How My Husband’s Relationship With Our Daughter Evolved After His Spinal Cord Injury

I vividly remember the first time I put the search terms “quadriplegic father” into my phone, hoping to find pictures, articles, anything that could give me hope that my husband Jeff and our then 4-year-old daughter Evie would eventually settle into – and hopefully thrive in – their new father/daughter relationship.

It was two months after Jeff’s spinal cord injury. He’d been paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident, and he’d just been transferred to a spinal cord injury rehab hospital. He was still in the ICU there, and I spent every night next to him in a horribly uncomfortable chair. I didn’t sleep much, so most nights I searched for practical things like ramps and mobile assistive devices I had come to realize we would need for the rest of our lives.

But this night was different. I found myself stuck on the subject of Jeff and Evie. I wondered how their relationship might be altered due to this turn of events. Questions raced through my mind. Will Evie accept a dad who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair? How will Jeff parent Evie when he can’t move?

I’ve had the privilege of watching – and documenting – Jeff and Evie’s relationship re-develop and change over the last three years. I’ve witnessed an astonishing amount of resiliency in both of them as they’ve made room for his disability in their relationship.

To showcase how they have adapted and evolved in the way they interact, I decided to create a video made from clips of them playing together both before and after Jeff’s injury. The video centers around an activity they love – we call it “The Basket Pull.” I have clips of Evie in baskets ranging from empty cardboard boxes to laundry bins. In each video, Jeff is pulling her either with his hands or behind his wheelchair.

It makes me so happy to see these two playing, smiling, and laughing together. Those are some of the milestones we use to move forward in this life. But make no mistake, even when we’re moving forward, there’s still a lot of grief and sadness on this path. Even when we come to a clearing where we’re happy and thriving, moments later we can unexpectedly find ourselves in a tangled jungle of missing the life we used to have.

When I was putting the video together, Evie came into the office to join me. Together, she and I watched the videos of Jeff pulling her in the basket when she was a baby. She marveled at her cute, younger self and her high-pitched toddler giggles. She watched as her big, strong dad turned a flight of stairs into her own personal roller coaster, and she laughed.

But then she got very quiet. She turned her gaze downward, and came in close to me.

I was so caught up in the video, knowing it was about to transition to clips of them playing in the present, that her soft words caught me off guard.

“I wish Daddy wasn’t paralyzed.”

The cracks in my heart deepened. I turned down the volume and let the video play on in silence. I wrapped my arm around her – something that Jeff never stops wishing he could do – and I whispered, “Me too, sweetie.”

And with those words, our clearing was enveloped with tangled vines. With memories of an old life that, when looked at through the lens of this new life, seems to have been merely a dream.

We stared at the silent video playing on the screen. Jeff was pulling Evie in a laundry basket behind his wheelchair, and she was grinning from ear to ear.

“But Daddy can still play with you now,” I said quietly. “Just in a different way.”

“Yep,” she chirped. And she shrugged off the tangled vines and skipped out of the office.

So much about moving forward in this life is dealing with the hard stuff. It’s about being enveloped by that tangled mess of vines and making a conscious decision to fight our way out rather than succumb.

We choose to move forward. Not because it’s easy. Not because we want others to marvel at us. Simply because we want to keep on living.

And so those questions I fretted over when Jeff was still in ICU have been answered over the last three years. Will Evie accept a dad who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair? The answer is yes. How will Jeff parent Evie when he can’t move? I take the answer to that one from a previous blog post I wrote: Being able to touch your children doesn’t make you a good parent. Being able to connect with them does.

And the connection between these two is crystal clear.

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