Growing into Fatherhood after Traumatic Brain Injury
Life is filled with unexpected challenges and joys.
By Allison Diaz
Wife of Former Patient Danny Diaz
There were many things that attracted me to Danny. Not only was he handsome, he was thoughtful, funny and had a tremendous work ethic perfectly balanced with a passion for family.
He was a great husband and was going to be a wonderful father.
Danny carried the ultrasound picture of our son in his pocket, eagerly awaiting his arrival and a lifetime of father-son activities. Danny couldn’t wait to pass down his enthusiasm for soccer, big trucks and motorcycles; he looked forward to teaching him to always do the right thing, how to be a good friend and use power tools.
We had our first home, a big dog and good jobs. We were having a family. We were living the quintessential American dream.
But at 33 weeks pregnant, my dreams turned to nightmares with a single phone call.
Danny had been involved in a motorcycle accident. Struck and run over, he sustained multiple bodily injuries that would heal easily. His brain, however, sustained great trauma, severing neurons and tearing apart our quintessential dreams.
I sold our home, his truck and gave away our dog. I moved in with his parents, birthed our son, Corbin and brought him home while Danny was seemingly submerged in the darkness of a coma, while his brain tried to rewire itself.
In my mind, I had created a fairytale of recovery, even at Shepherd Center. Danny was in the Acquired Brain Injury Unit when I brought 5-day-old Corbin to meet his dad. I had high hopes that something might click in Danny’s brain, that seeing his flesh and bone would trigger neurons to fuse back together in some miraculous orchestra of re-creation.
I entered Danny’s room, cradling his son in my arms and gently laid Corbin in the crook of Danny’s knees. Facing his son, staring at him, Danny did nothing. He didn’t cry. He didn’t reach for him. He didn’t smile, and there was no facial recognition that Danny knew his baby.
I waited until I was outside his room to absolutely lose my strong demeanor. Passing Corbin to my father, I sobbed and lowered myself to the floor, below the window so Danny wouldn’t grow upset. Bent over in sorrow, I feared the unknown. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.
I just wanted Danny to know who his son was and hoped that God would use Corbin to bring about an instantaneous or even rapid healing to Danny. But, it didn’t happen that way for us. I mourned for the father that Corbin would not have and I mourned for Danny at the loss of the man, the husband and father that I knew deep down inside he wanted to be. It was such overwhelming grief and loss with no answers in sight.
Corbin was young enough that he doesn’t remember the really challenging times as his father began to emerge from the darkness. He doesn’t remember the biting, pinching, screaming and spitting. He doesn’t recall the emotional outbursts, cursing and relative absence of his father as an infant and toddler. I am grateful for it.
Yet, I did all that I knew I could do to foster a relationship between father and son.
I would lay Corbin on his father’s chest in the hospital. I would lay him in Danny’s arms, wrapping his hand around a bottle so he could feed his son. Corbin had a Pack ‘n Play in Danny’s room, so they could take naps at the same time. At nighttime, I would prop Corbin up on Danny’s knees for his last bottle to watch the first 20 minutes of Finding Nemo yet again.
Today, Corbin is almost nine years old. He is old enough to remember, and there are times when I ask myself if I’m totaling screwing up our kid in the hopes that somehow, he will make it through childhood and adolescence wiser and stronger for the adversity he’s faced since his birth; that somehow, he will understand and love his father even more; and that he would have a greater compassion for others and a thorough knowledge of true commitment in marriage.
Parenting is the hardest job under normal, quintessential American dream-like circumstances. It’s even harder when your brain isn’t functioning correctly.
When our babies are born, we are, all at once, a father or a mother and immediately begin learning lessons on how to parent, but for Danny, that process was postponed and based on his progress. Just as he emerged from his coma, he had to grow into the role of father.
Danny was a strong man, with clear definitions of boundaries and discipline along with love and instruction. However, once Danny was ready to step into a bigger role as a parent, it was challenging for all of us. The family structure had been so altered by injury that it took, and still takes, time to put roles back into place.
It was frustrating for me as a wife and a mother. I felt very torn between teaching Danny the best approaches to get positive responses from Corbin and yet ensuring that Corbin respected and obeyed his dad.
The truth is that Danny didn’t always behave respectively. He didn’t always stay in the role of father, but in frustration, would slip into a childlike role, which further confused Corbin. I would have to step in and mediate the situation, oftentimes having to chastise both Danny and Corbin for their behaviors toward each other.
Danny struggles with several side effects of his brain injury – short-term memory loss, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, time management challenges and problem-solving skills. Coupled with these side effects is his own interpretation of a poor self-worth and value, which has significant impact on how he parents.
Danny loves Corbin so much, but because he can’t walk, he can’t work, and he can’t drive, Danny feels like less of a father. He works hard not to project his own feelings of low self-worth on Corbin. It is a daily effort to spare Corbin from the burden of making his dad happy, to fixing what is wrong and allowing him to just be a kid.
Despite a brain injury, Danny’s heart has not changed. He still has an independent spirit and a passion for his family. It is what drives him to be better every day; it is what inspires him to keep going and to endure the trials set before him.
No matter that Danny has to use a walker and have a helping hand, no matter that he can’t work or drive right now, Corbin has a father who adores him and is therefore blessed. He is blessed that Danny is able be home with him, help coach his soccer team from a wheelchair and teach him about big trucks, motorcycles and power tools. Danny works hard in physical therapy and never quits so he can be an active, strong father and role model for his son. And, he does it well.
When we started this unwanted journey, the doctors told me that Danny’s recovery would not be a sprint, but a marathon. I believe this is also true, no matter the circumstances, when it comes to parenting.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to parent is to be transparent. In our home, we say “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” and we do it often. We extend grace for the things we do not understand and ask forgiveness for wrongs done. Despite the scars and hurts, along with the laughter and joys, we are father, mother and son. We are a family that takes life’s tragedy and turns it into living triumphantly, one hopeful step at a time.
ALLISON DIAZ of Atlanta, Ga., is the wife of former Shepherd Center patient Danny Diaz, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident in 2005. Danny still rolls through the hallways of Shepherd Center as he continues to participate in the Beyond Therapy® program. Allison writes about living in the wake of traumatic brain injury at www.dannyandallison.com and shares a more personal journey of faith at www.allisonmdiaz.com.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.