"Friends come and friends go,
But a true friend sticks by you like family."
- Tanner' Smith's tattoo in remembrance of friend Austin Wilkerson
Tanner Smith's last conversation with good friend Austin Wilkerson was prophetic in a way.
"The final time I talked to him before he went into the hospital was the day before," Tanner said. "He said, 'don't let anything go, it might be taken away from you.'"
The next day one of his best friends suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and died couple days later on his 17th birthday.
Tanner sat quietly Saturday night during a fund raiser project in honor of his friend since sixth grade.
"I've taken his words to heart," said the sad young man. "He was so full of life. We laughed, cried and learned a lot together."
Tanner even has a tattoo on his right forearm in honor of his friend. Austin's initials are forever traced, a permanent reminder of someone well loved and gone way too soon.
City may donate portion of land for center
Austin died of an deadly type of brain aneurism on Sept. 23, 2014. The fancy word for what stopped his life on his 17th birthday is arteriovenous malformation (AVM). In simple, raw terms, it's a defect of the blood vessels in the brain which is usually present at birth, and untreated it can cause a massive brain hemorrhage.
Tragically, the average age of an AVM rupture is 17 years old.
Since his death, Austin's mom, Brianna, stepmom Angela and dad, Lee, have worked toward building "Austin's Teen Center" in honor of Austin, as well as raising awareness about AVM. The goal doesn't help ease the pain of loss for Austin's family, but it gives them focus and drive.
For the past year and a half, they've held fund raisers and raised awareness for the need of a central, specific place for area teens to unwind, socialize, play sports and simply chill. An "angel donor" recently donated land to the City of Mt. Juliet part of which might be used for the center. This will ease the hefty price tag on the project.
"We have been informed some land was donated to the City of Mt. Juliet, and the city would like to do something for teens with a portion of that land," Angela said. "We have been contacted in regard to it. We have not yet discussed this with anyone from the city yet, other than the information provided, and nothing has been decided or confirmed as of yet, but we are very excited and humbled the city contacted us first to discuss the future plans for the land. We look forward to discussing this further with the city manager."
Brianna said while it's emotionally wearing to pursue a teen center because of memories of her son, she's so grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.
"I can lift my head up and think of all the teens who will be laughing, learning and enjoying the teen center and know Austin is looking down on his family and is proud of us for living our lives loud like we know he wants us to," Brianna said.
Remembering, but also looking forward
There was a large crowd Saturday night at the Mt. Juliet Community Center spaghetti dinner fundraiser where a rendering of the teen center, courtesy of architect Sam Anderson, was revealed. There was also a silent auction.
"There was a great turnout Saturday night," Lee said. "We had some great volunteers, and we could not have pulled the night off without their amazing help. There were a lot of sweet teenagers who showed up to help as well, and they are all very excited and willing to put forth the effort to promote this vision and help build this teen center. As promised, people laughed, they cried and they learned something new."
Austin's two moms and dad presented a tear-producing video of themselves, along with images of their son, describing what happened that fateful day when Austin suffered his aneurysm. They also informed those watching their plans for the center and solicited help from the community to make their dream a reality.
A noticeably-emotional woman cried silent tears as the story unraveled. Austin's AVM happened at her house. Austin was spending the night with her son Tommy when he got a terrible headache the next morning and soon after collapsed. Tommy witnessed his very best friend suffer from the AVM and has to get to over the trauma.
Christy Cochran said her son and Austin were fast friends. Austin was over at her house all the time. They met in middle school.
"Austin came into Tommy's life when he really needed a friend," she recalled quietly in a back room while the video continued to play across a screen for those in attendance. "They were inseparable. I loved Austin. I like to say they were partners in crime. Always into everything."
She relayed that fateful day Austin spent the night and told her son when he woke up he had a terrible headache.
"My husband wanted to call Brianna and make sure it was OK for Austin to take some kind of headache medicine. Before he could even make the phone call, my son yelled from the bathroom for his dad. My husband knew something was terribly, terribly wrong."
This mom said she was so worried about how things would go with the Wilkerson's after the tragedy.
"But they are wonderful and we are so close," she said. "I'm so grateful Tommy has them as a second family now."
AVM survivor attends fundraiser
Nathaniel Price was one of the lucky ones when it comes to the oftentimes-deadly AVM. He was there Saturday night in support of Austin's legacy. He towered over his mom Cindy, a gentle giant with a constant smile and gentle eyes. He attends Vol State now and hopes to soon take part in Youth with a Mission and then progress to be a counselor.
A home-school student, Nathan had a lesion on his brain that was discovered when he was a child and suffered terrible seizures on a regular basis. His mom said at age 12, he had one of several grand mal seizures, and at age 13 he was diagnosed with an AVM. In June 2013, during a trip to Colorado, the young man suffered two seizures, the second of which caused him to fall and suffer a concussion.
Cindy said Dr. Robert Spetzler, director of Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, performed surgery to remove the AVM on Sept. 19.
"Seventy-two hours later, my son suffered a stroke that completely shut down his left side. He was in intensive care for 19 days," Cindy said.
"I'm going through therapy now," Nathan said. "I guess it's not an easy process surviving an AVM. But I'm moving forward. I now know the AVM is 100 percent gone."
His left hand is in a brace as part of his therapy.
Cindy said they feel lucky.
"We know we are blessed, and the Lord has a plan for Nathan," she said, while holding onto Nathan's arm. "Had his AVM ruptured, we would not be here today supporting this wonderful cause. We love this project and fully support it. We want to see it flourish and grow."
Brianna said she was humbled and overwhelmed at the response from the community toward the project.
"Even though my heart aches every day to where starting each morning without him is excruciating and the quiet of the evenings is a silence that is deafening, this center would make him happy," Brianna said.
For full coverage on this effort and Austin Wilkerson, go to wilsonpost.com for previous stories.
Writer Laurie Everett can be contacted at email@example.com.