The Christmas lights that burn a colorful silhouette of a two-story duplex on River Street in Depew celebrate more than the holiday season this year. The lights also welcome the long-awaited homecoming of a family member.
The return of Jimmy Gabrielli the weekend before Christmas has become a testament to a family's perseverance and religious beliefs.
For what the skilled hands of medical doctors could only begin to cure, the Gabrielli family firmly believes the hands of God completed.
Jimmy Gabrielli, 19, the oldest of three children, hasn't been home since Labor Day, when his car crashed in Batavia and he was left comatose with a severe head injury.
His mother, Marguerite Gabrielli, said investigators concluded he had fallen asleep while driving his car that night, causing thevehicle to suddenly increase in speed and veer off the road. It snapped a telephone pole in two, careened off a parked car and ultimately crashed into a house, moving it off its foundation.
Gabrielli was removed by the Jaws of Life from a wreck that had only a back seat and trunk intact.
He was taken by Mercy Flight to Erie County Medical Center, where his distraught family kept vigil and prayed.
They waited 11 1/2 hours as doctors worked to save his life and stabilize his condition.
Before his family left for the hospital, Jimmy's younger brother, Michael, 15, grabbed a cross hanging on a wall in his brother's room and took it with him.
"My son Michael grabbed my son's cross, and he never said anything," Mrs. Gabrielli remembered. "When we got in the hospital, I was crying, and my son, clutching the cross, said, 'Don't cry, Mom. That means you don't have enough faith in God. He'll be all right.' "
The family had good reason to pray. Gabrielli's injuries matched the viciousness of the accident. The impact of the crash jarred his brain, causing it to swell. He was on a respirator in the intensive care unit, where several days later a plate was placed in his forehead and wires were used to rebuild the crushed bones around his eye socket. Splints were used to straighten his curled fingers and to support his ankles.
The prognosis was that he wouldn't live, and his chance of a possible recovery was estimated at 5 percent. At best, he would remain in a coma in a "vegetative state."
Like many families facing such a tragic event, the Gabriellis turned toward God, hoping for a miracle. And they never lost faith one would happen.
"No matter what (the doctors) told me of what could be expected, I wouldn't believe it," Marguerite said. "I never had so much faith and belief and trust in God. I left everything in God's hands. It's so hard to explain. I just knew my son was going to pull through this."
Ms. Gabrielli, a single parent, quit her job and with her family's support, began spending about 10 hours a day at the hospital waiting and hoping for a recovery. Her parents, who live in the lower flat on River Street, took care of her younger son and daughter in her absence.
During her visits, she read novels to her son and asked hospital workers to play audio casettes of books that she purchased at a local bookstore. Gabrielli, an avid reader, worked summers at the Butler library at Buffalo State College, where he was also a student.
"My son loves books," Ms. Gabrielli said. "He's not one for TV, but he does love books. I wanted to do something to let him know I was there."
After about a week in intensive care, Jimmy began showing some movement in his fingers and eyelids.
"I would ask him if he understood what I was saying, and his eyes would close," she said. " 'Squeeze my hand if you understand,' and he would squeeze my hand."
Encouraged by even the slightest signs of progress in her son, Ms. Gabrielli continued her visits, reading and praying at her son's side.
"I'm no reborn Christian," she said, "but I believe with God anything is possible."
The complexities of a head injury had Jimmy in different levels of a coma, showing progress on some days, retreating on others. There was no overnight cure. It was nearly two months before he was taken off a respirator and slowly began the painful recovery process.
"He had to literally learn everything all over again. Walk, go to the bathroom again. I would be there night and day taking him hour on the hour to help get that part of the function to come back. The nurses are there but they are kind of understaffed. I really think someone that's hurt that bad really needs a family. I really feel in my heart when they know love, that really helps them come back."
In therapy, he began showing progress that amazed even the neurosurgeons.
"My son is walking now, talking. he doesn't have the short-term memory, but he remembers everything from the past," she said.
Dr. Peter Sorini, a neurosurgeon at Erie County Medical Center, said while Jimmy has a long way to go, his recovery so far is "incredible."
"I didn't think he would live," Sorini said, noting that the head injury had created internal pressure on the brain that was three to five times the normal range, or "incompatible with life."
"I can't take credit," Sorini said of the recovery. Instead, he credited the family's support.
Jimmy's condition has so improved that the hospital discharged him Friday, providing an early Christmas gift for him and his family. He's still scheduled to return to the hospital three times a week for therapy, but isn't this a young man who in September was given no chance to survive?
"There are some things that can't be explained even in the medical profession. These things happen to be miracles," his mother said. "This is a kid that would go out of his way for everybody."
It's difficult for Gabrielli to understand that he was involved in an accident. He remembers nothing of that night or all the days that followed. He does remember one thing, though, and is consistent in his account, as he tells it over and over again.
"You know, I remember being somewhere else," he said to his mother. "But I couldn't open my eyes. You were there, and Grandma was there, and then you left. I was alone for a few minutes, and there was light that was so bright. It was all white."
"Pretend you're me," he said, "and I'll show you what happened."
He stood in front of his mother and he lay his hands on her head, then on her shoulders and went down both sides of her until he reached her feet.
People who have experienced a near death experience often say they see a "friendly light," a "white light" that draws them. Just what these people have experienced is often debated.
But you don't have to convince the Gabrielli family: they know what Jimmy saw. They know whose hands touched him.
"It's going to be a special Christmas," Marguerite said. "One that we'll never forget. It'll be a Christmas that will live in our hearts forever."