| Terry Wallis with wife Sandi at the hospital (AFP)
Terry Wallis has some catching up to do. After 19 years in a coma following a car crash in the summer of 1984, he has suddenly woken up and begun to speak. His mother, Angilee, is thrilled, as is his wife, Sandi.
What Wallis doesn’t yet know is that while he was sleeping, Sandi — the 17-year-old bride whom he kissed goodbye on the evening of his accident — has had three children by another man.
And as he struggles to match the young woman who visits him in hospital in Arkansas with a hazy memory of his six-month-old daughter, Amber, he has yet to learn that, now 20, she earns a living as a striptease dancer.
Behind the story of the “medical miracle” and devoted family love that has been playing to teary-eyed American television audiences this week lies a second tale of bitter family feuding and legal drama, played out in a remote mountain valley of the Deep South.
Soon after Wallis’ near-lifeless body was recovered from a dried-up river bed, it emerges, his parents went to court to claim exclusive “guardianship” of their son, cutting Sandi and, indirectly, Amber out of his life.
“I have not been allowed to see him once in all these years, and I’m still not allowed to now,” Sandi, now 36, told The Daily Telegraph. “There has been a terrible conflict in the family. But his recovery is a miracle and Terry is still my husband because I always knew I could never divorce and abandon him.”
Speaking from her parents’ home in the small town of Big Flat, no more than a mile from the Wallis family’s smallholding, she revealed that she had not exchanged so much as a word with Angilee and Jerry, her father-in-law, for almost 19 years.
They claim that she sent them a letter soon after the accident, which left Terry paralysed from the neck down, saying that she had to “move on”. Sandi says that she was too young at the time to understand the implications of the legal action they subsequently took. “My mother-in-law went to court and got guardianship by saying she was the closest relative by blood or marriage — but I am his wife,” she said. “It breaks my heart that I cannot see him.”
“I was only 17 when this happened and I do remember crying and saying that I couldn’t look after Terry in that state. I was too young, and I had the baby to look after. But I didn’t expect to be cut out like that. It’s too sad.”
“The truth is, Mrs Wallis and Jerry never thought that I was any good and that’s why they took guardianship. It’s not fair. They won’t even talk to Amber, never had anything to do with her. I see Angilee all the time because this is a just a small place in the Ozark Mountains, but she just walks right by.”
Shortly after the accident, Sandi admitted, she began a relationship with another local man she names only as Mike. She acknowledged that this deepened the rift with her in-laws. Their three children, who are now aged 16, 15 and 14, live with Mike and his wife, Eleanor.
“Mike wasn’t even married at the time, but I told him I couldn’t marry him because I would never divorce Terry,” Sandi said. “But I could provide him with kids. The kids live with Mike and his wife, Eleanor, and call her ‘Mom’, but they call me ‘Mom’ too. They know I’m their biological mother, and we are all good friends and see each other all the time.”
After Terry Wallis’ pick-up truck crashed through a barrier on a mountain bend, killing a friend who was travelling with him, his mother Angilee proved a pillar of strength and hope. His first word, which so startled medical staff and visitors at the Stone County Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre on June 11, was “Mom”. Although doctors had offered no hope of recovery, she visited her son at least twice a week throughout his 19-year coma and brought him home for weekends and holidays.
This week, describing her son’s remarkable recovery, Angilee said that while he had childhood memories of his family, even remembering that it had been his job to feed their pigs, he had no clear recollection of either his marriage or his daughter, Amber.
Sandi, however, challenges this version of events, saying that although the Wallis family would not acknowledge Amber, she had visited Terry three times since he began to talk. “Terry remembers everything up to the time of the accident, and he sure does remember Amber as a little baby,” she said. “He told her he’s going to learn to walk again, just for her.”
Amber, according to Sandi, commutes between Big Flat and Memphis, Tennessee, where she has worked as a striptease dancer since she was 18.
Neither Angilee nor Jerry Wallis were available for comment yesterday. A spokesperson for the rehabilitation centre said that they had been overwhelmed by the media response to the news of their son’s “Rip Van Winkle” awakening.
Sandi, however, said that she refused to be cut out of the family any longer. “I am married to Terry and I plan on staying that way,” she said. “Since all this started, I have seen a lawyer and I am going to go to court and get a guardianship deal.”