The hospital room was still dark when the father woke to the now familiar sound of his son gasping for air.
"What's up, buddy?" Faran Kaplan said, reaching toward the bed where the 17-year-old was snorting through a tracheostomy tube. Wires snaked from Benjamin Kaplan's emaciated frame. Atop his half-shaven head sat a crown of silver stitches: a reminder of the car crash that had cost them so much.
As dawn broke and nurses at Inova Fairfax Hospital arrived on a fall morning to check the tubes and wires, Benjamin — his right eye half open, his left eye nearly shut — waved a broken right arm.
“You want to write?” Faran asked, putting a whiteboard on his son’s stomach and a marker in his hand.
In the beginning, after a tracheostomy left him unable to speak, the high school senior’s writing had been incomprehensible. But now, a dozen surgeries later, his hands were smeared with black ink, and he could communicate well enough to argue with his father like a normal teenager.
But he wasn’t a normal teenager. Not since the accident. Perhaps never again.
Last year, 37,461 people died in automobile accidents across America, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That toll — higher than the number of people killed by gun violence — is now getting worse. After falling for a decade, traffic fatalities in the United States have risen by 14 percent over the past two years.
For the more than 2 million people injured in crashes each year, surviving doesn’t always guarantee recovery.
“Help me,” Benjamin wrote in shaky letters.
"I am trying to help you," his father replied, taking off his Baltimore Orioles hat and rubbing his face.
For 19 days — ever since he’d seen the rescue helicopters over their house in Ashburn, Va., on Sept. 8, ever since his worried calls to his wife, Erin, had gone unanswered — Faran Kaplan had been trying to care for his family without her.
For 19 nights he’d slept at one of the bedsides of the three children paramedics had pulled from the wreckage. With the help of neighbors and friends, he’d brought home his two badly injured daughters, Emma, 13, and Sophia, 11, and begun to think about the future.
But here, in Room 806, was a reminder of how hard that future would be.
“What are we doing?” Benjamin wrote.
“We are trying to get healthy,” replied Faran, a 40-year-old data center engineer, as patiently as he could.
And then, as if to defy his father, Benjamin began tugging at the tube in his stomach and the IV in his arm and the catheter in his bladder and the oxygen monitor attached to his toe.
“Stop that,” Faran said, helping the nurses hold down his son’s hands.
But the teen's hands wouldn't stay still. They soon found the black marker and the whiteboard, where he scrawled the question his father prayed he'd stop asking.
“Where is my goddamn mom?”
‘I wanna go home’
Their family was so closely knit they called themselves The Kaplan 5, and she was its core: a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom who woke at six each morning to make coffee, to-do lists and sugar-free school lunches for her kids. She took Sophia to gymnastics, and Emma to see Taylor Swift, and Benjamin to learn to drive. And on the weekends, instead of slowing down, she took the family on miles-long hikes she dubbed “Mom’s death marches.”
So when her son had to work on a Friday evening, Erin Kaplan offered to drive him.
The kids had just started back to school, with Emma and Sophia at Brambleton Middle and Benjamin entering his senior year at Briar Woods High School. He’d just passed the test for his learner’s permit and started a part-time job making sandwiches at Wegmans, a few miles from home.
Erin hustled her children into the back seat of an Audi station wagon and set off for the grocery store. Her mother, Jeanne Lester, visiting from Ellicott City, Md., where Erin had grown up, sat next to her.
They'd barely driven a mile on Evergreen Mills Road when there was a flash of red. A bus that had been converted into a food truck and painted crimson blew through a stop sign and T-boned the station wagon.
Tony Dane, the owner of Dane’s Great American Hamburger food truck, would later tell investigators that his vehicle’s brakes failed, according to a search warrant affidavit. Dane said he maneuvered around a school bus and thought about driving the food truck into a ditch. But his 16-year-old son and one of his son’s friends were on board and weren’t wearing seat belts. All three walked away from the crash, which remains under investigation by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
When rescue workers arrived, they found Erin’s Audi pinned against a guard rail with the 10-ton food truck on top of it. They didn’t expect anyone inside to be alive. It took three hours for them to saw through the twisted metal to extricate all five people from the car.
Faran was golfing a few miles away when he noticed the helicopters in the evening sky. He called and texted Erin but there was no answer. Then he tried his kids, to no avail. When he called Wegmans and was told Benjamin hadn’t shown up for work, his stomach dropped.
He drove toward the drone of the helicopters until he reached a roadblock, where a sheriff’s deputy confirmed his fears.
For two hours, Faran waited at the hospital, where he was told five helicopters would bring his family members. Only four arrived.
Sophia, despite her crushed pelvis and broken limbs, gave her dad a thumb's up as her gurney was wheeled into the hospital. Emma, with two broken ankles and a broken wrist, was crying. Benjamin was screaming in pain. And finally came Erin's mother, whose injuries were the least severe.
When a fifth gurney never appeared, Faran realized that his wife, who loved tulips and braiding her daughters’ hair and drinking rosé on their porch in the evening, was dead.
And now, 19 days later inside Room 806, his son was again demanding to know where she was.
“You know where she’s at. We don’t have to talk about this today, do we?” Faran said. “You were in a car accident. Your sisters are okay.”
He leaned in to kiss his son, whose face was contorted in a soundless scream, only to accidentally knock the oxygen tube from Benjamin’s nose.
“I’m sorry, Benny,” Faran said as a nurse arrived to reinsert the tube. “You know I’ll be here for you forever. Did that hurt? Can you breathe?”
It was as if the accident had taken them back 15 years. Faran clipped and cleaned his son’s fingernails, still caked with dirt from the crash. Inside his son’s ears he found tiny shards of glass.
Benjamin would sleep for a few minutes, then sit up, restless and agitated. One moment, he asked for a blanket. The next, he threw his sheets off the bed.
“I wanna go home,” he wrote.
“Ben, you have to get better first,” Faran said.
Before the accident, he had worked long hours to provide for his family while his wife took care of the kids. Now, somehow, he would have to do both.
As he tended to his son, his phone rang incessantly. Faran was supposed to be on leave from work, but a multimillion-dollar project demanded his attention. There were insurance claims to file, surgeries to authorize, condolences to acknowledge and — once Benjamin was well enough to leave the hospital — there was a funeral to plan.
No time to grieve
Two hours later, he sat at a bar near Dulles International Airport, drinking a bottle of Yuengling beer with lunch. The owners of Coal Fire pizza had offered to host a fundraiser for his family, so here he was, trying to make conversation.
Since the accident, dozens of friends, neighbors and strangers had volunteered to help. The family's fridge was so full of food they had started freezing it. A GoFundMe page launched by a neighbor had raised more than $116,000 for funeral and medical expenses. A childhood friend of Faran's had even moved from Colorado to help.
Faran was so busy juggling it all he hadn’t had time to grieve. But Erin was always on his mind. He wore her engagement ring and their wedding bands on a chain around his neck.
“I met my wife on the infield at the Preakness,” he told the restaurant’s owners,describing how the normally shy Erin had introduced herself at the horse race in 1997 after drinking several Black-Eyed Susans.
“We were supposed to go back for our 20th anniversary,” he said, taking a swig of his beer.
He left the restaurant 20 minutes later and climbed into a new Audi SUV. It was almost identical to the car in which his wife had died. But Faran credited the station wagon with saving the rest of his family, so he bought another one — only bigger.
For nearly three weeks, he’d avoided the road on which his wife had died. Now he turned down it, driving past an orange sign that read “Be Prepared To Stop.”
Faran pulled into his driveway, past the fading chalk “Welcome Home” signs for his daughters, and entered the house via a wooden ramp in the garage that had been built after the accident by neighbors, including Andrew Marshall, who had lost a young son.
“So he’s got a hole, too,” Faran said later.
Inside what had been Faran’s office, Sophia lay on a bed Marshall had built, her broken pelvis, legs and right arm resting on stuffed animals and pillows shaped like waffles and Pop-Tarts.
Of the three kids, the sporty sixth-grader with braces seemed to be coping best with their mother’s death, at least for now. It was her older sister, Emma, that Faran was more worried about. The eighth-grader remembered everything about the crash. Already quiet before the accident, she had retreated into herself since.
Upstairs, a row of family photos led to Erin and Faran’s bedroom, which was exactly as she had left it save for the manila envelope on the dresser containing her cellphone — somehow spared in the accident, full of Faran’s increasingly frantic text messages.
Sophia’s friends called to ask if she could meet them at the bus stop, so Faran wheeled his youngest daughter down the ramp and to the corner. Emma stayed inside, assembling Legos under a sign her mother had hung.
“Home is wherever I’m with you,” it said.
A halting recovery
The day ended as it began: with the father beside his son.
“Do you need to go to the bathroom, buddy?” Faran asked.
“No,” Benjamin answered with a low but audible rasp.
The teenager’s voice had come back that evening — a bit of progress.
Maybe Benjamin would be able to return to high school this year, Faran thought.
Benjamin sat up, lay back down and kicked off his blanket. He scratched his stitches, pulled at his tubes and cursed at his dad.
“I want to play a f-----g game,” he rasped. “I want to kill you.”
In surgery the next morning, doctors would discover that Benjamin’s mangled left leg was infected, causing a fever that was likely clouding his mind. A few days later, the doctors would learn the infection had spread to his ankle, and that part of his leg might have to be amputated.
For now, Faran knew only that his normally sweet son — who soothed fights between his sisters and collected old computers — was not acting like himself.
“You want to kill me? Thanks, dude,” he said. “I love you, too.”
“I don’t know how,” Benjamin replied.
“Because you got hit in the head real hard, and I know you don’t know what you’re saying.”
He handed his son the whiteboard and the marker, but nothing Benjamin wrote made sense.
“I don’t really know what you’re telling me, buddy,” he said.
“Neither do I,” his son answered.
“That’s okay,” Faran said. “I’m listening.”
And then, for a few minutes at least, father and son fell asleep.