JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As they work, to survive their deepest pain, Jacksonville police officer Jack Adams and his children, are proving the strength they draw from each other and how they are an inspiration to all of us.
"It's a double edge sword," Jack told us, while staring at photos of his wife Cathy in their living room.
"Some days it's hard to see. Some days it brings a tremendous amount of comfort, you know. There's still a part of her here."
Jack lost his wife, Jacksonville bailiff Cathy Adams, shortly before Christmas last year.
The couple, along with their two high school-aged children Holly and Jake, were all driving home around midnight from watching the Mandarin High School state football championship game in Orlando, when St. Johns County deputies say a drunk driver slammed into the family's SUV.
Jack's physical recovery
Both children suffered minor injuries. Their mom was killed; thrown from the vehicle. Jack was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.
"I had a C5, C6 fracture," Jack said, which explains his limited range of motion. "The disc in between those two vertebrae was crushed."
"My spinal cord was pinched. It wasn't severed thank goodness, or I'd be in a lot different situation. I couldn't move anything," he added with a hint of amazement.
Even Jack's physical therapists at Brooks Rehabilitation can't believe how far the 50-year-old JSO officer has come.
"When we first met him, he was in a wheelchair still," one PT specialist said, looking at him proudly. "He just ran eight minutes on the treadmill, so I'd say (there's been) a lot of progress for sure."
We joined Jack during one of his therapy session, just 3½ months after the crash.
"I still have some challenges left," Jack told us about his recovery, which he said is expected to take up to 18 months.
Right now, Jack's biggest limitations are shoulder and arm strength.
"Reaching out and reaching up is a big challenge for me," he said while using one hand to help the other wipe sweat from his brow. "I was told the nerves regenerate extremely slowly -- a millimeter per month."
While it's hard completing at least one hour of physical or occupational therapy every weekday, Jack has no intentions of taking a breather.
"I've got two huge motivators to keep going," he said with determination, referring to his son 15-year-old son, Jake, and his 17-year-old daughter, Holly.
Officer Jack Adams, Holly and Jake
Missing their mom
The image of seeing their mom lying motionless on the ground the night of the crash, is seared in the high schoolers' minds.
"I remember being asleep, and then feeling kind of like a jolt, and I woke up when the car was flipping," Holly said, recounting the night she initially thought was just a bad dream.
"I remember dad saying, like 'Oh, I can't move,'" she continued. "I didn't know where (my mom) was."
Good Samaritans helped Holly and Jake out of the vehicle, and the siblings hugged each other in what would be a very brief moment of relief.
"I saw my mom, and it really upset both of us," Jake said softly.
"Just saw her laying in the road. And I was able to go real close to her because my cheer bag was kind of close," Holly said, staring blankly.
She is on the Mandarin High School cheerleading team and had just been celebrating the school's football's victory with her teammates.
"In the back of my head (I knew)," Holly said but quickly added, "I was being hopeful (that she would be OK)."
Holly then described how she and her brother knew their mother likely didn't survive.
"You could tell that it was really bad. Just the way that she was kind of laying there and, like, she was unconscious and people didn't want us around there so we knew that it was not going to be good."
Surviving the pain
Jake and Holly
"I always see it," Jake said of the image of his mother lying on the ground. "It's like I try not to see it, so I try to distract myself but it pops up sometimes, and it makes me sad."
"...Cause I don't want to remember her like that," Holly added, finishing her brother's thought.
"Just keep myself distracted with people and doing something like fishing and playing basketball, or cleaning shoes, or messing with my pets or something," Jake said, listing the things he does to take his mind off the crash.
For his birthday last month, Jake's dad got him one of the newest pair of Air Jordan sneakers. And the pets he referred to in his list, include his small bearded dragon.
His mother bought him the cage just before the December accident -- an early Christmas gift in anticipation of the reptile that would call it home. She never got to see Charlie, the bearded dragon.
"I just look at pictures of her when she was happy," Holly told us with a beautiful smile.
At the end of a long day, their dad Jack often turns to his faith.
"In private, quiet times when the hubbub of the day has gone down, when all the visitors have gone home, when it's just you and the good Lord," he explained, "There are times when, you know, it's tough."
"You just gotta remember that this life is temporary, and it's just a blink of an eye," he said with reassurance.
As Jack began to get emotional, he quietly said, "One day we'll all be reunited."
When asked if he believes he'll see his wife again someday, Jack answered as though asked a rhetorical question: "Oh absolutely."
Good memories help family move forward
"She would just go out of her way to talk to you no matter what," Holly said eager to talk to us about the great times she remembers with her mom.
"I would come home from work like around 10 (pm), really late, and she would go in my room and we would just talk for like an hour. Even though it was a school night or a work night, like, she just went out of her way to make sure you're OK. And I would text her all the time at school and during work," she explained.
As a junior in high school, Holly understands why people think the loss of her mother is especially hard on her.
"I just try to remember the things that she had taught me or talked to me about," Holly said as if she wants to reassure all those worried about her well-being.
"If I'm in a situation that I don't know what to do, I just kind of think about the advice that she gave me in the past few years about stuff. And if I need anything, I can talk to one of my cheer coaches or a teacher or anything, but, I just look back at things she might've said."
Holly has found a strong support system in her cheerleading coaches, teammates and their parents.
SLIDESHOW: Adams family memories
For Jack, wonderful memories of his wife Cathy are endless.
"She always put everybody else first," he said matter-of-factly.
"Every event, whether it would be the dogs' birthdays or the kids' birthdays, whatever holiday it was, it was over the top. You know it had to be celebrated," he said.
Jack laughed as he talked to us about the years Cathy would dress up as the Easter Bunny for the kids when they were very young, and the time she made him wear a set of Mickey Mouse ears during an entire day at Disney World in Orlando to celebrate Jack's 50th birthday.
He pointed out their wedding portrait over the mantle in their living room.
"We got married in 2001 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee because Cathy grew up going to the mountains as a child," he said smiling, staring at the portrait. "So that's where she wanted to get married. It was just her and I. We eloped! In a little chapel there in the mountains."
Cathy's favorite things
Jack and the kids excitedly tell us about Cathy's three main loves, outside the three of them of course.
"Her fur babies," said Jack, describing the four basset hounds they have, roaming freely throughout their home. "They're a constant reminder of Cathy because she loved, loved those dogs."
In fact, Jack explained how Cathy had a hound named Pricilla when he and Cathy started dating.
"Cause my wife was a big Elvis fan!" he exclaimed, as he leads us away from meeting and greeting the dogs in the backyard, to the kitchen where Cathy dedicated an entire side of their refrigerator to Elvis magnets.
"One Christmas," Jack laughed. "We had a whole Elvis-themed Christmas tree, in addition to the regular one!"
Cathy was also crazy about her 2017 Mustang GT, which hasn't been moved from its solo spot in the garage.
"She insisted (the color be) 'grabber blue,'" Jack said, shaking his head and chuckling. "Because there again, her being the Elvis fan, Elvis liked things that were kind of showy and bright, sparkly."
Jokingly, Jack said Cathy only let him drive it maybe twice: once to test drive it and again to fill it with gas.
"We're going to hang onto it, pass it down to Jake one day, since him and his mom both loved this car so much," Jack said, looking over at Jake's wide smile.
There is no doubt that Jack, Jake and Holly are strong together. When we asked Jack about the pressure to now fulfill the role of mother and father for their children, he responded, "It's impossible to fill Cathy's shoes."
"Luckily, the kids are really well-adjusted. I couldn't have asked for two better children. I was really blessed. They are extremely intelligent, thoughtful, well mannered. They really make it easy to be a parent," he added.
Just like his two children, Jack too has had tremendous support outside their immediate and extended families. But, he said most of the credit goes to his kids.
"When one part goes down, your rally around what's left -- and I think that's what we've done," referring to the strong united front the three of them have become as the grieve Cathy's loss together.
And that's what Jack said he prays for.
"First, I pray that the kids are, to keep them healthy and happy, to keep our family unit strong, keep us moving forward," he explained.
His next prayer brings tears as he repeats the words he says to God.
"You know, keep Cathy in your loving embrace and that kind of thing, you know, stuff like that," he said.
The tears quickly turned to chuckles as he explained his prayer for himself.
"Of course, just pray that you know, to help me heal. It sounds selfish," he said humbly. "But obviously I do want to, you know, that's something I pray about as well."
It didn't fall on deaf ears the fact that Jack revealed he prays for his children first.
"It doesn't surprise me," Holly said, without missing a beat.
"He's always like that," she added, as her smile wiped away her own tears.
"He's a great dad, you know," Jake said with a determined voice, the loudest we've heard him speak during our entire 20-minute interview.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody else," Jake stated proudly.
Replying quietly, as his limited motion only allows him to stiffly lean toward his son sitting next to him, "Thank you, buddy."
Help families of fallen law enforcement
You can help families of fallen law enforcement by donating to the Fallen Officer Relief and Welfare Fund. For more information, call the Fraternal Order of Police at 904-398-7010.
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