Her husband lost his life and her son lost his legs in a fiery plane crash, but a Clearwater woman has found an inner reservoir of strength to face her grief and anguish.
By JENNIFER FARRELL
Published October 6, 2003
CLEARWATER - From his hospital bed, Brad Kendell mouths these words: "I love you, Mom."
And, these: "I want to come home."
The silent plea, offered nearly every day for a month, has become all but unbearable for his mother, Patti. Almost always, it sends her to the door.
"I have to leave the room," she said. "It breaks my heart."
In the weeks since the accident, Patti Kendell has learned what not to say. And when not to say it. Her 22-year-old son knows he survived the plane crash. He grimaced and cried when he learned his father did not. But when Patti asked if Brad wanted more details, he shook his head no.
It was the same when she offered to explain about his legs.
On a stormy afternoon in late August, the Kendell family's twin-engine Piper Navajo crashed into a neighborhood near Clearwater Airpark after a day trip to St. Augustine. Brad was the only survivor.
In the cockpit, his father, Bruce, 56, an avid sportsman and widely known commercial builder, died on impact. So did a friend and flight instructor of Brad's, Daniel Griffith Jr., 24, who authorities said was flying the plane. Griffith also worked as a pilot for Skywatch News in Tampa.
Passers-by found Brad strapped to a second-row passenger seat and pulled him from the smoldering wreckage moments before it exploded. His limbs were broken and badly burned, and he was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he remains in critical condition, unable to speak. Investigators have not determined the cause of the crash.
For Patti, there was scarcely a moment to grieve the loss of her husband. During the long hours at the hospital and the first days alone, she told herself that he was in the Bahamas.
"I had to concentrate my whole being on Brad," she said.
Last Tuesday would have been her 29th wedding anniversary, but in an interview at her home on Island Estates, Patti remained focused on her son's recovery. At 22, he is fighting a stubborn lung infection and breathes through a tracheotomy tube in his neck. On Friday, doctors performed open-heart surgery to repair an aneurysm on his aorta.
"It's a huge hump that he's over," Patti said Sunday. "He came through like a trouper."
* * *
At 54, Patti Kendell is stylish and trim and disarmingly cheerful. She wears a delicate gold ankle bracelet and a toe ring. Patti laughs easily and sprinkles the odd curse word into conversation for emphasis. She'll call you "honey" and pat you gently on the arm, then describe her family's tragedy as "a real p----r."
Absentmindedly, she fingers one of four pendants on two long silver chains around her neck. The rectangular one, engraved with the name "Brad," is tarnished from her touch.
She never takes it off.
Behind her in the dining room, piles of medical bills and insurance forms cover the table. Every day she works on the long list of thank you's for the flowers and home-cooked meals sent by worried friends who don't know how else to help.
Patti never cared much for sleeping late. Now she can't stand it.
"When you lay in bed," she said, "you start thinking about things."
Meanwhile, for the first time, she endures on her own mundane annoyances like car trouble and broken appliances. They are stark reminders that her husband is really gone. "You don't think it's real," she said. "I don't go through a day without crying."
Inside their Snug Island home, Bruce is everywhere.
In the snapshots on the refrigerator and framed photos on the walls. In family scrapbooks and the dip at one end of the sofa.
Like Brad, Bruce was a big man. At 6-1 and 260 pounds, the native New Zealander almost always left an impression. After the crash, Patti had to have the mattress flipped in the master bedroom when her sister complained that a "Brucie dent" kept her from sleeping.
"We never had any fears when we were with Bruce," Patti said. "He could take care of everything. My husband was invincible. He was not going to die."
All summer, he teased Brad about the diploma that was supposed to be coming in the mail. Brad had walked with his class in the spring graduation ceremony at the University of South Florida, but he took the summer to finish his last few credits. Most days, he also played softball or ultimate Frisbee with his fraternity brothers at Kappa Sigma.
Bruce joked about wanting proof his son really had graduated.
Last week, when the diploma arrived, Patti did her best to show him.
"I held it up to the sky and said, "Look, Brucie!' "
* * *
Patti met Bruce in 1973 and married him a year later. She was a flight attendant; he raced yachts. For five years, they sailed around the world together. Bruce skippered the 80-foot Kialoa and Patti cooked for the crew.
She was rail-thin and elegant with blue eyes and long blonde hair. He played the ukulele and answered to "Bruce the Goose." Faded newspaper clippings are full of their smiles in places like Fiji, China and Japan.
Neil Harvey, one of the Kialoa crew members, said Patti was always quick-witted and energetic. Never at a loss for words.
"You know the old saying about lead, follow or get out of the bloody way? She was always the one telling us to lead, follow or get out of the bloody way," he said.
Charming and down-to-earth, Patti loved a good party. And that didn't change when Brad and his younger brother, Sean, were born. "My slogan was, "Pack up the babies and grab the old lady,' " she laughed. "Bruce was not leaving me behind."
In 1986, the Kendells moved to Clearwater from California. They made dozens of friends and became regulars at Tommy Duff's Irish Aviation Pub on Island Estates. They rarely missed events organized by the Five-O-Five Club, a private social group in Clearwater.
At Duff's, Patti was known for her rendition of Crazy, by Patsy Cline. On karaoke nights, she crooned into the microphone and pointed at Bruce, her biggest fan.
"I have incredible memories," she said. "We had a great life together."
Most of all, Patti is proud of her children.
Brad's younger brother, Sean, 21, is taking a semester off from college to help around the house. He will be a senior at the University of Central Florida when he returns and is thinking about a career in commercial real estate.
Brad wanted to be an airline pilot.
* * *
Patti winces at the memory of her first look at Brad after the crash. He had a gash on his head and his face was swollen to twice its normal size. His lungs were scorched by the toxic fumes from burning airplane fuel. A ventilator helped him breathe.
Doctors looked at Brad's mangled and burned legs and decided to amputate both above the knee.
Now they keep him sedated to hold down his blood pressure, but Patti said he still gets frustrated and tries to haul himself out of bed.
"That's what kills me," she said. "You can tell by his eyes."
Driving to the hospital, Patti speeds involuntarily, she said. When it's time to see Brad, she can't get there fast enough. "I pity the cop who stops me."
Most days, she stays half an hour. It's about all she can stand.
"It's very heartbreaking to see your child like that," said Patti. "He's a prisoner of his own body, really. It must be horrible for him in there."
* * *
Four hundred people showed up to honor Bruce at a private "Celebration of Life," held at the Clearwater Yacht Club. They wore flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, clinked glasses and raised them skyward. Later, a smaller group of friends and family took boats into the Gulf of Mexico to say good-bye. From the back of a friend's 60-foot Viking, Patti and Sean each grabbed a handful of ashes and tossed them overboard.
Then they heaved a Miller Lite, flowers and a bottle of rum. They passed around a cigar before Patti threw it and a fishing pole into the surf.
Then there was silence.
The water, Patti said, has always been the family's sanctuary.
On Sept. 28, she went with a friend to a service at Calvary Baptist in Clearwater. It was the first time she'd set foot in church in years.
That night in the kitchen, she leaned against the dishwasher, which a repairman had declared hopelessly broken. Unaccountably, it rumbled to life, she said.
"I said, "God, you misunderstood me. I said Brad.' "
* * *
Patti has picked out the prosthetics she wants for her son. C-Legs, they're called. They're hydraulic and bend at the knee. They cost $25,000 each.
Family members have set up a trust to pay for the legs and maybe a car for Brad when he gets out of the hospital. With rehab, they expect Brad to regain full use of his arms. Privately, friends wonder if Bruce and Daniel weren't the lucky ones.
"Walking in there and seeing Brad, a 6-foot-3 kid, all 4-foot of him lying in that bed," said Harvey, "was the hardest pill I've ever had to swallow."
Still, he is sure Brad will recover.
"He's got a lot of both his mother and his father's good genes in him," said Harvey. "There was never any quit in any of that family."
Doctors have told Patti that Brad won't remember much about what's happened. She's counting on that. And, even more, on his grit, determination and strength.