"I still love him, and he's very much a part of our family," Kris Armstrong says of ex-husband Brandon Smith, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2008
Kris Armstrong was upfront with James Armstrong when they first met: She and her ex-husband Brandon Smith, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2008 and now needs round-the-clock care, came as a package deal.
“She was honest from the start,” James, 37, tells PEOPLE. “It was either accept or don’t accept."
Kris, 39, knew she would never abandon her first love, but she also wanted the family she dreamed of having one day with Brandon, 38.
“So often when people have a really heartbreaking thing happen, resilience comes when we find meaning,’’ says Kris. “There’s a lot of beauty in how our family works. It’s wonderful and there’s grace. But there was so much sadness and grief.”
Kris married her first love when they were just 21. The Texas high school sweethearts met when Kris was 16 and Brandon was 15.
“Brandon was and is a complete gem of a human,” Kris says.
However, their future was shattered just two years later on Nov. 5, 2008, when Brandon was t-boned by a moving truck in a horrific accident.
“It was like living in a nightmare,” Kris says. “There would be a moment when I would wake up in the morning and forget, then it would all come back.”
After the crash, the extent of Brandon's injuries left Kris unable to fully communicate with her husband. She could talk to him, but couldn't discuss complex thoughts or issues. Meanwhile, doctors said they "didn't know what his future would look like."
“Of course they told me he had a severe brain injury and would be affected his whole life, but I didn’t know what that would be," says Kris. "The unknown portion was particularly terrifying.”
She stayed by his side as he recovered, and changed her career to become a speech pathologist, but after a few years she realized “he wasn’t going to have a recovery where we could have a partnership."
“But I knew that I loved him dearly, wanted to take care of him, and to still be in his life,” Kris says. “And I knew of the people in his life, I was the most able to care for him.”
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Because of financial pressures she could not overcome as well as her own desire to have children, Kris made the painful decision around 2010 to divorce Brandon and become his legal guardian.
“It’s complicated to be someone’s guardian and be divorced,” Kris says. “I remember the probate judge asking what would happen if I had a family change and I said I was committed to caring for him for the rest of his life.”
Years later, Kris met James online and after talking for a few weeks, Kris knew it was time for James to meet Brandon.
“We took him to church together,” Kris says. “I went to the bathroom and when I came back I saw James’ arm around Brandon and that sealed the deal.”
The two were married on Sept. 5, 2015, and went on to welcome their two daughters a few years later. James also has a son from a previous relationship.
Throughout their relationship, James has always been there for Brandon.
“James has 100% loved Brandon, cared for him, been kind to him,” Kris says, adding that James calls Brandon his brother.
“My heart just poured out to him, just seeing him in a wheelchair, unable to care for himself and not there mentally for the most part,” James says. “I hope he doesn’t view me as the bastard that has taken his wife, but he can’t really verbalize anything.”
The couple's two young daughters, now 4 and 5, call him Uncle Brandon and James’ son, now 14, formed a special bond with Brandon, as well.
Kris, who started making TikTok videos about life with Brandon last year with James' blessing, says that Brandon needs 24-hour care and lives in a care facility about 10 minutes away from the family, but that she brings him home regularly.
“I feel like I lost my husband,” Kris says. “The way I found meaning is to go back and work with people like him, and to share our story.”
Every year when she submits her guardianship paperwork to the judge, she includes a photo of her and her husband with their kids and Brandon. She says, "I still love him, and he's very much a part of our family.”
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