During the early days of our son Jack’s life, my husband, TC, and I shared lofty dreams about the type of parents we hoped to be some day. We wanted to raise Jack in a calm environment with minimal tension and anxiety. We wanted him to bear witness to our strong work ethics and the wide range of hobbies we both enjoyed. We fantasized about the many things we would one day teach Jack through field trips, books, and travel. Like all new parents, we wanted to be great, if not nearly perfect, at the art of parenting. We never imagined such a catastrophic element would intervene, causing us to temporarily crumble, and exposing our young child to some of the unfortunate and scary realities of our society.
Brain injury did not enter our lives by way of accident. On August 18, 2012, 21-month-old Jack and I woke up to discover TC was missing. He had been brutally attacked on his way home from a baseball game the night before. To say we were unprepared for such an event is a gross understatement. Although we watched the news often, taking in the tragic headlines from an empathetic but removed position, it seemed implausible that we would ever become the victims of such tragedy ourselves.
In the months following TC’s injury, grief played a very large role in the psychological recovery process. The future life we had imagined for ourselves was abruptly gone. The house in the country we were saving for, the additional children we’d hoped to have … the life that had been just within our reach was now a fantasy too painful to even indulge in. I grieved for myself. I grieved for what had been taken away from TC. And I grieved for Jack, whose future now felt like the collateral damage of this event.
Before brain injury, TC was a very involved father. Growing up without his own biological father, he was deeply committed to providing Jack with the type of stability that had been absent from his own childhood. I relied on TC for the bulk of parenting duties. As a full-time elementary school teacher and part-time graduate student, I was often overextended in my work obligations. For the ten months before TC’s assault, he fulfilled the role of Jack’s primary caregiver, taking him to appointments, coordinating with the nanny, and packing lunch everyday. As a result, the two were very close. Jack idolized his dad, looked to him for guidance, and found comfort in his company.
For many months following TC’s attack, I grieved the notion that Jack would fail to see us as hardworking, successful adults. As TC struggled with crippling aphasia and language deficits, I thought how sad it was that he would never teach or explain to Jack the things he had once so longed to share with him. I struggled with my new role as single parent, sometimes feeling as if I were raising two, not one, youngsters. In short, I spent a great deal of time focused on what was lost, not what still remained.
After TC returned home from three months of inpatient hospitalization, there was an awkward adjustment period as he resumed his role as a parent. So accustomed to depending on me for his every need, Jack ignored his father most of the time, appearing puzzled by his dad’s physical and communication limitations. I knew it would take time for the two to repair their relationship, but I never expected TC’s recovery process would play such an instrumental role in their bonding.
With fascination, I began to observe that the activities appropriate for our young son also had great therapeutic value for TC. Reading simple board books, recalling the words from well-known children’s songs, and taking short nature walks around the neighborhood became part of our daily routine. With TC and I both unable to return to our jobs, our attention landed squarely on Jack as we tried to reestablish some stability in our home life. Slowly, I began to turn over to TC the parenting responsibilities he had once fulfilled. Filling in paperwork for Jack’s preschool was an opportunity for TC to work on his writing skills. Making doctor appointments allowed him to practice his phone skills. Even picking up toys served a purpose from a physical therapy standpoint.
We did not instantly transform back into the family we once were. As I have come to accept it, we will never be that family again. We can’t go on all-day adventures or walk for miles with Jack in his stroller. Our pace is slower now. Our stamina is shortened. Parenting is a tiring job, and when you factor in a brain injury and an energetic toddler, it can be utterly exhausting. TC and I have learned to recognize our own limitations. We have also learned how to better savor the joy of parenting. The first time we were able to return to the National Zoo together was a monumental occasion for us. The joy of being able to take the subway, grab a cup of coffee, and walk among other families is an experience I never thought to appreciate before brain injury.
Reinventing our family has required me to reinvent my mindset. No longer do I fear that Jack will miss out on the father TC was before his assault. Now I recognize how blessed our son is to have a father who exemplifies such incredible courage and determination in the face of disability. It doesn’t matter if TC has a fancy job title or if he can fluently speak another language. Growing up with a father like TC is the very best lesson Jack could hope to learn about grit and strong character.
Many people ask me if TC and I would still consider expanding our family and the honest answer is that I don’t know. Rebuilding our life has been a rewarding but draining experience and, at this point, I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any more responsibility. What I can say with confidence, however, is that despite all that was lost, our family now feels complete. There is a feeling of wholeness that is new and immensely satisfying. With gratitude, we recognize the enormous influence Jack has had in our family’s healing process. It is clear that love is transformative, and for us, it has been powerfully restorative.
If we can’t be the parents we set out to be (and let’s be honest, who really is?), we can continue to work hard to dispel the stigmas surrounding brain injury and disability. We can educate our own child in these matters, so that one day he will be able to explain it to others. We can continue to model compassion, empathy, and patience for each other and for strangers. Ultimately, these are the values that matter. This is the child we are trying to shape.