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Herbert clan epitomized courage

His sister has the photo, blown up large and framed. Like any picture, it captures a moment in time. This picture does more than that. It freezes the last day before all of their lives changed, all of the 33 people in the picture, four generations of the family standing on a staircase.

In the upper left of the frame, head back and smiling, is Don Herbert. Later that same night, the Buffalo firefighter went to work, answered an alarm and the roof of a burning building fell on him. Unable to breathe for long minutes, Herbert spent the next 10 years in hospitals and nursing homes in a valiant, semi-conscious struggle for recovery that ended last week.

It is a story of courage and commitment -- not just of one man, but of the family around him. Any life is connected to many others. No tragedy happens in a vacuum. Herbert was a husband, a father to four boys, a son to two parents and a brother to six siblings.

Few men were more alive than Herbert before the accident. A high school football star, he coached his boys' soccer teams, built his parents' pool deck, installed aluminum siding, fixed roofs -- anything family or a friend needed, he was there.

The accident turned a help-everybody adult into a near-helpless child. The strong father and caring husband vanished from the lives of Linda and their sons. The parents of the man became caretakers, as if he were again a child.

The past 10 years, Don Sr. and Gerry Herbert visited their son nearly every day. They put a lot of miles on the old Chevy Cavalier. Don Sr. covered the afternoons. Gerry took over after getting off work as a bus driver. She would sometimes stay at the nursing home until 10 at night, then get up at 5 the next morning for work. When a heart attack took Don Sr. two years ago, Gerry carried on.

"My parents never gave up on my brother," said Sue Haefner, Herbert's oldest sister, sitting Tuesday morning in her dining room. "And each of us [six] siblings [visited] one day a week, just to make sure he always had company."

Sue Haefner didn't just lose a brother that awful night. In a sense, she lost her parents. They had to care for their damaged son. Telling them about one of her children's school plays or soccer games only brought them guilt when they couldn't go, or more stress if they tried to fit one more thing into the day.

"I just stopped talking to Mom and Dad about what the kids were doing," Sue Haefner said. "I didn't want to put extra pressure on them. They already had so much."

Multiply her story by the number of Herbert's brothers and sisters and it reveals the ripples of a single tragedy. Unless you live it, you don't know. Unless you have been through something like it, you don't realize how many lives are reshaped by one event. With most of us, an illness or crisis lasts weeks, maybe months. Don Herbert's battle lasted 10 years.

"It's overwhelming to think about it now," Sue Haefner said. "But at the time, you just do it."

The day last year when he "awakened" -- for 16 hours he seemed like nearly his old self -- was maybe God's reward to him and his family.

"We called it Father Baker's miracle," Sue Haefner said. "Miracles don't have to last forever."

Fittingly, his wife was among his first spoken thoughts. "He loved Linda," Sue Haefner said, "from the day they met."

It ended last week -- for him, for all of them.

"Donnie fought as hard as he could, until he couldn't fight anymore," she said. "But he suffered a lot. I had tears of grief, and tears of joy that now his suffering is over, and he is with his dad."

The past 10 years are a tribute to one man's courage. The past 10 years are a testament to one family's strength.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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