When I was approached several weeks back and asked to be a guest blogger in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, for me, it was a no-brainer. Of course I would honor my boys, and all the countless children whose voices have been silenced through trauma and abuse. The difficulty, though, has come with finding a way to tell my twins’ story in just four blogs. I can only pray that I have helped others through sharing the courage of Martin and Victor through this four part series. Today’s blog is a little longer than the others, but when you get to the end, you will see why.
In last week’s blog, I wrote about the painful moments from 2013 when we learned that Victor was diagnosed with a 3 cm pilocytic astrocytoma, which was attached to his brainstem. He was immediately transferred to Duke, and two days after Christmas, underwent what ended up being a 12 hour tumor resection. I wish that I could tell you that everything went well. This is the part of the story where I hesitate. How do I begin to tell you that Victor ended up being hospitalized for a total of 16 months? How can I describe the pain of seeing Victor finally “wake-up” from surgery, on a ventilator, unable to blink his eyes, speak, move anything on his body, or even swallow his own spit? How can I define the hope that we had when he was finally able to leave Duke after four months to head to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte with the goal to rehabilitate him? And how do I describe the fear that enveloped us when my husband had to resign from his well-paying career of 33 years because we could never move forward with Victor’s recovery.
But it doesn’t stop there…there is so much to this story. This is the part where I want to start screaming, where I want to say, “Listen! Listen to what happened to them! Listened to what they went through! But listen to what they still accomplished!”
Victor endured three very lengthy hospitalizations, to the tune of 16 months, the first of which was nine consecutive months. He missed the second semester of his junior year, and the first month of his senior year. He underwent a tracheostomy so he could continue to be ventilated. He had a shunt placed in his brain because his cerebrospinal fluid was no longer moving freely, and he had a feeding tube placed in his stomach because he could no longer swallow. This only names a handful of surgeries and procedures he had. The list was very extensive.
Martin had to continue school and life in general without his twin. He began to publicly speak not only about Victor, but he began to share their story of abuse. Church after church invited him to minister to others from their pulpit. As the twins’ senior year unfolded, Victor, who could no longer speak, learned how to finger spell with his left hand. Even though he was right side dominate, it was his right side that was more severely impacted and he lost almost all movement there. Using the sheer grit and determination he had, he learned how to finger-spell with the partial use he had gained of his left hand. Letter-by-letter, he would communicate his wishes and desires, to include his will to graduate from high school. With unbelievable support from his school, Victor completed his senior year from his bed, signing out his answers to all we read to him. He mastered everything from Shakespeare’s Othello to Honors Spanish 3. And even though he couldn’t speak or even see to read, he listened to absolutely everything going on around him and would use that brilliant brain of his to painstakingly communicate, one letter at a time. If only we all could have the patience and sheer willpower of Victor. Both twins graduated with Honors. Martin’s GPA ended up being around 4.7 and Victor’s was around 4.5. They were absolutely incredible.
Martin applied to every college he thought he’d have a chance at, including UNC Chapel Hill, his dream school. Not only did he get accepted, but he received a full scholarship. He did everything on his own, knowing that he had to go out there, without his twin, and make a mark on the world.
Victor ended up being hospitalized two more lengthy times, and suffered from an intestinal twist that to this day no one knows how it happened, bacterial meningitis, a brain bleed, and a cyst that had grown back in the place of where the tumor had been. What little ground he had gained, he lost. My husband stayed by Victor’s side nonstop, never leaving him. I drove the six hours roundtrip to Charlotte, sometimes on leave from work, and sometimes still working. If our boys weren’t going to give up, then we weren’t either. And we had so many from the community who watched each piece unfold, offering their prayers, fundraisers, and support in so many ways. Truth is, we will never really know who helped and what was done all for the love of Victor. We were in a deep battle that constantly thrust us into darkness.
Darkness…the absence or deficiency of light…wickedness or evil…obscurity or concealment…these are all definitions of darkness, and each one seemed to fit what was going on in Martin’s and Victor’s worlds. Even though so much of the story turned towards Victor’s long term illness, the darkness of childhood trauma had not been resolved before Victor was diagnosed with the brain tumor. The wickedness that had been poured over our boys was still there, living behind the scenes, concealed. Or was it?
For 9 years, Victor stayed locked inside his body. He had a perfectly intact mind, yet his inability to be part of a functioning society left him to his traumatic memories. He had had 15 years of abuse, and one year of love, then absolute physical trauma to the brain. Martin struggled with survivor’s guilt as he graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, sought after his MBA at Chapel Hill, dated, worked…just enjoyed life. Or so he tried. The memories in each of their heads were so strong. Trauma has a memory and a name. It’s called PTSD. And it’s real.
Before Victor became sick, the boys would talk about the evil nightmares they would have of her…of her hitting them, yelling at them, and threatening them. Martin would dream of real, present day moments - moments that didn’t include her anymore - yet she would enter into the dream, taking everything away from him. He would tell me that she would literally show up as a demon, attacking him, stripping away everything good in his life. Jay and I were exhausted as we cared for his brother, and begged him to get help. “Please Martin, you need to find someone to talk to before this takes root in your life.”
Victor too, struggled with horrific dreams and even hallucinations of her. One afternoon in particular, while listening to a book on CD, he became quite unnerved, and began to try to hit the air. It got so rough that we had to move him to bed to try to calm him down. Flailing his left arm toward his throat, he tried to pull out his tracheotomy. Jay and I were horrified, and began to do everything in our power to soothe him. He uncontrollably kicked his legs as best as he could, and finally spelled out the words that she was there. In his mind, she was standing at the foot of his bed, laughing and pointing. It was so bad that we sought mental health care for him. Since he was unable to speak or really see, finding a therapist that would even give us the time of day was exhausting. Since no one knew how to read his finger spelling, Jay would sit with Victor and the therapist, spelling out every single word, letter by letter. As you can imagine, very little could be accomplished in a session. I would leave work at the end of the day, go sit in the parking lot of the therapist’s office, and wait for Jay to text me when he needed support. But for both Martin and Victor, the nightmares continued.
In August of 2020, Martin married a beautiful and absolutely compassionate young lady. Fourteen months later, they brought a precious bundle of joy into the world. It seemed as though Martin was taking step after step to move forward, but he was always looking behind him, not only trying to live for his twin, but wondering why he was never loved by his first two sets of parents. He sought approval from all he met, hungry for constant affirmation and support, all while Victor struggled to hold up his weary head. Lack of sleep for both our boys became a pattern. The truth is, none of us were sleeping much through these years.
For nine years, this was part of the battle that tried to conceal itself. But on May 12, 2022, the phone call came. I had just finished my school day and was sitting at my desk, looking over my students’ EOG test scores. I glanced down at my cell phone and noticed I had missed a call from my daughter-in-law’s mother. I thought it was odd that she would call me during work hours. As I was holding my phone, getting ready to dial her back, it rang again. It was my husband.
“Are you still at school?” he asked.
“Yes, we just got our scores in for the kids.”
“Well, um…were you about to come home?”
“No, not exactly, but I need to. I have a lot to do before we take Victor to his Charlotte appointment tomorrow. Why?”
“Laura, he's dead. Martin took his life. He’s gone.”
I felt a sharp pain in my heart and I began to shake. I don’t even remember the next few moments, but I walked aimlessly through the hallways of my school until I found my principal. I slumped to the floor, sobbing.
A week and a half later, we held Martin’s funeral service. I delivered his eulogy, hoping to give everyone a glimpse of who my Martin was. He was brave and beautiful. He loved people so very much. He could have been a drug dealer or he could have dropped out of school when everything got hard, but he didn’t. He persevered and he pursued the very best he could. He loved hard, constantly seeking, constantly searching. If only we could have reached that little 3-year old boy that desperately needed love.
One of the hardest things Jay and I ever had to do was walk in our house and tell Victor that his twin ended his pain by taking his own life, leaving him, and even his wife and 7 month old baby behind. Everything was broken on Victor - he couldn’t even cry. He silently sat in his wheelchair and took the news. After a few minutes of silence, he spelled out, “Martin’s not dead, he’s just playing a bad joke, and I’m going to kick his butt when he returns.” Jay and I remained as stoic as we could, being very careful in all we said in an effort to protect his fragile heart. Other than struggling every day in Victor’s sickness, I think the hardest thing our family had to do was to learn to live without Martin.
Following the months losing Martin, Victor continued to want to go to church like normal, and anyone we ran into at Wal-Mart or any of our other outings he would sign out an invitation to church, followed by offering one of his amazing Victor hugs. Processing Martin’s death was heavy and dark. It felt as if a blackened shroud had blanketed itself over our home. However, as we had done before in the wake of the brain tumor and its impact, we all kept putting one foot in front of the other. None of us were giving up.
Our first Christmas without Martin was upon us. We probably splurged with gifts a little more than we should have, but we wanted to find a way to lighten the mood a little. After we shared our presents with each other, we rolled Victor’s wheelchair out onto the deck and took our first family photo without Martin. I think we all blinked back the tears as we tried to smile for the camera.
The twins’ birthday was around the corner - December 31st to be exact. My stomach hurt at the thought of Victor having to spend his first birthday without Martin. Tuesday, December 27th was a normal day. Jay and I put away the Christmas decorations and I had asked Victor if he wanted to go to Kohl’s on Wednesday or Thursday to spend his Christmas money. He nodded yes with his sweet little head, and I kissed him on the forehead. The afternoon pushed towards the evening hours, and I looked at the clock, remembering what we were doing exactly 9 years ago at that moment…brain surgery at Duke. Matter of fact, at 4pm they had just finished his surgery and noticed he still couldn’t breath on his own. I sighed at the thought, my shoulders slumped down in weariness.
Jay and I had slipped around the corner to check on our neighbor’s cats when his phone rang. We had a fabulous nurse that came a few days a week to help give us a break. I couldn’t quite hear what she said, but it was obvious she was very upset. We dashed back home within a matter of seconds to find our precious Victor gone. His nurse was feverishly pumping on his chest, counting out the beats. Tears were streaming down her face, and she could barely talk.
“I don’t know…I don’t know…he just stopped. Everything just stopped.” Her voice was broken in between the sobs.
I picked up the phone and called 911 while Jay and the nurse continued to work on our beautiful Victor. I held his cold hand and stroked his pale cheek. Our Victor was gone. He fought for 9 years, to the hour. His body had exchanged itself for its divine healing, and no doubt the embrace between Martin and Victor at the threshold of Heaven was unequaled. They were now free of all the disappointment and trauma that they had endured. Perfect, spotless, veiled in beautiful light, all the torment of the abuse they had to endure had finally crumbled. They didn’t have to spend a birthday apart after all.
On December 31st, our beloved twins’ birthday, I stood in front of a congregation of mourners to deliver Victor’s eulogy. Like Martin, I wanted everyone to know who our Victor was.
Our boys were broken, yet they shared love and compassion everywhere they went. They both waged a war that they didn’t ask for. As far as I’m concerned, my sons won. They always held high standards, treated people with respect, and freely gave the love they had only hoped for from those around them.
Thank you for reading my blogs about Martin and Victor. Our 10 years with them seemed to only be a vapor in time. They were unexpectedly ours in a blink of an eye, and in another blink they were both gone. My prayer is that they have inspired you to look a little deeper, think a little more, and to work to protect our children. Afterall, they are our future, or they should be...
Martin James Hottel
December 31, 1996 - May 12, 2022
Victor Emanuel Hottel
December 31, 1996 - December 27, 2022