Mother holds onto faith, positive memories after losing son in crash

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Kara Hurtado and her children, James and Leah, 13, at James’ graduation from Liberty Hill High School in June. (Courtesy Photo)

Kara Hurtado and her children, James and Leah, 13, at James’ graduation from Liberty Hill High School in June. (Courtesy Photo)

By SHELLY WILKISON

She passes by his room several times a day, but still can’t bring herself to turn the doorknob.

It’s the place where he played video games, watched his favorite television programs and slept with his beloved cat, BUU. It’s the place where his cousin, Larnce Davis, and his best friend, Marshall Whiteley, hung out regularly to play games, listen to music and laugh about things that only teenage boys might find funny.

James Hurtado enjoyed spending time at home with his family and friends, and his room, which was a busy place just a short time ago, is now silent.

His bedroom is untouched from the morning he left home to take his 13-year-old sister, Leah, to their grandparents’ house where she would spend the day.

It was Monday, August 11.

“It just hurts too bad. I can’t open the door,” said Kara Hurtado. “It’s just not real. It feels like I’m just waiting for him to come home.”

Her only son, 18-year-old James Hurtado, was killed in a crash on the northbound service road of US Hwy 183 in Leander during the noon hour — about an hour after he sent his mother a text message with a photo of himself in a sports car. He told his mother he was going for a ride.

“This is going to be fun,” he wrote.

It was the last time she would hear from him.

The car belonged to a new friend who days before had accepted a job at the CEFCO on US Hwy 183 near Liberty Hill. Hurtado and his grandmother also worked at the convenience store.

Mrs. Hurtado said her son loved cars, especially sports cars, and dreamed of one day owning a burnt orange Corvette — the color of his beloved UT Longhorns.

That day, she cautioned her son and told him to be careful. At the time, she thought the owner of the vehicle would be along for the ride, in addition to Whiteley and Davis.

Her world turned upside down an hour later when she learned there had been a crash and her son was driving.

“I went to the hospital where Larnce was. I kept asking where James was at, I kept calling his phone and there was no answer. They kept telling me they couldn’t find him. I knew. I just felt it in my stomach,” she said.

Hurtado, who graduated from Liberty Hill High School on June 6, loved basketball and wanted a career as a sports commentator. He planned to work at the convenience store, which was his first job, for about a year, then enroll at Austin Community College and eventually pursue his dream via The University of Texas.

As Mrs. Hurtado talks about her son, a smile returns. She laughs as she recalls the jovial prankster who enjoyed surprising his father, Michael Hurtado, by jumping out of hiding places and other things to illicit a reaction, and on a good day, a hollar.

To his uncle, Clint Whitehead (Mrs. Hurtado’s brother), Hurtado was his “vato” or dude. And to his grandparents on both sides of the family, he was the loving grandson who was spoiled like none other.

But it was his mother who had perhaps the strongest bond with her son. Mrs. Hurtado was only 18 when he was born and said he “forced me to grow up.”

Her son was born with the rare birth defect craniosynostosis, in which the joints between the bones of the skull close prematurely before the brain is fully formed. The condition prevents the brain from gowing in its natural shape and the head becomes misshaped.

His mother said his first surgery to treat the defect was at age six months, and the condition required four additional major surgeries — the last one when he was age 12.

But in addition to the birth defect, Hurtado had numerous health issues throughout his life — most, including a tethered spinal cord, required major surgery and rehabilitation.

A birthmark on his leg, which doctors feared would become cancerous if left untreated, required seven surgeries.

He also had five eye surgeries that never completely corrected a vision problem, and he also had a hearing problem that he compensated for by learning to read lips.

Her son also had a Vitamin D deficency that contributed to a break in his arm. He also had adnoids removed and a cyst removed from his throat.

And as recent as last year, he had surgery for a deviated septum that resulted in complications and required a two-week hospital stay.

“He had 24 surgeries in his short life,” Mrs. Hurtado said. “One caused some brain damage, and as a result he didn’t know anything but telling the truth. He was the strongest kid. He just went through hell. But nothing seemed to hurt him. Through his surgeries, he never complained and he never cried.”

Hurtado did wonder sometimes why he suffered from so many health issues while his friends did not. “Doctors called him a unique young man,” said Mrs. Hurtado, who works as a medical assistant. “There were so many things different about him, and none of them were related. James’ life was never easy. It (a health problem) was big when it happened — big and complicated. ”

She said her son was very self-conscious about scars that covered his head “from ear to ear.”

“He never would cut his hair short because of the scars,” she said. “He got tired of having to explain what was wrong with him.”

Mrs. Hurtado said her son was bullied in school because he looked different from other students.

She said his misshaped head was the brunt of some ridicule, and he was also criticized for not playing football or other sports where his health problems prevented him from participating. When he was permitted to wear a hat to school after surgeries on his head, some complained he was getting unfair treatment.

“He got in fights because he wasn’t afraid to defend himself,” said Mrs. Hurtado, adding that school administrators and teachers were kind and supportive of her son throughout his school experience. “Everyone at school (adults) was always on his side.”

“I told him he shouldn’t be embarrassed of the scars, that he should cut his hair. I told him, ‘the scars are you, you shouldn’t hide it.’” she said.

“We had a very strong bond. We were just honest with each other, we didn’t hide anything,” she said.

Mrs. Hurtado said her son was smart, although report cards were not always reflective of that. She said he mostly felt bored in academic classes. Although he was especially gifted in math, he wasn’t able to show teachers how he arrived at the correct solutions, which was frequently a source of frustration. She said he didn’t feel the need to be part of UIL or other on-campus organizations. He just enjoyed spending time with his family and close friends.

It was his best friend Marshall Whiteley, 17, who died with him in the collision. Mrs. Hurtado said the two boys were inseperable and she thought of him as a son. Whiteley went with them on vacations and family outings.

Hurtado also felt a deep kinship with his 15-year-old cousin, Larnce Davis, who survived the crash but has no memory of it, Mrs. Hurtado said. She said her son thought of Davis more like the brother he didn’t have and was very protective of him.

Mrs. Hurtado’s husband, who was not available this week, handled all of the arrangements for his son’s funeral and took care of his wife and daughter in the agonizing days following the crash.

At the visitation the evening before the funeral, they discovered the funeral home had placed their son in a maroon casket when they had requested UT burnt orange.

Hurtado took the casket to Austin where it was repainted Corvette orange — the color of his son’s dream car.

Mrs. Hurtado recalled the day in June that she took her son to Burnet to take his driving test to get his license. Unlike most teenagers, she said he had not been in a hurry to get a license. In fact, it was only after he went to work at the convenience store in May that he saw the need for it.

As he was practicing parallel parking, he looked up to see an orange Corvette in the parking lot. She said he stopped and introduced himself to the owner, complimented the car and said he wanted a car like that some day. The owner took him for a short ride, and when Hurtado returned, his smile was unforgettable, Mrs. Hurtado said.

“He said his goal was to have one by the time he turned 30,” she said. “I realize that when I talk about him, I’m talking in a past tense now, knowing there will be nothing of him in the future. Everything about him is in the past now and that is hard because he had so many dreams and high expectations for himself,” she said.

Mrs. Hurtado, who has lived her entire life in Liberty Hill, said she and her family have been overwhelmed by the prayers and well-wishes of so many. And as so many ask how she is doing, she is at a loss for words.

“There’s no way to explain how I feel. Half the time I’m sad, then I’m mad, and I have lots of questions. I feel numb and can’t imagine anything that could be worse,” she said.

“My last image of him was in that car, happy. That’s how I want to remember him,” Mrs. Hurtado said. “I don’t want those memories (of the crash), and when I catch myself trying to picture what he saw, how he looked, I tell myself to stop.

“I think of things he used to say to me, how he would hollar for his cat, BUU. That cat was his world, and he even had his own voice for it,” she said.

She said her son loved cats and BUU had been part of his life since age five.

On the day he passed away, his aunt’s cat that had been missing for three months suddenly returned to her doorstep. Mrs. Hurtado said her son was sad when the cat disappeared and had worried about its whereabouts.

“Maybe it’s coincidental, but I know he found him and sent him home,” she said.

Mrs. Hurtado said like others, she has questioned why her son was taken from her now and at such a young age. She and her husband were fearful that they would someday lose him from something related to his health problems — never imagining a car wreck.

“I have to have faith that God had bigger plans for him or that he was avoiding something bigger in the future. That doesn’t make it easier, but I know he will never be hurt anymore, he won’t have scars anymore. I think he feels good and is perfect now. The scars are gone.”

Mrs. Hurtado, who goes to the cemetery every day to be near her son, says in recent days that she sees more orange Corvettes and like-colored sports cars than ever before.

“I know he’s there and sometimes I just say, ‘Hey, Bubba’ out loud,” she said, weeping. “I do have faith, and every day I wake up and pray for peace.”

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