Father and son trying to put lives back together
It was a day that changed the lives of seventh grader Jaxon Harberts and his father Brandon forever.
The day was Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, the fourth day of a new school year. Jaxon was a passenger in his mother's car, carrying the two of them and his sister Emerson on their way to school in Blooming Prairie.
"I cry every day," says Brandon Harberts when reflecting on the last three months since the crash, which claimed the lives of his wife Rachel and 8-year-old daughter Emerson.
"We are doing good," Jaxon quickly interjects.
Jaxon says, as siblings, he and Emerson got along well. "She could have been in the Tooth Fairy movie," Jaxon chuckles as he refers to Emerson having lost her front teeth last summer.
Since that September day, Brandon and Jaxon, who live outside of Dodge Center, have been working emotionally and physically to put their lives back together.
Do they have a new normal? Brandon believes there may never be a normal again.
Father and son do help one another during this time of recovery. Jaxon has become more outgoing since the crash and tells his dad, "Just wait, in another three years, I will be driving you around and you will be walking with a cane."
Brandon responds with a shrug of the shoulders "I've got a joke for you," Jaxon said while showing his retention of a sense of humor. "What's invisible and smells like carrots?" Jaxon replies: "bunny farts."
Brandon and Jaxon took time recently from their busy lives to visit with this Times writer about the tragic crash and to review the recovery and grieving process that has followed.
"I've seen you before," Jaxon quipped as he sat down at a table at the Pizza Cellar in Blooming Prairie.
Jaxon looks like most other seventh graders, somewhat shorter in physical stature and dwarfed by his father who could be an offensive lineman on the Minnesota Vikings football team.
Jaxon, who will become a teenager next Feb. 23, shows evidence of his traumatic brain injury with a huge scar atop his head. Brandon explains that half of his skull was removed early in his recovery process at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester.
Jaxon was placed in an induced coma and doctors removed part of his skull. He also suffered several torn ligaments in his neck.
"It feels like forever when you are in the hospital for two months," remarked Brandon. He said he spent every night in the hospital with Jaxon until he was released.
"The doctors, nurses and medical staff at St. Mary's were incredible," states Brandon. "They would sit down and have a normal conversation with us," he tells.
Brandon praised the work of a Lanesboro friend Tori Eide, a registered nurse who serves as a nursing coordinator.
The medical staff set goals for Jaxon during his recovery and he beat all of them," Brandon related.
A difficult surgery for Jaxon came when medical staff inserted a feeding tube in him. He started talking six days later.
"They put it in on a Monday and eight days later, he was eating regular food," Brandon says. "He maybe wouldn't have seen so much progress without the feeding tube," Brandon believes.
"When he came into the hospital from the accident, Jaxon wasn't Jaxon," Brandon explained. "He was labeled an "Unidentified Tahoe Khaki."
Blooming Prairie has become a second home to Jaxon and his father as they interact with working colleagues of Rachel and with fellow students of Emerson and Jaxon.
The Harberts family lived in a rural area outside of Dodge Center.
Both Jaxon and his father are amazed at the support they have received from everywhere. "I don't know a lot of these people who have been helping us during this time of recovery," Brandon says.
"How do you say thank you enough to the people who have helped," Brandon remarks. "I'm one who wants to help others and it's difficult for me to accept help," Brandon admits. "I guess Jaxon is helping, too, by getting better," Brandon added.
Brandon said he has tote bags full of cards he has received from supporters.
Brandon says Jaxon's physical recovery has been "unbelievable" and he is working hard to retain his short-term memory capacities.
Jaxon has therapy sessions scheduled for three days each week. The therapy is helping him recover from his traumatic brain injury which doctors have called a massive concussion.
Jaxon is hopeful of returning to his seventh grade classes at Blooming Prairie High School after the Christmas vacation break, which ends on Jan. 2.
How is Jaxon doing? In his own words, flashing a bright twinkle in his eyes, Jaxon says, "Pretty good." He said he is ready to go back to school where his favorite classes are math, social studies and band.
He will be attending part days at first and may miss first hour and physical education, father Brandon says.
Jaxon visited some of his classrooms at Blooming Prairie High School recently and has kept in contact with many of his school chums.
Is Jaxon the same kid he was before the accident? "Yes and no," says Brandon. "The personality is there but we are waiting on the memory to return," Brandon says. "The doctors told us that it may take 12-18 months for him to recover, or it may take up to two years.
"It's hard to grasp that it could be another two years," Brandon comments, fighting back tears. Feeling his dad's emotions, Jaxon also wipes away tears.
Brandon said he spoke with a psychologist about how to tell Jaxon about the passing of his mother and sister. Jaxon was recovering quickly soon after the accident and was talking and putting full sentences together six days after the accident.
"What do we do?" Brandon asked a therapist. "They said to tell him sooner than later and also said we might have to tell him again and again and again and again.”
Jaxon's recovery has amazed the doctors and Jaxon's family. "I thought there would be no way he would get out of the hospital before Christmas," Brandon confessed. Jaxon was released on Nov. 9.
"The people who work at Mayo are incredible, knowledgeable and personable," says Brandon.
Physically, Jaxon is doing well, his dad says. "If he's pushed, he does better," Brandon said.
A football player himself, Jaxon is a staunch Minnesota Vikings fan. He has received two autographed footballs, one from wide receiver Adam Thielen and the other from defensive back Harrison Smith.
Who is your favorite Viking player? Jaxon does not hesitate. "It's Adam Thielen; he's a Minnesota boy you know."
Jaxon and his father are going to the Vikings' last home game of the season on Dec. 30 when they play the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Vikings gave the tickets to Jaxon and Brandon. Jaxon and Brandon also have passes to be on the sidelines before the game.
Several of Jaxon's family will also be at the game on Dec. 30.
Brandon says Jaxon's grandmother, Sharon Post, is the biggest Viking fan he knows. "Yeah, she has Viking bricks that she throws at the television when the Vikings aren't doing too good," Jaxon laughs.
She once had a four-foot helmet bolted to her house in Lanesboro, Brandon said.
Jaxon and his dad followed the Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms in their trip to the state tournament in November. Jaxon was even made part of the team's acceptance of a state tournament trophy on the field of U.S. Bank Stadium.
Brandon, who holds down two jobs, says he and Jaxon try to stay busy. "We're going to Tasha's house on Friday," Brandon said, explaining that Tasha Gilbertson, a college roommate of Rachel, has been very supportive of Jaxon and him during the past few months.
Brandon works for the City of Rochester sewer department full time and he works part time for Lowell's Auto Sales in Dodge Center. He also plows snow for the city. He drove semi truck from 2003-11 and returned to the City of Rochester after working there from 1997-2003.
"I remember riding with you when you were truckin'," Jaxon tells his dad.
Brandon and Rachel met in Rochester on Rachel's 21st birthday. Brandon, a Rochester native, said he had never heard of Lanesboro prior to that time.
Brandon says Rachel "was a volleyball girl" and good at it." He said she planned to coach Emerson.
Rachel worked 16 years for the Blooming Prairie schools, teaching first grade most of that time.
Brandon says Blooming Prairie and other surrounding communities have been "incredible." Brandon says he is not on social media but other friends have been and have raised funds for the Harberts family.
Brandon and Jaxon salute Blooming Prairie teacher and coach John Bruns who sold over 800 t-shirts in memory of Emerson and Rachel.
Bracelets were also sold in the memory of Rachel and Emerson. Brandon said he also ordered 1,100 purple bracelets that carry the message, "Forever loved, never forgotten."
"The support is everywhere and it's really something else," Brandon says. He said a school in Austin recently sent a check.
"It's not just Blooming Prairie or Dodge Center," he says. "It's Casey's in Ellendale, Hayfield at a school concession stand and Blooming Prairie kids selling apples to raise funds to benefit the Harberts family. A fifth grade football team in Kasson also had a pancake breakfast for the Harberts family.
A car show was held as a benefit in Rochester.
"I don't know many of these people who have given us support," Brandon says. "It was Rachel and the kids' lives in Blooming Prairie.”
Brandon's sister, Kelsy Flowers, administered a Caring Bridge site in memory of Rachel and Emerson and to follow Jaxon's recovery. Sisters Nicole Hoffmeister and Kaitlyn Harberts also helped keep family and friends connected to the progress made in recovery by Jaxon.
The three sisters also held a benefit at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church on Saturday, Dec. 8.
A GoFundMe page was set up and resulted in pledges of $27,000 in the first 24 hours and $50,000 in 2 1/2 days. The fund is currently at $65,025.
"It's almost sad that it takes a tragedy for people to come together and to quit arguing," Brandon reflects. "That's the entire world though," he said. A sister of Brandon died when she was 6 years old of spinal meningitis. Brandon was 9 1/2 at the time.
Jaxon says he "has always believed" and has prayed a lot during his recovery. Brandon said he has always let his wife and kids make up their own minds in respect to church.
Brandon has tried to stay strong for Jaxon. "I've gained weight with all the candy we've been given," Brandon says. He admits that he did not sleep well in the early days of Jaxon's recovery.
Brandon says his supervisors at work have been very supportive during Jaxon's recovery. Rochester's public works director visited Jaxon every other week.
With Christmas just a few days away, Brandon says he and Jaxon may go to a movie, a tradition carried on by Rachel, Emerson, Jaxon and him. Jaxon says his favorite movie was "Jumanji." Brandon says, "I am a Star Wars fan myself."
Jaxon keeps lots of appointments at Mayo but still loves to stay at home and watch football. "He also has coffee regularly with the ladies (Rachel's mother)," Brandon mentions.
Golfing is also a game that appeals to Jaxon. "I got a hole in one at Lanesboro when I was eight," Jaxon says proudly. He hopes to play some golf at the simulator range at Bunkie's this winter.
His father also likes golf and never played golf until he met Rachel.
Jaxon's recovery continues and many of his friends and family members are helping with that recovery.
There seems to be no obstacle that Jaxon can not hurdle.