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Four-year-old Shawn Brinkley can't remember many of the details of the automobile accident almost eight weeks ago that claimed the life of his mother and 2-month-old brother. After all, eight weeks is a long time for a 4-year-old.

In those weeks, Shawn and his family have spent countless hours at the bedside of his father, Duane, who is slowly recovering from brain injuries suffered in the automobile accident, which left Shawn mostly uninjured.A few weeks is about the length of time the family can manage these days. Longer time increments take the family too far into a future about which they know little.

On March 20 Shawn was riding in the family car when it collided with another vehicle, killing his 25-year-old mother, Janice, his infant brother, Nicholas, and seriously injuring his father.

"At the present time, the only thing we can say is time will tell," said Shawn's grandfather, Harvey Brinkley, when asked what the future holds for Shawn and his hospitalized father.

Shawn wonders "when he's going to have a mother and baby brother again," said Harvey Brinkley, who is caring for Shawn with his wife.

"We tell him he has to wait for Daddy to get better. . . . We can't tell him when or how or whatever; it's one of those things we can't answer yet," the grandfather said.

Duane Brinkley, who was at the wheel of their small car the Sunday afternoon of the accident, suffered massive head injuries that left him unconscious for 13 days until he began talking "out of the blue," his father said.

He remains hospitalized and is in good physical condition but suffers from short-term memory loss, Harvey Brinkley said. Doctors told him it may take up to five years for Duane to make a full recovery.

The family visits Duane at the hospital daily. His doctors say simply conversing with him is good therapy, and when members of the family can't speak with Duane in person, they talk with him on the phone.

"I like seeing Daddy, he doesn't have tubes in him," Shawn said, referring to the fact that Duane Brinkley no longer depends on the intravenous feeding tubes that were once dangling from his body.

Harvey Brinkley said doctors call his son's improvement "miraculous," but, as an active emergency medical technician, he said he knows his son's complete recovery is not entirely assured.

"Right now the only long-range plans are seeing how Duane will do," he said.

Meanwhile, Shawn and the family focus on a few days at a time.

Shawn gets excited about tomorrow at the day-care center where he excels in using the computer and learning Spanish, his grandfather said.

This summer, Shawn said, he can't wait to play and run around with his new-found friends. Shawn smiles and shyly curls in his grandfather's lap as a reporter asks him questions and a photographer snaps his picture. He coyly answers "yes" when asked if he'll be old enough to go to kindergarten in the fall.

Harvey Brinkley said Shawn seems to be forgetting about the accident, instead recalling small things about his mother and brother. Recently, the grandfather found Shawn with a bottle of his mother's perfume, which Shawn called "stinkum."

"We found him with a bottle of that because it smells like his mom," Harvey Brinkley said.

Shawn loves infant children like his brother, Nicholas, who died in the accident.

"He's very crazy about little children, I guess because of this," the grandfather said.

"It's been a nightmare, a total nightmare," he acknowledged, pointing to mounting bills and the constant struggle to keep three generations of life in order.

"There have been times when I felt the world was collapsing under us, but if we let that happen we would have defeated ourselves," he said.