The morning of July 4, 2018 began like any other in Sadie Raymond’s household. What Sadie and her family didn’t know, however, was that by the end of the day the course of all of their lives, especially that of their teenage son, Corbin would change forever.
After receiving a phone call that chilled her to the bone, Sadie rushed to the scene of a car accident. There, she discovered that her son had been a passenger in a car that had crashed into a tree and was on his way to the hospital via an ambulance.
For 121 days, Corbin fought an arduous battle for his life in the Intensive Care Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital and at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. New Englanders from across his home state and beyond declared themselves Corbin Strong. His family and friends found their strength and resilience in the face of adversity. And, through faith and love against all odds, Corbin won.
Featuring real-time journal entries and contributions from other members of Corbin’s family, 121 Days chronicles the harrowing days, weeks, and months following the accident. Candid and evocative, 121 Days is a revelatory story of the depth of fear, the duration of courage, and, ultimately, the power of triumph.
Chapter 1: A Memorable Independence Day
For the first dozen years of my married life, we celebrated the Fourth of July with a much-anticipated party at our Boscawen, New Hampshire, home. It had become a huge part of the family tradition that America’s independence would be acknowledged in the Raymonds’ backyard complete with family, friends, and more of the kids’ friends than we’d ever stop to count. We looked forward to it and we wouldn’t want it any other way. From just before noontime until the wee hours, we’d enjoy burgers, dogs, watermelon, countless homemade side dishes, and s’mores, splash loudly in the pool and ingest a healthy dose of calories, laughter, and libations. The daylong celebration would be capped off with our very own New Hampshire legal, homegrown firework display in the sky above our home.
For most of those celebrations, Jeff and I played gracious hosts to anyone who happened to show up and, for years on end, the day was filled with joyous memories. After Jeff and I divorced, the tradition continued but instead with my boyfriend, Steve, taking over as the acting grill master and the male head of the household. The Fourth of July, in the year 2018, became as unforgettable as those that preceded it, but for a completely different reason and one we will remember much longer than any of America’s prior birthday celebrations. Unfortunately, the memories that will be forever etched in Raymond family lore were not those of sparklers, fireworks, and burgers on the grill. Instead, we were left with the life-altering sights, sounds, and recollections of horror, heartache, and tragedy.
As that fateful morning began, I opened one eye and then the other, as the sun snuck through a slight crack that I had left between the bottom of the shade and the windowsill. I contemplated rolling over, putting the pillow back over my head, and falling back to sleep. However, I knew that I had a full day of work ahead of me. That year, the Fourth wouldn’t consist of celebrating with friends, flipping burgers, or drinking from red Solo cups filled with beer. Instead, I’d be bartending at CC Tomatoes, a local restaurant in Concord where I worked part-time. It was far from glamorous, but it paid the bills and unfortunately, life was in a place where that was becoming necessary.
I let out a cat-like stretch, slithered from beneath the sheets, and began the holiday as a forty-year-old, single mother of four children. My life was certainly not at its peak as I peered at my tired-looking reflection in the full-length mirror that hung from my bedroom wall. Jeff and I had parted ways about four-and-a-half years ago, and I found myself in a failing relationship yet again. Only this time, it was with the father of my two-year-old son, Grayson. My soon-to-be halted relationship with Steve was challenging right from the beginning. Like the little girl with the curl, we were either good or really bad with very little in between. We were smoking hot or freezing cold, but never lukewarm. We shared very few mutual friends, and during any free time we would usually stay home with the kids and ignore each other. Or we would go to his mother’s house in Nashua to visit. He was always on the verge of moving out and, quite fittingly, he scheduled two days after the Fourth to officially pack his bags and finally provide us both with our independence.
My life hardly screamed of independence at the time, and instead, it seemed to constantly shout back at me, “What the hell did you do to deserve this?” Without my four incredible children, who I love more than life itself, and an extremely supportive family and circle of friends, I’m not quite sure how I survived each day. I wasn’t certain what life would hand me next, leaving me questioning how I ever managed to get in this position and what I needed to do to straighten out my family’s slightly runaway course. As a parent, whether with a partner or not, it was my obligation to ensure that my family did not suffer one bit because of my ill-advised decision-making skills.
I began bartending several nights a week to create some much-needed cash flow for my suddenly single-income family. I chose the evening bartending schedule so that I could be home during the day with Grayson, while Corbin, Grace, and Cohen attended school. Though I had hoped to spend at least part of the day with the kids to celebrate America’s 242nd birthday, Corbin and Grace made plans with their friends, Jeff offered to take care of Cohen, and Steve took Grayson to his family’s house. So, I gave in to working a double shift hoping to earn some extra tips courtesy of any patrons who may have chosen to spend their Independence Day sitting at a bar.
Corbin, who was sixteen going on “man of the house,” made plans to celebrate his own sense of independence and was pumped to meet up with his cousin, Tanna, and a few buddies to tube down the Merrimack River that afternoon. When he asked me if he could go, I was very hesitant. The other boys wanted to tube partway down the river, camp out on the beach overnight, and float the rest of the way down the gentle rapids the next morning. None of the kids had their driver’s licenses for even a year, and the thought of them being alone on the river reminded me a bit too much of what I was likely doing at the same age.
I have always been a little overprotective of my children, so I argued with myself whether to let him hang with his buddies for the day. Corbin was scheduled to work that night so he would only be on the river a few hours and not overnight like the other boys. Much against my better judgment, I reluctantly agreed.
I had to be at work by 10 a.m. to prep for the lunchtime crowd, so I did my best to make myself presentable to face the long day ahead. I made it downstairs and searched the kitchen counter for my always elusive car keys. It seemed like nothing was easy for me these days and even starting the SUV involved a quick game of hide-and-seek. I heard Corbin shut the shower water off and step onto the bathroom tile. I tapped on the bathroom door to go over his plans for the day and to request a comforting promise that he would be careful and behave. No mother feels right without instructing their child to be careful (as if it does any good whatsoever).
A typical teenage boy and likely wrapped in a towel, he responded through the bathroom door and gave me a half-hearted “Goodbye, Mom” without seeing me. Not entirely comfortable with my decision to let him go, I mothered him a bit more and told him to text me when he left the house to recap his game plan for the day. He begrudgingly agreed and advised me that Grace was still in bed sleeping.
The bar opened at 11 a.m., and I was expecting it to be rather slow, knowing how beautiful the weather was supposed to be. I stocked the bar with a few buckets of ice, cut up some lemons and limes, gave the bar area a quick vacuum, and waited for at least one patron to provide me with someone to chat with. My first and, what would be, my only customer of the day, came in shortly after opening and ordered a sandwich for lunch. I recognized him from years prior when our boys were little, so we started reminiscing about their T-ball days. We chatted about how quickly they grow up and ironically, how scary it can be when those same little toddlers become old enough to get their driver’s licenses.
The unfamiliar tone of my new cell phone interrupted our conversation. I had just gotten it a few days earlier, so I hadn’t transferred all my contacts over yet. Unable to recognize the number of the incoming call and not wanting to be rude, I decided not to answer, figuring that they would call me back if we really needed to connect. In an eerie case of foreshadowing, my customer continued the conversation and shared a story about how his son was recently in a fender bender on the highway. He told me that it was one of those situations where traffic suddenly came to a halt and unable to react quickly enough, his son rear-ended the car in front of him. Luckily, no one was injured, and he chalked it up to the inexperience of his son behind the wheel, perhaps tailgating a bit, but hopefully not engaging in teens’ favorite current pastime, texting.
He wasn’t quite finished sharing the story when I heard the ping of my phone advising me that I had a text. Steve’s number was one that I certainly recognized even without having his contact added to my phone. His text ordered me to call him immediately. “It’s an EMERGENCY,” he texted, likely knowing that without such detail and the capital letters, I would ignore him and not hurry to return his call.
All I could think was that something had happened to Grayson. They were going to be at his sister’s pool for the day. I immediately got a huge lump in my throat and assumed the worst. I excused myself from my customer and called Steve in a near panic. He let me know that Grayson was fine, but he had received a call from my sister-in-law, Kim. She told him that my nephew, Tanna, had been in an accident and was reportedly trapped inside the vehicle. Corbin and Tanna are first-cousins and have been nearly inseparable since he moved up from Florida in 2014.
I wasn’t sure why she chose to notify me first, but I assumed that I must be closest to the accident so was the first one called. An instant later it hit me that Tanna was supposed to be with Corbin on the tubing trip. The decibel level of my voice increased as I peppered Steve with questions in rapid succession as soon as I realized that the boys were likely together. “Where are they? Where is the accident? Was Corbin with him?” Steve tried to get me to calm down, while letting me know the road the accident was on.
I hung up the phone without saying goodbye, much like many calls Steve and I had over the past several months. I quivered uncontrollably, not sure what to do first. In a state of mild hysteria, I began asking myself a new series of questions under my breath.
“Should I go to the hospital? Should I head to the road where the accident was? Oh my God! Was Corbin in that car?” The speed of my breaths heightened, and I knew I had to gain control of my emotions before I boiled over. I ran over to my coworker, told her about the call, asked her to serve the sandwich to my now abandoned customer, and then bolted out the door.
I flew across the parking lot, my feet hardly touching the pavement, and threw my SUV into drive while simultaneously jamming the gas pedal to the floor. I immediately dialed my mother while on the way to see if she had perhaps heard what happened. Mom answered the phone, sounding almost as frantic as I was. She told me that Kim had called her as well. She had been notified about the accident via her Life360 app and asked Mom to get to the hospital as soon as possible because she and my brother Chris were on their boat for the day. They were coincidentally boating on the same river that the boys were headed for, and she didn’t know how fast they could get to shore and the accident scene.
My mother had no details about Corbin and that helped me in making my decision to head straight to the scene of the accident. As I sped down Fisherville Road with absolutely no concern of the speed limit or oncoming vehicles, I glanced down at the dash and saw an all too familiar sight. The bright orange light on my gas gauge greeted me and indicated that I had once again ignored its warning the night before. “God, damn it! Not now!” I screamed to myself, out loud, for only me to hear.
I had worked late and I noticed the low fuel light was on, but true to habit I procrastinated. With so much going on in my daily life, I think I do a pretty good job keeping up with everything thrown at me in real-time, with little delay. However, the one area that I fail miserably in, repeatedly, is filling my gas tank despite the warnings.
Lo and behold, it would soon bite me in the ass. When I needed it most, I was running on fumes and despite the reality of the situation, I was still debating whether I had enough fumes to get to the accident scene. My mind played tug of war with itself, as it so often does when I’m in this position. Do I stop at the next station and get a bit of gas so as not to delay myself? Or do I pray for an act of God and try to make it to the scene of the accident?
What if I run out on the way there and find myself stranded? I knew the right answer to my litany of questions, but as I’ve often done throughout my life, I made the wrong decision and I decided to risk it. I had to know that Corbin was fine and, Lord willing, no lack of fuel was going to delay me from getting there.
I sped toward River Road and dialed up Grace over and over with no answer. As soon as it went to voice mail, I’d hang up and neurotically press redial in hopes of a different result. I just wanted her to tell me that somehow Corbin had been delayed and hadn’t left the house yet. Corbin hadn’t texted me to tell me that he was leaving, as I had instructed him to, so he must still be there or so I desperately wanted to believe. I gave up on connecting with Grace and began calling Corbin’s phone with the same maniacal repetition as I had his sister’s. Ring, voice mail, hang up, dial. Ring, voice mail, hang up, dial.
During my incessant dialing fit, I hadn’t even noticed that I had reached River Road. The knot in my stomach seemed to climb up into my throat as I swerved recklessly onto River Road without any thought of flipping on my directional light. What am I going to see? Even if Corbin miraculously wasn’t involved in the accident, my nephew was reportedly trapped in the vehicle. I knew the scene that awaited me was not something anyone looks forward to witnessing. The thoughts whipped through my mind one after another without even a second of delay in between.
I felt like I had been driving for much longer than expected as I passed one of the popular spots where people put their tubes into the river or go swimming. Groups of kids were laughing and screaming with excitement as I drove by in a completely opposite mindset. No one looked as though they had just witnessed a horrific accident like I anticipated seeing. Again, my mind and inner voice took control of the dialogue.
Maybe this was all a bad dream or was blown out of proportion. Maybe this was a blessing to get me out of working on a day that I really didn’t want to be there anyhow. I was going to come upon a slight fender bender, exchange insurance papers, and head back home to spend the day barbecuing after all. I continued to feel like this was the longest drive of my life. I had been on River Road hundreds of times, and it never felt this long. Each minute that passed gave me a bit more hope with the belief that I should have come across the wreck by now.
Suddenly, the tar road seemed to turn to dirt, and all I could see ahead were flashing lights. I drove as close as I could before a wall of emergency vehicles prevented me from getting any closer. I threw my SUV into park and jumped out with no concern of closing the door behind me. As I ran frantically toward the lights, I stumbled upon an odd thought. I was confused by the fact that the road was dirt when, to my knowledge, it was a completely paved road.
The experience was so surreal. If I hadn’t felt a burst of hot summer air hit my face, I may have been able to convince myself that this was a weird, horrible dream. Instead, I’d soon realize that it was the beginning of our real-life nightmare. After a few more steps, I realized that the vehicle had torn through people’s yards and woods covering the unrecognizable road in a furrow of dirt, burying the pavement underneath.
A police officer grabbed me by the upper left arm as I tried to maneuver my way through the sea of rescue workers. I tried to wrestle my way by him like a football player trying to break a tackle. His attempt to slow me down and stop me was successful. I found myself momentarily speechless, standing ankle-deep in dirt. I came face-to-face with a white car on its side hurled up against a tree. Tears welled up in my eyes as my hand came to my mouth.
The vehicle had no roof, and its entire white interior was saturated with blood. I was briefly relieved upon witnessing the sight of the car. “I don’t even know that car. None of Corbin’s friends drive a convertible.” Though a momentary reprieve, I remember feeling a slight sense of relief, my mind constantly searching for any reason to excuse this as someone else’s tragedy and not mine. Sure, I’d feel horrible that “their Corbin” had been injured in a horrible crash, but my Corbin was joyfully tubing down the river on the Fourth as planned.
I snapped back to reality, pulled my arm away from the officer, and said, “I think my nephew was in this accident.” The officer calmly asked me his name and then confirmed that Tanna was indeed a victim in the accident. He told me that he had been removed from the vehicle and was being tended to in the ambulance that was parked to the right of the accident scene.
Though frantic, I reluctantly asked if Corbin was also in the vehicle. I felt the police officer hesitate slightly. Though his pause was negligible, it was long enough that I noted his delay. I knew his answer before he told me. Corbin was not only in the vehicle, but he had also suffered the most severe injuries. Another ambulance had already rushed him to the hospital.
Again, I tried to understand why the medical team seemed to be so calmly working on my nephew at the scene of the accident, while Corbin had been whisked away in an ambulance. How could two injuries in the same demolished vehicle be so different?
I beckoned the officer to tell me the extent of Corbin’s injuries or to provide me with any calming information at all. I peppered him with questions, which were all just variations of the question, “Is my son okay?” All the officer would say was that Corbin was alive when he left in the ambulance. There was little or no comfort in those hollow words and, though I knew he was simply doing his job, I didn’t care.
I needed to find out, and find out now, whether my son was okay.
I hushed the officer mid-sentence, reversed field, and ran just as quickly back to my SUV. The door was still open, and it was covered with a thick layer of dust that had settled on the hood, windshield, and the front seat. With the gas gauge still gasping for breath, I threw the vehicle into reverse and unintentionally spun my tires as I headed for the hospital. u