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Living with a cruel twist of fate

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LAS VEGAS — Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when she can't bear it any longer, Cynthia Jay-Brennan calls out to her husband. The blanket has fallen off her broken body and she shivers in the silence.

Terry Brennan gently pulls the covers back over his wife and drifts off to sleep again, knowing he will do the same several more times before morning comes.

It didn't use to be like this. The cocktail waitress and the bartender fell in love, traveled and looked forward to a life together.

Then fate changed everything. On Jan. 26, 2000, Jay-Brennan put a few dollars in a slot machine and won $35 million — the world's largest slot-machine jackpot. Seemingly, she could have anything she wanted.

But just six weeks later — a year ago Sunday — a drunken driver rear-ended her car, paralyzing her and killing her sister.

The driver, a man who had 16 prior drunken driving arrests, was convicted Thursday.

A few hours later, maneuvering her wheelchair through the new house bought with the Megabucks winnings, Jay-Brennan pauses by the slot machine that changed everything. It was a gift from the casino, and the reels are stuck on the winning symbols.

"Sometimes I think that maybe Megabucks came to help me with this thing that came next," says Jay-Brennan, 38. "Maybe there's a reason for me being like this."

She was a cocktail waitress who took him the gamblers' drink orders. He was a bartender who worked with pretty women all day.

But she was the one who caught Brennan's eye, and they began dating in 1999. "I was like, nobody's this nice," he says.

They weren't regular gamblers, but when the buzz of the growing Megabucks jackpot went around town, Jay-Brennan couldn't help herself.

On Jan. 26, after celebrating Brennan's mother's birthday at a Desert Inn hotel-casino show, she sat down at a slot machine and played $21.

Nothing happened. "I told him I want to put more money in, maybe $6," she says.

So, $3 went in. Nothing. Then the last $3 — and the Megabucks symbols lined up on the machine.

When the excitement had subsided, Brennan, 46, sat her down and told her: "A lot of people change when this happens. I don't want anything to change."

But it would, in the cruelest of ways.

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They left their jobs, met with accountants, planned wills and a trust. They decided to marry sooner than they had planned to make the legal process easier.

They took care of their families financially and started planning vacations. There were the odd letters from people asking for money, and the sneers of the jealous few when Jay-Brennan went out in public.

They still lived in the same home and hadn't even begun spending on themselves when the accident happened. They had been married only five weeks.

Jay-Brennan spent a night out with her mother, four of her five sisters and one of her three brothers. They began the evening at Boulder Station hotel-casino, playing nickel slot machines and hoping there was a band.

The group decided to head to another casino down the street. Jay-Brennan got in her car with her sister, Lela Anne Jay, 45. The rest of the family rode with her mother and brother.

Just two blocks from their destination, the sisters were sitting at a red light when Clark Morse, a 58-year-old Las Vegas man with 16 drunken driving arrests and at least three convictions, rear-ended Jay-Brennan's car. The impact caused a chain reaction with the three cars in front of hers.

"I was talking to her about how happy I was, newly married and just the whole thing," Jay-Brennan says. "She was actually saying she was happy, too. That's the last thing I remember."

Her sister's neck was broken and she died at the scene. The fifth vertebrae in Jay-Brennan's spine was shattered, paralyzing her from her upper chest to her toes.

No amount of money could buy a cure.

Jay-Brennan spent 10 days at a local hospital, then four months of rehabilitation in Colorado. Screws were drilled into her skull to hold weights that would help stabilize her spinal cord. Her weakened body was ravaged by infections.

"They told me, get used to my chair. I'm never going to walk," she says. "But I don't believe it."

A caretaker visits morning and night, but Jay-Brennan depends on her husband for the little details — moving a hair away from her face, smoothing on peach lipstick, brushing away a fallen eyelash.

"I'm like a rag doll," she says.

At night, lying in bed, sometimes it's the cold that bothers her; other times it's the heat. She wakes her husband with her soft voice and asks for his help. He also must turn her so she doesn't get skin sores.

"I would always hold her hand in the middle of the night," Brennan says. "Once, I went to grab her hand and thought: She doesn't know I'm touching her."

Four days a week, Jay-Brennan endures hours of physical therapy. In a year, she's learned to slowly lift her arms, but only so high. Not high enough to feed herself. She can't feel her fingers.

She testified against Morse, who faces more than 100 years in prison when he is sentenced April 20.

Defense attorneys argued that Morse is mentally disabled and has the mind of a third-grader.

But prosecutors said Morse knew drinking and driving were wrong, and that he was intelligent enough to obtain a driver's license and hold jobs for years. Authorities also said his blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit.

There are days when Brennan doesn't want to brush and floss his wife's teeth. But he always does it.

"I'd trade it (money) all tomorrow for our lives to be the way they were before," he says.

Sometimes, he sits her on the couch so he doesn't have to look at the wheelchair.

"It's kind of a cruel irony. I don't know if it's God's cruel joke or what," he says.

Jay-Brennan relives the accident, and wonders.

"I could have went on a different street. If I had . . . " She thinks some more about that night and adds: "You have to think it's just fate that I went that way."

And maybe fate will intervene once again and she will be able to walk one day.

"There's always a chance . . . seeing there was a chance of me winning a million dollars," she says.