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Just when you think the tough times might be over, life gives you a reality check.

Consider the family of Daniel Kwiatkowski of East Aurora.

For 14 years, since leaving the Air Force as an electronics specialist, Kwiatkowski worked with a private defense contractor at the Pentagon, trained on the job by his company for a government computer program.

Earning $35 an hour plus benefits, he felt he and his family were doing all right.

Then, in 1993, his company, Contel, lost its defense contract, and Kwiatkowski, with no formal education or computer degree, found himself out of work and out of the Washington loop.

The Buffalo native returned home with his family that year and made plans to start a new life by going to school to earn a bachelor's degree in computer science.

His wife, Mary, pregnant with their third child, was having a difficult pregnancy and considered by her doctor a high-risk case.

In December 1993, while planning to celebrate the birthday of their son Christopher, she was taken to the hospital with what she thought were birth pains but was sent home.

At home, she began suffering what Kwiatkowski called "excruciating pain" and was rushed to Sisters Hospital, where she underwent a Caesarean section. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born on Dec. 5., 1993, but with brain damage, multiple sclerosis and other complications.

"She's at Our Lady of Victory Hospital right now," Kwiatkowski said of their daughter. "She wasn't expected to live beyond two years, but she's a real little fighter."

Elizabeth would have been home for a few hours on Christmas Day this year, but, once again, fate intervened.

On Nov. 13, Kwiatkowskis were returning from a restaurant in Marilla when their car was sideswiped by a pickup truck.

Mrs. Kwiatkowski suffered facial injuries, broken ribs, a broken pelvis and lost her spleen. Kwiatkowski is still hobbled by the crash, but says: "It's a miracle I wasn't injured more seriously."

His wife was allowed to come home on Dec. 1, but she experienced "stroke-like" symptoms and was rushed to Erie County Medical Center and placed in the intensive-care unit.

Currently, Kwiatkowski cares for the children in their small East Aurora home and prays for his wife's health and her return home so that they can bring Elizabeth home for the holiday.

Their 6-year-old son, Daniel, is developmentally challenged and has problems with his motor skills and attention span. He is in a special school. Christopher, 5, was born with a cleft palate. "It's been repaired," his dad said, "but now he's attending special classes because he has to learn to speak all over again."

Since losing his job in Washington, Kwiatkowski has been working for a temporary employment service for $7.50 an hour.

His wife can no longer work as a cashier at a nearby supermarket. And since they receive no public assistance, Kwiatkowski says just about all their savings have been depleted.

"If it weren't for my neighbors and friends, I don't know how we could have made it this far. I still have two more years to go to get my computer degree and get back into doing what I know best, being a computer network engineer. I don't know how we're going to make it, but I know we will," he said.

He said this Christmas will be bleak. There are no plans for family meals or a Christmas tree or decorations. He said Daniel wants a Fisher-Price garage and construction set, and Christopher wants building toys and maybe a Fisher-Price miniature Western scene.

"With Elizabeth," he said, "it's a little more difficult. She needs clothing and perhaps some simple shaped toys, like a squeeze toy."

Mostly, though, the wish is for Mrs. Kwiatkowski to come home.

"All I do is pray that Mary will be able to be here at the holiday. I know that if she's able to get back home, it will help her with the healing process. We can get Elizabeth to be with us for a few hours on Christmas Day, and we can just be together as a family," Kwiatkowski said.

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