Mr. Mom

Christopher Voelker

In rehab, I was cocky. Newly paralyzed at T12, I was determined to beat this new challenge and be the great shining star of rehabilitation. I took every new experience head on. Transfers? No problem. Rickshaw? Arm bike? Bowel program? I’m the champ. Then my wise occupational therapist handed me a coffee cup and told me to roll across the room with a cup of hot coffee. Ever the show-off, I put the cup between my thighs and started out across the floor. “Wait!” Andrea said, “Remember? It’s hot. You’d be burning yourself if that really were hot coffee in that cup.”

Since I’m now a mother, I know the experience of raising children can be akin to the above story. You can start out cocky, but eventually you have to slow down, re-assess, take your time and learn new ways of doing things.  Learn from others. Think it out.

Moms and dads share the same territory, but they occupy it differently. I know the mom and disability story. But I wondered what happens when you mix testosterone into this role, a role that I know to be filled with sacrifice and humility — not your stereotypical strong male traits. So I went looking for the story behind dads and disability.

The Single Dad

Michael Greenwood is new to the wheelchair lifestyle, injured June 20, 2006 in a 20-foot fall from construction scaffolding. Divorced from his son Kyle’s mother since Kyle was 2, prior to the accident Greenwood would see Kyle every other weekend and Wednesday evenings, driving the hour from his home in the mountains to where Kyle lives with his mother and older half-brother — the familiar divorced American dad scenario.
Then came his accident and the big change. “I spent nine days in Kern Medical Center,” remembers Greenwood, “mostly on morphine, so I don’t think I really could talk to Kyle about it all until I got to rehab.”
The rehab hospital was still a 45-minute drive from where Kyle was living, and Kyle’s mom took the position that Greenwood’s visitation was non-transferable, meaning that none of the Greenwood family could bring Kyle to the hospital to see his dad. This would become an ongoing problem.
“His mom was only willing to bring him for a one-hour visit, and she sat there the whole time we were together,” says Greenwood. “It made a new and strange situation even more unnatural.”

When it was discharge time, Greenwood’s mountain home still wasn’t ready for him to move back to. The discharge coordinators recommended a skilled nursing facility, but how could one be found that would allow a 9-year-old boy to make overnight visits?

“That was my priority,” says Greenwood firmly. “When they wouldn’t let Kyle stay, I wouldn’t stay there, either.” Fortunately, Greenwood’s insurance company came up with a furnished apartment close to Kyle’s house, a temporary fix while his house was being renovated.

“At first Kyle said that he didn’t want a paralyzed dad,” Greenwood says. “But he sure liked riding around on my lap. I just tried to show him that there was nothing to be scared or nervous about. Crap happens, and you persevere.”

Greenwood has a lot of persevering ahead of him, and being a responsible, dedicated dad — in addition to adjusting to his new way of living — will be the biggest challenge of his life.

The Sometimes Full-Time Dad

John Storms’ daughter Ashley was 4 when Storms was paralyzed at the T6 level in a motorcycle accident. At the time, Storms was the primary caregiver for Ashley. Divorced from Ashley’s mother, Shannon, Storms’ legal custody started out at 50 percent and evolved to nearly 100 percent. The motorcycle accident, occurring when Storms was on an errand from work, shattered the routine. For the first time, Storms and Ashley had to be apart.
“Once I was out if ICU, I called her every night,” he says. Storms then went to Rancho Los Amigos for rehab. But when it was time to leave, he had nowhere to go, since his residence was no longer suitable for him. He had no choice but to move in with his mother, who lived in Hawaii. “The six months I spent on Oahu were the hardest of my life,” he says. “I spoke with Ashley every day. She was with her mom all that time. Shannon had never been a 24/7 mom before. It was good for her — good for both of them.”
Now Storms and Shannon are friends. “We do all kinds of stuff together. I tell her, ‘We can become even closer — but we’ll never go down the aisle again.’”

Becoming friends again with Shannon has made it easier for Storms and Ashley to continue their relationship without too much change. Storms can still pick up Ashley after school, take her to her karate and fencing classes. Being a property manager, he has always had a flexible schedule. However, some things have changed.

“We used to tear around the house, playing. Sometimes she’d crawl into bed with me at 4:30 in the morning. Now I use a hospital bed, and I have dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” says Storms. “Ashley has adapted really well. It has actually been harder on me than on her. Just try to meet women when you always have a nurse around with you.”

Storms has tried to keep life as normal as possible for Ashley. He is still the disciplinarian, he says, describing her mom’s version of parenting as “emotional,” while he doesn’t give in. “I use the dictionary,” he says, explaining his fathering style with Ashley. “I make her write definitions of words, from attitude to respect.” On the rare times when that doesn’t work? “There’s always the ping-pong paddle,” he says, grinning.

The Teaching Dad
David Lowy is a traditional father, untouched by divorce. Despite being a C6-7 quadriplegic from an unfortunate bridge dive in 1987, he is the father of three children — 9-year-old Analise, 4-year-old Aaron and 4-month-old Dylan. He is also a third and fourth grade teacher. He has never allowed being a quadriplegic to be an excuse for anything in his life.

“My first principal asked me what kind of modifications I needed done at the school to enable me to teach there,” Lowy recalls. “I told him I needed an aide, nothing else. He asked if I wanted the front door of the school to have an automatic opener. I told him no, because I wanted the kids to see that I can do things the same way as they can.”
Dads, I discovered in my interviews, are stoic. They want their children’s lives to have no upheaval, no drama due to the events thrust upon the Daddy-in-the-Chair. Whereas a mom may speak of the profound differences between then and now, a wheelchair-using dad emphasizes the sameness. No otherness to make us all uncomfortable. No excuses. No crying in baseball, no whining in gimpdom.

Still, being a quadriplegic is a fact of life. When Daddy is home with the children and needs some help, 9-year-old Analise pitches in. She helps with changing Dylan’s diaper, a difficult job for Lowy, who lacks complete use of his fingers and opposable thumbs. “However,” says Lowy, “The kids have always seemed to know when I was the one taking care of them, and they would go easy on me. Dylan doesn’t wriggle around as much when he knows Daddy is trying to change his diaper or get him dressed.”

Andrea, Lowy’s wife and a former occupational therapist, does the cooking and the majority of the day-to-day childcare. Again, it appears that Dad’s job is to be the disciplinarian.

“My best advice for raising children is to love them, discipline them and be consistent. And that is the hardest thing to do, in the classroom or at home,” says Lowy.

Lowy and Andrea paint such a pretty picture of domestic bliss that I press a little harder. After 19 years in a wheelchair, what really bugs Lowy?

“My biggest frustration with being a dad in a wheelchair is not being able to do the things I used to love to do — mostly working with my hands. As a dad I want to be able to play baseball with my son. I can throw the ball, but it’s not like putting on a glove and really throwing it. I can do it, but it’s more … primary.”

The Supposed-to-be-Macho Dad

August 17, 2001. One minute Rogelio Chairez was building a parking structure, attached to the third floor wall by a waist hook. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital, paralyzed at T3-4. At first it was thought he would be a quadriplegic, since he had no movement at all from the mid-chest down. It took a month before anything at all came back after landing on his head on a pile of rebar.
At that time, he and Maria had been married 11 years and had three children — Christopher 10, David 8, and Natalie 3. The two weeks in the ICU are fuzzy, only fragments left in his memory. “The kids were speechless. I remember my wife coming over to the rehab at noon, going home after closing time, at 9 p.m. My wife’s sister was with the kids. Maria did everything for me. I still don’t know how she did it.”

Chairez wasn’t ready to come home. “I didn’t have the confidence in myself that I could really make it out there. I was really afraid to leave the hospital bed, where I could move around by myself. I never thought I could be independent in a regular straight bed.”

Asked about the parenting role models he had, this soft-spoken man remembers: “Growing up, everything came through my mom. I remember once I was protecting my dog and my dad started hitting me with a stick.” But fate had something else in mind for Chairez. “That would have been how my kids were raised if I hadn’t gotten injured,” he says.

Still, Chairez claims to have a bad temper. “It takes a lot to irritate me, but once I get mad, I do a lot of yelling. After the accident my kids figured out right away that if they run certain places, I couldn’t get to them.”

Like a lot of dads, Chairez went overnight from breadwinner/distant dad to stay-at-home, hands-on dad. He can definitely see the value of the latter, though he admits that he is the exception among Latino males.

“It’s a whole lot different now. I am more involved helping with the kids — homework, chores, etc. Before, I was concentrated on my job, doing what was expected of me, even though I never saw my kids and I would come home exhausted. It wasn’t until I had my accident that I could focus on loving my kids more. Now I drive them to school and pick them up. I sweep, do laundry and wash dishes.”

What really motivated Chairez, along with many who were injured in the past 10 years or so, was the parenting example set by Christopher Reeve. “Here’s this guy who is worse off than I am. I don’t have anything wrong with me, compared to him.”

His wife helps Chairez a great deal. “She backs me up, doesn’t let the kids disrespect me,” he says. “She encourages me to use my words, to get their trust and respect. I wasn’t raised as a talking person, but once you are in a wheelchair, you don’t have any choice. The disability cuts off a lot of your choices in how you can act. Words are the main thing you have left.”

The Stepdad
Our final subject, Dan Burns, had polio at 18 months. After the long process of recovering from that, at age 46 the effects of polio returned as post-polio syndrome, weakening his legs once again. New to the wheelchair, he met his wife, who also uses a wheelchair, and who is the mother of two children — Nick, 7, and Hilary, 10.

“I had already helped to raise a step daughter in my previous marriage,” says Burns, now 53. “I’ve lived through the “dark years” of the teenager and thought I could do it again, no problem. But at times I’m not so sure of myself in this new role.”
One of the problems that seems to bother men in wheelchairs much more than women is the constant need to ask for assistance. Asking for help is like asking for directions — clearly outside a man’s comfort zone. And when the stepdad, as the “outsider,” finds himself in the position of asking pre-teens for help, it is really uncomfortable for all.

“Sure, there are unique challenges when you are the strong man placed in a stereotypically weak role. The father figure is supposed to be the stern disciplinarian, the baseball coach, and the guy with all the answers who can fix anything. How do you do all of that when you are sitting in a wheelchair? How do you get and keep the respect of your wife and kids when they see your weaknesses every day?”

Finally, we hear it directly from the man: wheelchair equals weakness. Asking for help implies weakness. Not working, staying at home with the kids, suggests weakness. But if you were to ask the wives and children, chances are they would not agree. Perhaps the misconception is due to the all-pervasive cultural and gender stereotype. But it is not a reality. I ought to know. Aside from being a wheelchair-using mom, I am also the wife of a wheelchair-using stepdad — none other than Dan Burns.

Themes, Strategies, Advice
An ongoing theme I heard from the fathers is the need to overcome any impact that their disability may have on their children. Whereas a mother in a wheelchair may encourage understanding and empathy, the men emphasize overcoming adversity, continuing to work hard, and fostering the attitude that everything is fine, just fine.

Looking back on the expressions of frustration of the fathers, and the hard-earned wisdom, we can revisit the metaphor of carrying hot coffee from a wheelchair. Go too fast, you get burned. It’s no use to refer back to what worked as a nondisabled person. Slowly, think it through. Try new things. Watch and see how others are doing it.

Remember David Lowy’s advice: “Love them, discipline them and be consistent.” And don’t forget John Storm’s words of wisdom: “Keep the toy store close and the ping-pong paddle closer.”

And stepdad Dan Burns’ advice? “Rope, duct tape and a loud roar!”

Facebook Comments

Comments

Filed Under: Cover StoriesPeople

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.