This evening, as members of the Sutton, Middleton, Thomas and Wigington families join hands and bow their heads for their prayer of Thanksgiving, they will be especially grateful for the health of two of their young relatives.
Victoria Middleton, 20, of Acworth, is recovering from a brain injury suffered in a horse-related accident over the summer. Just when the family was breathing some relief that she would be well, they learned that her cousin, Robert Wigington, 24, of east Cobb, had cancer.
Victoria, a 2007 graduate of Kell High School, is an accomplished equestrian who had just finished her sophomore year at the University of South Carolina, where she attended on an equestrian scholarship. At about 7:30 a.m. on July 24, she was in Vermont, bathing a horse before a show, when the horse got spooked and the fencing it was tied to broke. The fence rail hit Victoria in the face and knocked her down, where she hit her head on cement.
Her mother, Leslie Thomas, was at home in Acworth when a trainer called her about 9 a.m. that day.
"She said, ' Victoria's been in an accident and you need to come,'" Leslie recalled. Leslie and her son, William, raced to the airport and caught a flight to Albany, N.Y., where Victoria had been airlifted.
"It was very chaotic," Leslie recalled. Their plan had been for William to drop her off at the airport, but Leslie's sister, Lynn Wigington, insisted Leslie not go alone.
"I was glad I had him with me, because it was while I was at the airport that I learned she might not make it," Leslie said, choking with emotion. When she got to the hospital, Victoria "had tubes coming out of her everywhere," and she had a gash on her chin. Victoria suffered bleeding in several parts of her brain, as well as brain-stem injuries.
Victoria was hospitalized in Albany for about 10 days, and was then brought to the Shepherd Center, a brain and spinal-cord specialty center in Atlanta. She woke up about three weeks after the accident, and although she wasn't sure what was going on, she knew something was wrong.
"I wasn't shocked by the news that I was brain-injured," she said wryly.
After a monthlong inpatient stay, and two months of day therapy, Victoria is recovering well, though she still has a long way to go. She has occasional speech therapy, and spends much of her time working out and hanging around the Falcon Ridge stables in Woodstock.
"Physically, I'm OK," she said. "I have to work on my running, because that's pretty awkward. I look like an old man running."
She has re-learned how to eat, and write, and hopes to drive again soon. She hasn't yet been back on a horse, but is looking forward to that day. She plans to enroll at Kennesaw State University for the spring semester as a way to ease back into a normal routine. In the fall, she hopes to return to the University of South Carolina on a partial equestrian scholarship.
And though she can joke about her accident - "At rehab, everybody was like 'You got in a fight with a fence,'" she says, with a laugh - it has changed her life in profound ways. She plans to finish her business degree and then go to graduate school to become a rehabilitation doctor or a therapist, helping others in the way she has been helped.
Two words sum up all that she is thankful for this Thanksgiving season: "My life."
Her mother, Leslie, who listened as that ER doctor told her that her daughter could die, simply can't imagine this Thanksgiving without Victoria. Besides Victoria and William, she will also be spending the holiday with her husband, Stan, and her daughter Olivia, 4. Her eldest child, Britany, is an aspiring actress who lives in Los Angeles and will be home at Christmas.
"I am thankful to God, because he has given me lots of help," Leslie said.
For Robert Wigington, life also looks good. After graduating from Sprayberry High School in 2003, he went on to Georgia Southern University, where he graduated in 2007. He's a product manager for LexisNexis, in Alpharetta, and recently bought a home not far from his parents in east Cobb.
He is also engaged to be married to Callie Preast next May 8. Though both grew up in Cobb, they didn't meet until attending Georgia Southern together. Callie graduated from Kennesaw Mountain High School.
Doctors recently told Robert he had cancer, and one week ago today, he had the tumor removed.
"I'm just thankful to be here and be in the family I'm in. There's been a lot of rallying by this family. That's not something everyone gets to experience. Thinking about people who have to go through this alone makes my heart break. This family is a beautiful thing. We kid around and have a good time, but at the end of the day, we're a support network, and that's what I think a family really is," Robert said. "My health is what I'm most thankful for," he said. "Given everything, it could have been a lot worse. There are a lot of people who aren't as fortunate as I am."
He also realizes, he said, that "Whatever happens is not for me to decide. It's up to the doctors and God."
Robert's mother, Lynn Wigington, said she is thankful her family made it through this year.
"We never dreamed we'd have the challenges we had this year," she said. "We've always been the ones to help others, and we had to take some help this year. It's been humbling, but it's also taught us how valuable it is to help others."
Lynn, who has made a career in administrative services, was in charge of scheduling people to keep Victoria company at the Shepherd Center.
"We weren't going to let Victoria stay one minute there by herself. That's not our style. You don't have to go through it by yourself," Lynn said. "We find great comfort in being around each other."
Lynn's husband, Frank, is a landscaper, and also the announcer at Sprayberry football and basketball games. They have another son, Jon, 20, is a sophomore at Georgia Southern.
"What am I thankful for? Everything," Frank said. "I'm thankful I'm here. I'm thankful all these folks are here. It's hard to put into words what you're thankful for when you can't think of anything that you're not thankful for."
"I tell people I'm lucky, and they tell me I'm blessed. So I'll say I'm blessed with good luck," Frank said with a smile.
His niece, Lauren Sutton, 12, attends Marietta Middle School. "I'm thankful for Victoria being here, and that she's normal now. I'm thankful for all my friends. I'm thankful that Robert's OK," said Lauren, who is the daughter of Don and Fran Sutton, and has a sister, Anna, 21. "I'm just thankful for this family."
Nancy Sutton, the family's matriarch, said she is blessed to be able to enjoy her children - Don, Lynn and Leslie - and grandchildren.
"I am grateful for the health of all of us, and for a Savior who loves us and cares for us in our time of need," she said.
The families were gathered together Sunday night to celebrate the birthday of her husband, Bob. He turned 79 last week, or, as he joked, is marking "the 39th anniversary of his 40th birthday."
Bob Sutton is the former county engineer, and spent many years working with county Chairman Ernest Barrett. He and Nancy live in Marietta and are lifetime members of Marietta First Baptist Church, which is also the church home for all three of his children, and their families.
"Big Daddy" said he is proud that his children and grandchildren "all are hard workers. They know how to work, and they've been taught how to work. Their parents have done that, and my wife has been a strong part of that."
"We've had a lot of challenges," Bob Sutton said. "Thank God we've got God on our side. He has helped us, and he's guided the hands that tended our children.