David and Victoria Zucker measure the three months since their son's accident at Disneyland not by days, but by missed moments.
Halloween came and went with no costume for Brandon. Christmas passed without his eager tearing of wrapping paper. And today, on Brandon Zucker's fifth birthday, he cannot blow out the candles on his Scooby-Doo birthday cake at the rehabilitation hospital in Orange where he lies in bed most of the day.
"Those are all the things I think about," Victoria Zucker said in the family's first public comments since the Sept. 22 accident that left Brandon severely brain-damaged.
"Is he going to talk to me again? Is he ever going to drive a car? Is he ever going to go on a date? Will he be able to see? . . . As long as he's still fighting, I can't give up on him."
The Zuckers view their son as a gallant battler for his life--not surprising for a boy who would run around his house wearing oven mitts, punching at the air like Rocky, one of his favorite movie heroes.
Each day, even as they spend hours by their son's bed, they miss the tough, scratchy voice that always used to exclaim, "I have an idea!"
Brandon fell out of the vehicle he shared with his mother and older brother on the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin and was pinned beneath the following car his father and grandmother were riding in. The trip to Disneyland had been a much-anticipated family outing to celebrate Victoria Zucker's 40th birthday; the Roger Rabbit attraction was planned as the family's last ride of the day.
Though Disneyland disputes it, state investigators said the Zuckers were loaded improperly into the "taxi cab" with Brandon, the smallest in the group, seated closest to the open entryway. Investigators also found that the lap bar was probably not completely lowered and said that the park must find a way of closing the cutout entries to the cars and put a guard around the bottom. The Zuckers have sued Disneyland for negligence; because of the lawsuit, they declined to discuss the accident itself.
For three anguishing months, the Zuckers have been trying to adjust to a life now filled with doctors, attorneys and sleepless nights. They devote their hours to Brandon, and to his 6-year-old brother Nicholas, who fiercely misses the preschooler who was his constant companion.
One recent day, Victoria Zucker poured two glasses of milk in the kitchen, one for Nicholas and one for Brandon, before she remembered Brandon wasn't home.
The family used to eat at the dining room table where everyone had a designated seat. Now, David Zucker said he can't bring himself to eat a meal there because of the empty spot. On car rides, when Nicholas used to talk nonstop with Brandon, he now feels lonely and bored in the back seat. On Christmas Day, he cried even as he opened his presents. "I miss my brother," he said.
"I want to get a paralyzing medication, then wake up tomorrow and Brandon's OK," Victoria Zucker said.
At first glance, as he lies in his cheerfully decorated hospital room, Brandon looks as though he might be OK, might be the same cheerful boy with dark hair and big brown eyes who grins from a family photo.
He wears a green T-shirt emblazoned with a dinosaur picture and gray sweat-shorts that hide the diapers underneath. His short-cropped hair hides the cut on the back of his head, but not the lump of the brain shunt inserted to help reduce swelling. Brandon's hands are balled tightly in a fist. He clutches a rolled washcloth. His feet are twisted. His leg muscles spasm.
His eyes often are open, but blank and unfocused.
Though his optic nerve is intact, he does not appear to see. His father claps his hands in front of Brandon's eyes; there is no reflexive blink. Hearing is another matter: Sometimes, his head turns toward the direction of music when a favorite song is played--"Why Can't We Be Friends?" by War or "Just the Two of Us" by Will Smith.
His private room at HealthBridge Children's Rehabilitation Hospital in Orange is decorated with a motif of children fishing, appropriate for Brandon, who caught his first fish, a trout, last year.
His parents have added personal touches: Brandon's favorite "Tweedy Bear," photos of Brandon and Nicky on their scooters and Brandon dressed up as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween.
Those are the kinds of photos Victoria Zucker doesn't know if she will ever get to snap again.
Prognosis Is Grim
In addition to internal injuries, Brandon suffered what doctors call "global" brain damage in the accident. He was trapped under the car for about 10 minutes, and for some period was without breath or pulse.
Neurologists show them pictures of Brandon's brain. White represents the damaged area, and the CAT scans make parts of Brandon's brain look like a white cloud.