointing us to do this.’”

And suddenly the date that held so much anguish for the previous years was full of high fives and smiles and balloons launched to heaven. Nearly 700 people participated in the event, an amazing number for a new race in the heat of the summer.

About that same time, Chad Thibodeaux took over as pastor at Chapin Baptist. He recognized the incredible faith exhibited by Crystal, and he made her an offer she didn’t know she wanted and needed. At that point, she still hadn’t walked down the elementary school children’s hall at the church since the accident.

“I didn’t feel like I could go back, that I could handle working around children without Parker and Haley right there because we had all been there together,” Crystal said. “Four years later, a new pastor comes on board and he calls me in his office and he talks to me for awhile and says ‘I want to offer you the children’s pastor job.’ I said ‘What!?’ It was totally a God thing.”

Thibodeaux knew what Crystal had been through, and he saw how she interacted with his own children. He knew she “had a heart for children and a passion for God,” he said.

Most importantly, though, “she understands the frailties of life,” Thibodeaux said. “She knows every day matters. You don’t know if you have another day, so you need to demonstrate the love of Jesus every day.”

Crystal accepted the job late last summer. Some friends wondered how she could handle being around the children who had been classmates of Parker and Haley, but to Crystal, it felt right.

“Our church family is like family,” she said. “They were there to embrace us. I feel like they walked the journey with us. I look at kids and I say, that’s Parker’s good friend or that’s Haley’s good friend. It is hard, but it’s also a joy. I love (those friends), and they’ll always be a big part of our life.”

This Mother’s Day, her first as children’s pastor, Crystal actually has many more than four children. Today, she will celebrate the miracle of the two children who doctors said she wouldn’t have and the lives of two children whose spirits remain a big part of her life, and she’ll begin the day in a wing of the church where she’s looking after the spiritual growth of dozens of more children.

Hewitt 5K

What: A running event in honor of Parker and Haley Hewitt

When: 8 a.m., June 28

Where: Crooked Creek Park, 1098 Old Lexington Highway, Chapin

Fees: $30 ages 11 and older, $20 ages 10 and younger

Register: strictlyrunning.com

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