There were times, in the first half of Dana Hoffman’s life, when she could look forward to little handmade gifts shyly presented to her on the morning of Mother’s Day. She was the mother of two small children — prime celebrants of such a day.
But then, the nightmare: Her children, 6-year-old Brooke and 9-year-old Kyle, were killed in a crash one winter night on the way home from their grandparents’ house.
Her husband, Dave, was seriously injured and fighting for his life. Dana, remarkably, was nearly unscathed physically.
Her soul was not so lucky.
“Mother’s Day is great with the kids you have,” Hoffman said. “But half of my heart is still in that cemetery. That will never heal. It just kind of gets skimmed over.”
The Hoffmans will mark their 35th wedding anniversary June 18. The pair married a year after Dana graduated from Elyria High School. Dana was 19; Dave was 21.
That their marriage is still intact is a minor miracle in itself.
After the crash, when her husband spent six weeks in the hospital with 11 broken ribs, a shattered pelvis, ruptured diaphragm, damaged spleen and life-threatening blood clots, a hospital employee told them, “Statistics show many marriages end following the death of a child, let alone two.”
They still grieve, and always will grieve, but they have learned how to direct their attention to the present.
And their life for the past 22 years has been more than full. The Hoffmans had three more children: Ryan, 21, Cory, 20, and Emily, 18.
Dark-haired Emily, who is about to graduate from Keystone High School, bears a striking resemblance to her sister, Brooke. Dana pulls up photos on her phone of Emily, posing with her brothers, and a snapshot of Brooke, smiling with two bows in her hair in front of a big chocolate cake with pink lettering. It was her 6th birthday, her last.
“They looked exactly alike at this age,” their mother said. “And I know Brooke would look just like this now.”
Ryan looks like Kyle.
“I didn’t see it right way; it wasn’t until his toddler days,” she said. “But everybody else notices it, too.”
The couple has learned in the past 22 years how to live all over again. How to breathe through each day, how to wake up without their children, how to rejoice in new babies and live with what will be instead of what was.
Some things remain the same. Dave still works with Lifestyle Landscaping, his brother’s company. He is now the president.
They used to live in a historic home adjacent to the company on Center Ridge Road in North Ridgeville but moved out six months after the crash, unable to live with the constant memories in the home. Just recently it was torn down, another painful trigger in a life of many triggers.
Their son picked from the ruins some of the wide wood molding that can be seen in the background of a photo taken the last Christmas before the crash. The four Hoffmans then — Dana, Dave, Brooke and Kyle — posed in front of a Christmas tree. He made a frame from the wood to hold the photo.
Dana cherishes that she was allowed to keep all the doorknobs.
“My children had touched those,” she said.
Other things are comforting returns to the past they once had. The family now lives in the LaGrange Township home Dave grew up in. They got the house after the death of Dave’s parents. It was the last place they were with their children, having dinner the night of the crash. They still use the dining table they used that night.
Dana credits her husband with giving her space to grieve; each has their own distinct ways. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has been through therapy. Though she often uses her story and her pain to reach out to others and encourage people going through their own struggles, there are triggers that can bring her, in an instant, back to the crash.
Some are mysterious to her, like a train whistle. Maybe she heard one that night before the crash. She doesn’t know. Sometimes it’s a breeze that blows in her face, a certain smell in the air. Recently it was a coworker’s story about a preschooler’s graduation.
“I have a video of Brooke graduating from preschool in her little gown and cardboard cap, and you can hear my dad saying, ‘There she goes, off to begin her life.’ And now he’s gone, too. It just triggered me for a minute,” she said.
Dana’s father, Jerry Rombach, was the longtime sports editor and columnist at The Chronicle-Telegram. He passed away last year. Her mother, Barbara, still lives in Lorain County.
At a therapist’s suggestion, Dana even tried eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a relatively new type of psychotherapy used for extreme PTSD patients, but she chose not to continue.
“If I got rid of that, I get rid of them. That anguish is part of them,” she said. “When I feel that warm air, or a certain smell, or hear a train that knocks me into that 1,000-mile stare — that’s part of them. To me, my trauma brings me closer to them.”
Her route to work brings her through the intersection where her children died. A cross Dave made and erected at the site is still there, respectfully left by road workers.
She still struggles when she visits the grave in Brookdale Cemetery in Carlisle Township.
“All I picture is their bones,” she said. “I know they are with God and I will see them again real soon. But those are the bodies I held, the ones I gave birth to.”
In an instant
The night of Jan. 29, 1996, the Hoffmans had gone to Dave’s parents’ home for dinner. After dinner the children chose to stay in the kitchen, which Dana thought was unusual. Their grandma kept a basket of toys for them to play with and they usually made a beeline to it, but they didn’t that night.
“That night they stayed in the kitchen, talking, eating pie. Brooke got in my lap because, she told me, ‘I just don’t do this as much anymore.’ Within an hour, she was dead.”
The family said their good-byes and bundled into the car. The kids were already in the back seat when their grandma called out for a kiss. Dana retrieved Kyle and Brooke from the car so they could give kisses before the Hoffmans pulled out of the driveway.
“And that’s the difference. If we hadn’t come back in, we would’ve been on the road and they wouldn’t be dead,” Dana said.
She knows there is no way of knowing if that would’ve changed the outcome, but she does wonder if that fraction of time would’ve changed the ending of the story that night. If they hadn’t gone back in, would the Hoffmans’ Nissan Altima have missed being T-boned at state routes 57 and 83, and would their children would still be alive?
But as fate would have it, an Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by an 18-year-old ran a red light and slammed into the Hoffmans’ car so hard it left the road, hit gravel, went airborne and rolled several times down a slight hill. Dana and Dave, who were not wearing seat belts, and Kyle and Brooke, who were, were ejected.
Dana doesn’t remember the crash. She remembers waking up on the gravel and thinking she was somehow back in her in-laws’ driveway. She remembers being asked about “the baby, where was the baby” and saying the car seat in the Altima was for a child she was babysitting; her kids were older, she said. According to newspaper articles at the time, passers-by first on the scene told police they found a woman moaning on the ground, asking for her children.
She was taken to the emergency room, and nurses wheeled her in to see Kyle.
“I thought he’s going to be OK, because he didn’t look bad. He even looked like he had a little smile on his face,” she said. “I rubbed his arm and said, ‘I love you,’ and then they took him in the helicopter and he died.”
She didn’t know at the time that every bone in Kyle’s body was broken. The rolling car ran over him. Doctors had restarted his heart several times to stabilize him enough to fly him to MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. They had brought his mother in to see him, knowing it could be her last visit.
Brooke was found dead at the scene. A state trooper later told Dana, at her request, that Brooke was found in the bushes, with her knees up to her chest. She looked uninjured; her lungs instantly had filled with blood. Her death was instant and painless, Dana said.
Twenty years after the accident, the Hoffmans realized what may have happened to their firstborn daughter that night. That’s because Dave had to have critical surgery to fix an aortic aneurysm that doctors attributed to the physical trauma caused in the accident two decades before. It could have ruptured at any time, instantly killing him. Dana believes the impact of the crash likely caused the same condition in Brooke, only to a fatal degree.
Dave was so critically injured in the crash, it was a week before he could be told his children were gone. An adverse reaction to a blood thinner had destroyed his adrenal system, affecting his thinking. Dana doesn’t remember who had to break the news, but she knows it wasn’t her.
“I remember calling my friend at 3 a.m. I didn’t realize the time and it just kept ringing and her husband answered. I said, ‘We’ve been in an accident and Dave is in the hospital. The kids are gone.’ And I still hear their screaming, just screaming and screaming.”
Dave missed their funeral. Dana, who was in the hospital for only a few days, demanded to be released so she could attend the services, stitches in her forehead. Her father handled the arrangements. Brooke and Kyle were buried together in a casket donated by a friend.
Dana stayed with her parents for weeks before Dave could join her and they could go home. Home — where Brooke and Kyle’s things still were where they left them.
Dana wonders now if her children, somehow, may have known what was coming.
She remembers an odd incident that happened shortly before the crash.
“I was coming home and we passed a car in the ditch. I remember looking back at Brooke and I was all sad; and I looked at her and Brooke said, ‘I’m sorry, it just doesn’t bother me like it does you.’ And she was 5,” Dana said.
Both kids had recently gone through a phase of being afraid of dying and extensively talking to their mom about death and dying and what it means, which Dana had thought unusual at the time since no one they knew had died.
In the video of their last Christmas, both kids were unusually quiet.
“You can see them both just watching everything. They were both just observing. It was like they knew. We both look back and think, ‘Maybe they knew.’”
She recalls the night of the crash, when — for the first time — the children chose to stay close to their parents after dinner, ignoring their treasured basket of toys. And they were both completely quiet on the way home that night.
“They were never quiet! Never. It was past their bedtime, and they were never, ever quiet. I looked back and saw Brooke smiling at me. My husband looked in the rearview mirror and saw Brooke smiling and Kyle just looking out his window. And that was it.”
Dana remembered seeing a flashing yellow light, which would come up later in court. The driver of the car that struck them was Mark DeMarino, 18, of Grafton. DeMarino denied culpability in the crash, which also killed his passenger, Andrew James, 21.
Prosecutors had prepared Dave that he would be required, at court, to see the images of his children as they were found after the crash. He was in desperate prayer, asking God to do something to keep him from facing that when the prosecutor called.
DeMarino pleaded no contest to three counts of vehicular homicide. He spent five months and three days in jail.
It eventually was discovered that a bar at the intersection had an outdoor sign flashing yellow lights.
“I’ve never been angry at him. I’ve never been angry at God,” Dana saud. “I don’t believe he planned to go out that night to kill Brooke and Kyle.”
Though her husband suggested having more children immediately, Dana balked. They had planned to be done having children, but they hadn’t planned on those children dying. But “somehow, miraculously” Dana found herself pregnant not long after her husband was released, broken body and all.
“They say not to do anything major within the first year,” she said. “And I got pregnant. Ryan was born, six days before the first anniversary. I had to be sane for that.”
Ryan came, then Cory shortly afterward, and within a few years, Emily — their “new roads” that led to a different future for the Hoffmans.
When people ask how many kids she has, she typically responds: “I have three kids, and two died.” Depending on the situation, she offers an explanation. Once, recently, an acquaintance asked how long ago her kids died. When Dana answered 22 years, the woman said, “Oh, well that’s a long time ago.”
“I wanted to say, ‘No, it was yesterday. Don’t you remember? I was a mom. I held them.’”
“The kids brought new life. I had to be in the moment,” she said of her three living children. “I can’t say how life would be without having these kids. They were given to me to keep me from losing my mind.”
She has worked hard to give her youngest three a life without feeling compared to the ghosts of Kyle and Brooke. Even the crash did not make her overly protective, which was a struggle when they started driving. Her children brought joy and hope back to her life, things she could’ve believed, at one time, were gone for good.
“My kids, they’re very good kids, very respectful. I love them to death. Everybody, teachers, everybody always said how good they are. I would give my life for them,” she said. “It’s like a fork in the road. I had to take this way, this fork, but it’s still connected to that original root. That’s why God gave me this path and I’m glad it took me to this place, having these kids. I’m not a religious person, but He obviously knew more than I did.”
This Mother’s Day likely will be a low-key affair, as usual. Before Brooke and Kyle died, she remembers Dave asking her what she wanted for Mother’s Day and she blithely told him, “Just to not be a mom for one day.”
She has thought of that often over the years, added to the pile of survivor’s guilt that lives in her memories. She knows it wasn’t meant seriously, but stemmed from the frustration most tired mothers feel at various times. Nowadays, she usually poses for a photo with her kids, her three living children standing around her while she holds a photograph of her deceased children. They’ve now been gone many more years than they walked this earth.
She believes the fact that Brooke and Kyle lived — and died — has made her “a much better person” than she was before. She still feels their presence in cardinals that visit the window of her computer room. She has, etched in her skin, many tattoos of butterflies and hearts, pink for Brooke and blue for Kyle.
“They are still with me. They continue to live through me,” she said.