Four years have passed since the Mother’s Day when Lisa Ott Battagliola pulled a chair up to her son’s bed in the burn unit at the University of Kansas Hospital and — as she had done on many a night since the fire — sang a Winnie the Pooh lullaby into her boy’s ear.
No longer a child, Josh Langton was 28 then, married, with a 3-year-old daughter. For most of his adult life, he’d been a hard-charging partier, a bar-brawling tough with a tattoo of Jesus on his left arm, “Hillbilly” on his right, inked wings spread across his back.
In Iraq, as a U.S. Army machine gunner, he had seen friends die in combat. In 2008, he left with an honorable discharge, a case of post-traumatic stress disorder and a desire to return to his free-wheeling ways.
Then on March, 5, 2011, came the accident.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Langton was welding close to midnight inside his dad’s Liberty garage. A spark flew and smoldered unseen beneath a car’s gas tank.
The resulting explosion engulfed Langton in flames, turning him into a screaming torch. So much of his flesh was charred, 93 percent, that doctors told Battagliola that, although they would try to save her son, she should be prepared to say goodbye.
Instead, Battagliola refused. She drew close to her boy.
“Christopher Robin and I walked along,” she sang, “under branches lit up by the moon. …”
The Kansas City Star published a story about Battagliola and Josh at that time, when his survival was unsure. Now it’s Mother’s Day weekend again.
“I feel good. Just a little sore now and then, otherwise I’m all right,” Josh, 32, said late this week seated near his mother in the living room of her Kansas City, North, home, which he currently shares.
In the last four years, Langton has had upward of 200 plastic surgeries, turning his body into a patchwork of grafted skin. “They had to grow my skin in petri dishes,” he said. The Jesus tattoo that once plastered his left shoulder is now in pieces on his right hand and toes.
The fire spared most of Langton’s face, his eyes, his lungs, his windpipe. So his voice is strong, his internal organs and, he jokes with gratitude, his genitals.
“I didn’t lose nothing except my fingers,” he said. He lost only two. His thumb, pointer and pinkie remain on his right hand. His left hand is intact.
The other thing he didn’t lose — although, he concedes, his own destructive behavior nearly pushed it to the edge — was his mother’s love.
“Hey, the truth is what it is,” Langton said. “No need to sugarcoat it.”
The stuff of life and mothering is rarely so neat.
Langton remained at the hospital for a solid year, with painkilling drugs pumping into his body. When Battagliola, now 54, knew that her son would live, she hoped he wouldn’t return to his raucous life and instead would find calm and meaning in the love that surrounded him.
Although his parents were divorced, they came together at the hospital to stand by him, as did his three brothers. Jamie, his wife, came to the hospital, along with his daughter, Lilly. Battagliola saw a tale of spirit, inner strength and survival in her son’s plight.
“My hope? That maybe he would become some amazing motivational speaker,” Battagliola said this week. “His story is incredible. Not just the fact that the made it through one death sentence … people telling me there’s no hope, he’s gone.”
Even before being burned, Langton had battled an addiction to prescription drugs before straightening out. Hospitalization saved his life, but at a cost.
“Remember” Battagliola said, “he lay in a hospital bed for a year with an IV of (the narcotic) Dilaudid. They said if he makes it, if he makes it, he will be horribly addicted to painkillers.”
“I woke up a drug addict,” Langton said.
That’s the way he has remained for most of the last four years, hooked on drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone. It was only recently, after November 2014, that Langton entered the Domiciliary, a veteran care program in Leavenworth.
He was released only two weeks ago.
Until then, he and Battagliola said, his life was in free fall. The burn scars devastated his mind and emotions as much as his body.
“To be honest, I gave up after all this stuff,” Langton said. “What … am I doing here? Why am I here? I didn’t even care any more. No one wants to live like this. I didn’t care if I lived or died. When I came out of the hospital, I didn’t give a crap. I didn’t want to live.”
Battagliola said that she and the rest of Langton’s loved ones were grateful Langton was alive. But he had lost himself in drugs.
You guys wanted me to be alive? Here I am! Langton thought in self-destructive defiance.
His marriage to Jamie ended.
“I lost everything I had,” he said. “My house, my family.”
Battagliola stepped in as a grandmother. Lilly, age 7, now lives with her. She’s the one who readies her for school every day.
The deeper that Langton sank over the years, the more often Battagliola heard from friends and family who argued that she needed to let go, that he was an adult who was making his choices and needed to help himself. But she couldn’t let him go, she said, and can’t.
“At the end of the day,” Battagliola said, “he’s my child.”
Langton said that, on one level, he understood the pain and worry he was causing. His drug addiction kept him from caring.
Langton’s younger brother, Jeremy, age 30, said he’s watched the toll the last four years have taken on his mother. Her marriage of 15 years ended months into Langton’s hospitalization. Jeremy Langton said he’s also seen how his mother has refused to lose hope in her son.
“She hasn’t,” he said. “Praise her for that. She’s the one who keeps at it, who won’t let him down, and won’t give up on him.”
Sometimes his depths have been cavernous. She kicked him out once. He was booted from his apartment.
“I would go over to his house and have to literally almost fight these drug addict weirdos,” Battagliola said. “That’s when he got his disability (check), at the first of the month. They would all be there.”
Two years ago in July, Langton was once more pronounced close to dead after a pulmonary embolism traveled to his brain. Battagliola sat at his side again when nurses doubted his survival.
“I said then I’ll hope for the miracle,” she recalled. Langton spent a month in a Liberty hospital, before being transferred for at least three more months to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska.
Then, just before noon on Oct. 11 of last year, he again cheated death.
Heading north on Interstate 435, Langton crashed his 1994 Honda Accord at high speed into the rear end of an 18-wheel truck. The accident shut down the highway. His car lay in a mangled heap.
Langton went to the hospital with only minor injuries, but even now continues to deal with the legal ramifications of his act. He has a hearing scheduled for later this month in Clay County Circuit Court for driving while intoxicated.
He entered rehab shortly afterward at the veterans Domiciliary program in Leavenworth.
“I think the Dom saved my life,” Langton said. “Going up there, getting my head cleared, getting off the painkillers.”
Battagliola concedes that the weeks and months her son has spent in hospitals or rehab have often been the most worry-free since the fire. Time and again, he has tested the limits of her goodwill.
“All the boys have said, ‘What? You’re going to go get him?’ You’re going to give him more money?’ You deserve what you get.’ They’re just appalled,” she said.
She concedes that dark thoughts have crossed her mind as she watched her son lose himself to drugs, including the thought that maybe it might have been better had the fire taken him.
“It would be a lie to say I never thought that,” Battagliola said. “When he was at his very worst, when every day police are calling, and people are calling, and I’m trying to raise Lilly, and I was financially just ruined. He would say, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ And I would say, ‘Hurry up.’”
Langton said he understands.
“When you see your kid dying, lying in the hospital bed, and then he gets out there and he’s killing himself? No one wants to see that,” he said.
He also knows this: “She stood by me.”
At this point, Battagliola said, she’s cautious about her son’s recovery, but also hopeful, praying that he’ll remain sober. Of all that has changed in her life since the fire, she said, one thing has not.
“My role as a mom.”
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.