On the fifth floor of the University of Kansas Hospital, in a corner room in the burn unit, a mother leans close to her son’s right ear.
He lies on the bed, eyes closed. Burns cover 90 percent of his body. Tubes snake from veins and his throat into humming machines.
“Josh?” Lisa Ott Battagliola whispers.
Whether her boy, Josh Langton, 27, can hear her, she doesn’t know. Even if he can, the memory of her presence may be lost in the fog of pain medication.
It doesn’t matter.
“Josh?” she says again.
Because if there’s one simple Mother’s Day lesson that Battagliola — a 4-foot-11-inch mom given to form-fitting jeans and high heels, born 50 years ago to a tough Las Vegas construction family — has learned through years of family hardships, through ups and down with her eldest son, it’s this:
“At the end of the day, tell your child, no matter how old they are, that you love them. Because no matter how old they are, they’re your child. Make sure they know you love them. One day you may get that 4 o’clock in the morning phone call.”
“Josh,” she says. His face is still. “I’m here. It’s your mom. I’m here. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
Battagliola of Gladstone needs her son to understand this. And something else, too:
He is strong and he can beat this.
“You’re going to be OK,” Battagliola says.
Josh has a wife, Jamie, and a 3-year-old daughter, Lilly, to live for. He was a soldier who survived Iraq and the PTSD nightmares that later haunted him.
“Tough as nails,” his war buddy, Joel Lance, 28, of Overland Park, called him.
Josh is the muscled guy who, at 6-1 and 220 pounds, carried a machine gun into combat with “Hillbilly” tattooed on one arm, an image of Jesus on the other, and wings inked across his back. He’s the pool-shooting, poker-playing, loud-cackling buddy with a give-a-hoot attitude, the first to throw himself into bar fight, either on his own account or, more likely, in defense of a friend.
“He would fight the biggest guy,” said his brother Jeremy, 26. “The biggest. He would lose. It didn’t matter. Even if it was Mike Tyson, he would think he would win the whole time.
“He is the baddest dude I know but, inside, the softest, kindest dude I know. Heart of a lion.”
The March 5 accident that put him here happened, literally, in a flash:
Josh works on his car close to midnight. A spark flies off a welding torch. Beneath the car, a fire smolders unseen. The gas tank boils until fire erupts like a flame thrower.
“He blew up like an M-80,” Jeremy said. “He was completely engulfed in flames shooting six feet above his head.”
Josh’s father, Mike Langton, a Ford autoworker, heard the screams coming from his Liberty back yard. By the time he jumped on his son, rolling him in the grass, Josh lay scorched naked.
People almost never survive 90 percent burns, doctors say. The fire mostly spared Josh’s face, eye, ears and reproductive organs. Once covered in tattoos, his body has only one left, the image of Jesus on his left arm.
Doctors say that at this point, it is Josh’s spirit, as much as anything, that’s keeping him alive. You must muster the desire to live.
“Truly, that is what it comes down to,” said plastic surgeon Richard Korentager, Josh’s physician and director of KU’s burn unit. “If you’re not a fighter, you’re not going to survive one of these things.”
Every night, and many days for two months now, through his daughter’s third birthday and through his own 28th birthday on April 25, the two moms — Jamie and his mother — have urged him to remain strong, even as they have felt like collapsing.
A country girl from Warsaw, Mo., Jamie Langton — “Jimbo,” as Josh calls the tiny blonde, 24 years old, whom Josh charmed when she was 16 — remembers sitting at her husband’s hospital bed weeks ago, just talking, consoling him on the off chance he could hear.
I love you so much. Lilly loves you so much. She asks for you 100 times a day.
Never would she tell him how rough it has actually been on Lilly, especially at night, when she expects her daddy to be home.
Lilly was not allowed into the burn unit for the longest time out of fear that she could pass infections and for her own psychological sake.
Never would Jamie tell Josh how she once heard Lilly talking to her dolls about her dad and telling them, “I don’t know. I guess he just got lost. Maybe he forgot how to get home.”
Instead, Jamie wanted him to know:
We need you. I don’t know where I would be without you. There is no way I could ever pay you back for all you’ve done for me.
Please, Josh, you can’t leave me.
She looked at him.
“I saw a tear on his cheek,” Jamie said.
A nurse assured her, yes, it could be possible that he was hearing and understanding even in his medicated delirium.
Away from Josh’s hospital bed, Jamie has fallen apart. Panic attacks. “Meltdowns,” she calls them, times when she has turned faint and pale and wanted to vomit from fatigue and worry.
But, as Josh’s wife and Lilly’s mom, she refuses to falter in front of her husband.
“I need to stay strong for him,” she says.
On more nights than she can count, Lisa Battagliola hasn’t slept, thinking of Josh.
Exhausted, having worked all day helping manage a dent-repair business on North Oak Trafficway, she winds her way to the hospital to sit by her son.
She kisses his forehead. She sings the song she sang to Josh when he was her baby.
Christopher Robin and I walked along.
Under branches lit up by the moon.
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore.
As our days disappeared all too soon...
“I love you to the moon and back,” she tells him.
She won’t allow herself to even consider the possibility that days with her son could disappear.
People have said thoughtless, stupid things to her over the weeks about accepting the reality of Josh’s condition. They ask her to consider whether he would want to live as a burn victim.
“I’m putting my dog down,” one woman said to her early on. “Have you have ever thought that sometimes you have to let go?”
Battagliola’s answer, and Jamie’s: “No. Absolutely not.”
In the early weeks, nurses told them that they needed to prepare themselves for the possibility that Josh would die.
“Tell me,” she remembers thinking, “how do I prepare for my son to pass? Is there a book I’m supposed to read? Are there directions? You tell me! How do I prepare to lose my boy, my soldier?”
To be sure, Battagliola knows that over the years Josh hasn’t always felt that she was on his side.
Yes, life was hard. No one denies it. There was the divorce when Josh and Jeremy were in grade school.
Kids were shuttled back and forth between mom, living in California then, and dad, Mike Langton, living in Liberty and with a place in Warsaw.
Josh hasn’t always felt that he was his mom’s favored child, that she believed in him or cared for him as much as, say, Jeremy, who was so much easier.
Josh was her “wild child.” Both bad luck and trouble seem to have trailed him his whole life, day and night, like the sun and moon. Much of it he would bring upon himself, but always with good cheer.
No one can recall how many times Josh has been in the hospital. It’s so common that when Jeremy got the March 5 call telling him Josh was going to the emergency room, the news barely stirred him until his father explained.
“He said, ‘If you ever want to see your brother again, I suggest you get to the hospital now,’” Jeremy recalled.
But before that, the crazy stories of Josh were legend.
Josh as a 2- or 3-year-old in the tub. Mom looks up his nose and finds a giant orange crayon. Hello, emergency room.
Josh at 9 riding his bike on a ranch. “On 300 acres there is probably 6 inches of barbed-wire fence,” his mom said. Josh hit it face first.
Josh, at 10, climbs a 30-foot tree no one else dares climb. He slips and hangs from a branch that gouges him in the leg. Another trip to the ER.
“He was an accident-prone kid,” Jamie said.
And fistfights — from high school and into and out of the military — too many to count.
Once, while on leave from the Army, he and Jamie made a late-night stop at a gas station. A car screeched into the station, skidding to a halt within inches of Josh’s bumper. Josh makes a wise-crack comment along the lines of “Couldn’t you pull any closer?” Three guys hopped out and began whaling on him.
Battagliola loves him to death.
“He’s my everything,” she says.
But he could make life hard.
Just last Christmas he rolled his Ford Explorer into a ditch and was ejected. Miraculously, he was unhurt.
Before the burns, there was a fight that wounded him deeply: His tour in Iraq.
It was from 2006 to 2007. He was a private in the infantry. He loved the Army. In high school, he had been a no-show, more apt to go fishing or hunting than go to class. He earned his GED to enlist.
Overseas, he was riding in a Humvee when an improvised explosive device blasted the vehicle in front of him. His best friend’s head was blown from his neck.
Josh and his comrades had to pick up the pieces, putting them in Nike shoe boxes. In a daze, he ended up putting a piece of his friend’s body in a pocket.
“I put his ear in a bag,” Battagliola remembers her son telling her. “I cried like a baby.”
Josh accepted his friend’s Purple Heart. At the ceremony, he broke down.
“I was crying, mom. I was crying,” he said.
“Josh, there is no shame in that,” his mom told him.
“Mom, I was crying in front of the whole platoon.”
After an honorable discharge in 2008, nightmares and rage haunted him.
“He would be dead asleep and wake up and he would be ripping the curtains off the windows,” Jamie said. “Then he would go back to sleep.”
Unwanted memories would float back.
“Mom,” Battagliola remembers Josh telling her one day, the thought coming out of nowhere. “Do you know that saying, ‘I’ll blow you into a thousand pieces?’ A body really can blow into a thousand pieces.”
For the last several years, life has been difficult. Josh became hooked on prescription medications and then fought to get off them. Money was tight. Jamie and Josh lived on Army disability. He would work, but it wouldn’t last. There were more fights. The family argued, urging Josh to get his life together.
On the night he was burned, Josh was finally trying to do just that: Fix up a car sold him by Jeremy, get out of there, get work, move forward.
For the first 10 days of his hospitalization, his mother slept on a floor in the burn unit.
Neither she nor Jamie wanted to leave.
“What if he wakes up and he’s afraid?” Battagliola said.
Two weeks ago, Josh Langton did wake up.
The medication keeping him almost comatose was reduced, allowing him to open his eyes and to work to help keep his lungs clear of the kind of infection that could kill him all too quickly. Seventy percent of his body still remained to be covered by grafts.
“Until his wounds are essentially closed,” a process that could take six to eight weeks, “he is not out of the woods,” his doctor said.
On this day, his mom and Jamie hurried toward him.
“I love you, babe!” Jamie said. “I can’t wait to tell Lilly. She asks me 100 times a day, ‘Is Daddy awake? Is Daddy awake?’ “
Gently, over and over, they kissed his forehead. He smiled, looked at them with a foggy, medicated gaze.
His voice emerged as a forced, airy rasp from the hole in his throat.
“Hi, Mom,” he said.
But this week, Josh went back on the respirator again, following more surgeries. If he survives, his doctor said, surgeries and rehabilitation will last his lifetime.
On Wednesday night, Battagliola stood terrified at her son’s side.
Asleep, Josh looked lifeless.
“I need to see some life or something,” she told the nurse. “I need for him to know how much I love him.”
He just needs sleep, the nurse explained, before approaching the bed.
“Josh?” the nurse said. “Josh? Your mom’s here.”
His heavy eyes opened. His voice was barely audible.
“I love you, Mom,” he managed.
She kissed his forehead and cried.
“Just go back to sleep, sweetheart,” she said, and took a seat at his side.
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to email@example.com.