FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — The joy and excitement of Christmas is back to full strength at the home of Jade and Stacy Loughlin.
Festive lights and ornaments decorate the tree; this year's family holiday greeting card featuring their three sons — Lir, Cormac and Conn — is strung along with those from years past across a living room wall.
A year ago, some of the decor was up at the west Fort Collins home, but the celebration was muted as the family faced grave uncertainty about the months ahead and the possibility that Conn, who was 18 months old, would not live to see another Christmas.
Despite the grim predictions of medical specialists, Conn has made progress in adapting to the physical challenges caused by a metabolic disorder that damaged his brain and nearly took his life.
Conn has done so well, the family has moved from worrying about what is wrong with him to thinking about the future, Stacy said.
"Christmas this year means that we made it," she said. "We were very lost last Christmas and very sad and scared. We didn't know what was happening. This year we will be with him and be able to enjoy our normal traditions and have a normal life."
Conn, now 2½ years old, fell suddenly ill on Nov. 15, 2011, with flu-like symptoms that worsened to the point that he was unresponsive and stopped breathing. The cause of the illness was not known.
He was rushed first to Poudre Valley Hospital and then to Denver and The Children's Hospital, where he stayed for a month. He returned home just before Christmas.
Although his condition, which his doctor still does not fully understood, has stabilized, Conn requires a lot of care.
Because of the brain damage he suffered, Conn will likely always be like an infant mentally and have limited control over his body's movements.
But he tries to lift his arms and legs and reach for objects, moves that were impossible a year ago. He can open his hands and play with toys.
Conn makes baby-like sounds but cannot speak. He is fed through a tube inserted into his stomach because he cannot swallow. With the help of ongoing therapy, he might be able to eat regular food again someday, Stacy said.
He smiles broadly at his parents and giggles and wiggles in their arms. Conn reacts enthusiastically to his brothers, even yelling at them when he gets frustrated by their antics.
He seems to be gradually emerging from a "fog," Stacy said, and wants to engage with others and get their attention even as he gets physically stronger.
"We have come a very long way from where we were; he could hardly do anything," she said. "Now he really wants to interact with people and get their attention.
"He definitely wants to have a good time."
The Loughlins are an active family and go everywhere together. They frequently go outdoors to play and to Old Town to look at the shops. Conn always goes along, even though that requires the use of a lot of equipment such as harnesses and wheelchairs.
His prognosis is uncertain. His doctors believe his condition falls under the umbrella of Leigh's disease, a rare, inherited disorder that is life limiting.
They are surprised that he has progressed rather than regressed during the past year, Stacy said. His improvement gives the family hope that they will be celebrating Christmas together for years to come.
"We realize there is a future," she said. "We can enjoy him and look ahead."
The Loughlins credit much of their ability to cope with Conn's condition to the support of family and tight-knit groups of friends from their soccer club and Cache la Poudre Middle School, where Jade is a teacher.
Last year, friends took care of their house while they were away and helped with the older boys when Stacy and Jade were at the hospital with Conn.
The network of support is still working with the family, Jade said.
The holiday season this year finds the family happy to be together and feeling excited about what's to come, Jade said. And Christmas may stay a milestone of how far they have come.
"As we move on more and more and further away from what happened, this will be normal for us," he said. "That makes it all the better."