BROWNSVILLE — Wendy McLean was walking with her son last March when an out-of-control driver jumped the sidewalk and ran them over, leaving her in a coma with two broken legs, a fractured pelvis and minor brain damage.
But it was the death of her 2-year-old son, Denim, that hurt the most.
“I feel like I’m one of the strongest people on Earth,” McLean, 38, said from a physical rehab clinic in East New York this week. “But this knocked me down.”
McLean has been living in hospitals and clinics since the March crash. For nearly a month, she didn’t eat and didn’t sleep. She lay in bed thinking about her baby boy.
It wasn’t the first time McLean experienced loss. In 2009, when she lost her father, she became a recluse, coming outside just 15 days in one year.
“When I lost my son it was a different ball game,” she said. “When you lose a child, you really lose a part of yourself. I realized that I didn’t know how to mourn.”
McLean was inconsolable. Friends simply could not relate to her pain and their attempts at cheering her up would end up in awkward and frustrating exchanges.
Visitors would fill silence by saying, “stupid things like ‘God giveth and God taketh away,’” McLean said.
One of the only people that could comfort the grieving mother was her best friend Sylvia Williams, 51.
“I lost a child 36 years ago, but didn’t tell Wendy until she lost Denim,” said Williams.
“What has helped me is speaking to someone else that has gone through the same thing.”
People thought Williams was being rude or anti-social. Since so much time had happened since the death of her child, they could not understand how that loss still haunted her, she said.
Because she did not feel comfortable talking about her mourning with others, Williams kept it bottled up. Until she began talking to McLean about it.
McLean realized that the best way she could honor her son's memory was by helping other grieving mothers.
She started by tailoring her already existing charity, Denim Kids, which collected food, toys, clothes and school supplies for underprivileged children in Brownsville, where McLean was born and raised.
She had created the charity two years before to inspire her then-1-year-old son to be the kind of man his grandfather had been.
“My father was the type of man that gave back,” McLean said. “He taught me to be a good person, to help others, to have a good heart.
"I wanted Denim, when he was old enough, to take over [the charity] so that he could help others.”
After Denim's death, McLean added a new focus to its mission — to support parents who have lost young children.
Her newfound goal fueled her recovery.
“I came to the realization that I can’t change my son’s death,” said McLean, whose recovery time from being able to use a wheelchair, to a walker, to hopefully walking unaided by the end of the month, has been half of what experts at Spring Creek Rehab and Nursing Center have seen in people with injuries like hers.
“I started asking myself ‘why am I walking around being mad for?’ I can’t bring him back from heaven, so what can I do?” McLean said.
From her hospital bed, McLean reached out to different parents. Along with her and Williams, the group counts 11 mothers and one father among their members.
They meet informally, listen to one another talk for hours about their loss. Meetings ended with tears at first, but lately the parents have begun to smile and even laugh. Like AA sponsors, members of the tight-knit group call each other at all hours of the night.
“Being a friend, being there for somebody is a full-time job,” McLean said. “You have to be there, it’s not a 9 to 5.”
The group is made up of parents from all walks of life. Some are retired entrepreneurs, hair dressers, make-up artists and supervisors. Some are in their 20s and others in their 60s. The only thing they all share is their loss.
“My daughter was my best friend,” said John Crummey, 64, the only father in the group, who lost his daughter to breast cancer.
Crummey, a retired lab technician, didn’t cry at his daughter’s funeral. People have called him cold and insensitive but Crummey just couldn’t relate to his friends.
“They don’t understand what you’re going through,” he said. “People need a support system, someone they can lean on.”
Although Crummey does not talk about his daughter often, he helps Wendy out by listening. Helping her through her pain helps him come to terms with his own loss, he said.
Other mothers in the group have built strong relationships. Before meeting each other, their only connection was McLean. Now they consider each other family.
Recently, Williams met another mother in the group for dinner. They sat down at 8 p.m. and didn’t leave until midnight. When Williams dropped the mother off at home, she didn’t get out of the car until 3 a.m.
Denim Kids is about to grow as McLean hopes to hire a professional psychiatrist and offer anger management classes by the end of the year.
“We need an organization like this,” said Crummey. “Because a lot of kids come from homes without a father, there are a lot of mothers grieving alone.”
To celebrate the new mission, as well as what would have been her son's third birthday, McLean is throwing a memorial concert and ribbon cutting ceremony on Dec. 1 at East New York's Powerful Praise Tabernacle. One of the featured performers will be a choir named after her son, Denim Angelic Voices.
“My son was going to be huge,” said McLean, who hopes her organization can help parents throughout all five boroughs. “My son is still going to be huge.”
For more information about the event, or to donate to the organization, click here.