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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
COVENTRY â€“ Very carefully, Audra Willis walks through her garden, showing a visitor where she plans to sow the contents of assorted seed packets.
Her adolescent gray-and-white cat, Larry, tears around, swishing his tail while keeping Willis in sight. It's as if he realizes that Audra's ability to negotiate on her own â€“ no wheelchair, no walker, no cane â€“ is miraculous.
â€śThe doctor gave me a 10 out of 10,â€ť she says, beaming; that's a 100 percent chance of making a complete recovery and returning to work â€“ perhaps even sooner than she had hoped.
Her progress is a testament to medical expertise, the power of devoted, compassionate family and friends, and the strength of Willisâ€™ deep faith and determination to survive.
Last September, the popular, longtime waitress at the Middle of Nowhere Diner, in Exeter, was run over by an elderly Coventry man as she stood in line waiting for ice cream. His out-of-control car slammed into the back of Willis' legs, driving her through the facade of the Next to Nowhere ice cream parlor and inside the building.
She'd walked next door after her shift ended and, while waiting to order, she felt the car â€“ a 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser â€“ slam into her. She was helpless as the car plowed through the shop, trapping her between the its grill and the building's wall.
Willis' left leg was broken in two places and her right ankle was shattered. She wound up in Rhode Island Hospital where she underwent surgery to place a titanium rod through the broken tibia and fibula; plates and pins were inserted in her right ankle. Specialists worked doggedly to close a ragged wound where metal from the car shredded her calf.
â€śIt finally healed without skin grafts,â€ť Willis says.
Feeling lucky to be alive, she is in the midst of an amazing medical comeback.
â€śI'm not back to my normal self,â€ť she admits, noting that when she first tried getting out of a wheelchair, â€śmy muscles were mush.â€ť She's still having physical therapy to strengthen her legs and improve her gait which is a little hesitant.
The owner of the Middle of Nowhere has assured Willis her job will be waiting when she's able to return.
â€śIf I didn't have to be on my legs, I could have been back,â€ť she says. â€śI have to be able to stand and move for six hours at a time, but if I'm on my legs too long I have to sit and elevate them. There's still a considerable bit of pain and swelling.â€ť
Audra has returned to the diner a few times but wound up breaking down in tears. She wells up talking about it because, she says, â€śI want to go back.â€ť
The steadfastness of her friends and customers, she adds, â€śhas been amazing. They've shown love and support. They still send me cards.â€ť
Someone who has not checked in is Carl Wunschel, the 81-year-old who hit her.
â€śThe guy never even stopped at the diner to apologize. I was very hurt that [he] didnâ€™t inquire about my wellbeing. I had so much from hundreds of people; it's devastating that they didnâ€™t even inquire.â€ť
Willis says she's done a â€ślot of soul-searchingâ€ť and has determined that forgiveness is the best response. Besides, the ever-entertaining Larry is on the case.
â€śHe was a present from one of the girls at work,â€ť she explains. â€śHe's been cheering me up; he's hysterical. He's just [an ordinary] barn cat from Exeter who's a mouser. What a joy he is â€“ and I didn't even want him.â€ť
As she makes her way among the flower beds, sculpture gardens, the enormous stone fireplace and, finally, the hillside pet ceremony, Audra is accompanied by the faithful Larry.
With Johnson's Pond shimmering behind them in the sun, they are sharing a perfect spring day, walking together.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.