One tough family

Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

MONROE Brian Holman likes to be in control. He tells people that is why he became a pitcher. Nothing happened in the game until he threw the ball.

Control meant he was in charge of his life. He made decisions that would protect his family. He could keep them safe. He could assure their happiness.

Control. It was a wonderful, safe idea. And, as Holman has discovered over the past five years, it is impossible.

"I love being in control, and then all of a sudden everything in your life gets totally out of control," the former Mariners pitcher said last week. "You're not faced with a skinned knee that you can put a Band-Aid on and fix. You can't kiss the boo-boo away.

"All of a sudden your family's well-being is dependent on God and doctors. Everything comes at you, and all you can do is hope you have the strength, the guidance and the wisdom to handle these things. ... It's tough stuff."

The Holman family's story is overwhelming. It's hard to find the beginning. It's impossible to predict the end.

It is the story of the members of one family living their lives heroically by living their lives fully. This is a family that has accepted the worst kind of fates and found a way to laugh through its hardships.

It begins five years ago on a chairlift at Snoqualmie Pass. After four unsuccessful shoulder surgeries, Holman, who pitched for the Mariners from 1989 to 1991 after coming from Montreal as part of the Randy Johnson trade, has retired and is living on a dreamscape farm in Ellensburg.

"When I was going through my arm surgeries and all the rehab, I figured if we can get through this, we can get through anything," Holman said, sitting in his living room on top of a hill, looking across a lush valley onto the Cascade Mountains.

He had no idea.

Five years ago, his sons Scotty and David were snowboarding with friends, when his wife, Jami, received a halting phone call from the ski bowl.

"I can't tell you what happened," the caller said. "It's too awful."

But finally Jami heard the words "fall" and "chairlift." David had fallen 31 feet from one of the high-speed chairs. He was diagnosed with a broken femur, broken wrist, a concussion and a lacerated kidney and liver.

"I just remember thinking, 'Wait this didn't just happen,' " said older brother Scotty, who was on the chair with David.

That was on Feb. 15, 1999, that day the disasters began coming at their family like so many "purpose pitches." That was the beginning of day-after-day challenges to the Holmans' faith, to their courage, to their joy of living.

Learn about the chain-reaction disasters this family has experienced. But as you read them, understand that the Holmans are happy. Their house is full of life and love and energy.

The way they've chosen to live, without fear and with hope, is both inspiring and instructive.

"I think if you don't go through something hard, it's very difficult not to live with some fear," Holman said.

In the course of treating David's injuries, a CAT scan was done and a small spot was discovered on his brain. Two days later, an MRI determined the spot was a slow-growing brain tumor. The doctors believed it was benign and told the family not to worry. They would monitor it.

As David recovered from his fall, the family went to Hawaii, then to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, where they were planning to adopt a daughter.

"We had three kids, but we wanted to give a child an opportunity they never would have had," Jami Holman said. "We wanted to go to a place where girls don't have opportunities and give one girl an opportunity."

They met the girl, and spent three days with her before her natural mother backed out of the adoption arrangement. They were planning to leave, but other families convinced them to stay and eventually they found another girl, 3-year-old Kassidy, on the streets.

"It took her about 15 minutes to become a Holman," Jami said.

But in January 2000, Kassidy was diagnosed with leukemia. For 35 days she clung to life with some inexplicable, innate strength. Slowly, she got better.

"I'd rather be sick and have a family than be well and be on the streets of Majuro," she told her family.

If Kassidy had stayed in the Marshall Islands, she would have gotten so sick, she probably would have crawled under a bush and died. And when her body was discovered, it would have been thrown into the ocean.

In the summer, as Kassidy continued chemotherapy, doctors discovered David's tumor was growing and they decided to operate. Holman remembers his son crying after playing a baseball game on his birthday and telling his father through the tears, "This might be my last birthday." He was 11.

After his brain surgery, David was left with paralysis on his left side. A little more than two years earlier, he had gone through months of painful therapy to recover from his fall. Now he was faced with more tedious work to return movement to his left side.

"David and Kassidy are so strong and so full of life," Jami Holman said, "that when I grow up I want to be just like them."

There were times at Children's Hospital when Kassidy would be on one gurney going for one set of tests and David would be on another, heading for an MRI. Jami went with one child and Brian with the other.

The burden on the parents grew heavier and heavier.

Brian, who always has been full of life, was feeling sluggish and disconnected. He figured it was natural, but his fatigue got worse.

"I felt like I was 80," Brian said.

He decided to see a doctor.

The mitral valve in his heart was leaking. His heart was dangerously enlarged. The one-time major-league starter, who in 1990 came one out away from pitching a perfect game before Oakland's Ken Phelps ruined it with a home run, needed open-heart surgery.

Brian Holman's surgery was successful. Son David, now 14, is recovering as well, playing baseball and basketball.

"I've just developed a kind of strength over the years," David said. "I can kind of handle a lot of things that come at me, like sicknesses. At 8 years old I was kind of shocked by all of it, but I'm prepared and ready."

Scotty, 18, writes short stories and poetry and believes his family's life is returning to something close to normal. Jeffi, 12, impressed with the medical care her sister is getting, helps with Kassidy's chemo and has decided she would someday like to work in the health-care industry.

"Kassidy and David have inspired me to live life to the fullest," said Jeffi. "They've both had to understand that tomorrow may not come. They've both been put in situations like that. They've just helped me learn about living my life."

In July 2003, Jami noticed puffiness around Kassidy's right eye. The leukemia had returned. This time it was discovered in her right optic nerve. She continues her chemo, and yesterday, wearing a knit cap, 9-year old Kassidy lit up the living room with her giggles.

"I've definitely learned a lot about just human perseverance and the will to survive and the strength that God can give you to fight through incredibly difficult situations," Scotty said. "It's definitely inspiring to see two people who are so young and so little, who are given things you don't think of even adults being able to handle and some how they're managing to make it through."

Still, there are times when even this strong family says, "Enough." No more serious looks from doctors, looks the Holmans are so familiar with they can spot them halfway down a hospital corridor.

"There are times when you pray," Holman said, "and you say, 'We're tired. We're worn out. We're exhausted.' "

Once his wife gathered her four children around and prayed, "Please have mercy. We can't take another thing."

Twelve hours later, David was undergoing emergency brain surgery.

"This is horrible what our family is going through, but we're still in the game here," Holman said. "We have facilities like Children's Hospital here. We have things we can do and treat. Where so many other people in the world never have that opportunity.

"I remember when there were two outs in the ninth (in his almost-perfect game), and I was thinking to myself, 'I'm going to be in the Hall of Fame. They're going to have a locker of me in Cooperstown with my jersey and my hat and my jock and my underwear and all that stuff hanging there.'

"I'm thinking how great that is, and one pitch later it's gone. To be so high one moment, and then to be knocked off your pedestal the next, that to me is what life is. So you enjoy your life. Take it as far as you can, knowing that it can change at any time."

The affection this family feels for each other is tangible. It is felt in the living room where they sit and tell their stories without a hint of self-pity. It is heard in their voices when the siblings explain the lessons each has taught the other. It is there in little Kassidy's giggles.

The Holmans have been dealt more blows than any five families should suffer, yet Holman said, "We feel like we are the blessed ones. We have this family and all of this love."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or [email]skelley@seattletimes.com[/email].

Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company