I have one child: a four-year-old boy with bright blue eyes, a round face, and a passion for dance parties, Legos, and all things dinosaur. Just the other day I surprised myself in conversation by describing him as “the light,” a term I don’t often use, but one that truly encapsulates Jack’s role in our little family. He is not only the light, but also the lighthouse, guiding us back to safety during the roughest and darkest hours of our lives.
We often hear that children are resilient, and the child before me now is a true testament to that fact. Jack is warm and open and brave and fiercely protective of his father, whom he nearly lost in a brutal robbery when he was only 22-months old. In the span of a single day, he went from a happy toe-headed toddler to a vulnerable child with two absent parents, one confined to a hospital bed with the other confined to a waiting room. I spend quite a lot of time worrying about how this traumatic and destabilizing event will alter Jack’s life path, and given the violent nature of it, his view of the world. There are pangs of sadness when I consider that he’ll likely never remember his father as he once was. There is regret in knowing that TC and I missed out on some of the magic of his first years of life. Each day I pray that our son will continue to thrive despite the imperfections of his parents and the less-than-perfect circumstances that accompany a brain injury.
I am often asked how Jack has responded to his dad’s injuries and how we have chosen to broach the topic in our home. The short answer is that so far we have been pretty lucky. Jack is still too young to understand the complexities of what happened. He can’t yet Google our names and read the news coverage. He doesn’t have clear enough memories that he can distinguish between his “new” dad and his “old” dad. He is both perceptive and thoughtful, but he doesn’t seem to notice the slight limp in TC’s walk or the stiffness of his right arm. He’s seemingly unaware when TC stumbles on a word or misunderstands a direction.
He knows that our family has been affected by a head injury, however, and he works out his feelings about this primarily through play: talking quietly to his toys about “bad guys” and “getting bonked in the head.” Head hitting and head injuries feature prominently in his play and self-dialogue. In Jack’s mind, getting bonked in the head is the very worst consequence there is, and to some degree, I can’t argue with that.
But sometimes I wonder if I’m underestimating Jack’s awareness of the situation. Perhaps it’s not so much that he doesn’t notice, as he doesn’t let it bother him. Many times during bedtime tuck-in, he will snuggle against me and whisper, “I don’t want you and Daddy to be hurt.” Other times, he is louder in his anguish. If Jack perceives I am criticizing TC or upset with him in any way, he launches into protective mode, standing in front of his father and telling me to “leave Daddy alone.” Perhaps he can understand that life has not been easy on TC, and even more than that, perhaps he sees his duty as making his dad’s life easier. In either case, Jack’s vulnerability seems inherently tied to his father’s, forcing me to tread sensitively as far as my own comments and interactions are concerned.
In discussing the event that brought us here, our approach thus far has been honesty. As much as we can, we try to frame things positively. Yes, some people made a bad choice to hurt Daddy, but he is doing much better now, and we are OK. As often as possible, we try to reiterate the “we are OK” message, allowing Jack to sit with the gravity of the situation, but only momentarily. When we sense he’s ready for more information, we’ll give it to him, but plan to seek the advice of a professional as we prepare for these heavy conversations.
There are far better families to consult in trying to determine how to help children cope with brain injury: families with older children or multiple children, families with years behind them who have truly come out OK. We recognize that as far as families go, we’re still at the beginning of this process, and that most likely, the hardest work lies ahead. For now, our aim is to stay OK, to avoid letting brain injury consume our lives or Jack’s childhood, and to keep living for the beautiful right-now. For now, we are all right and so is our amazing kid.