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The Strongest Men - Preemie Fathers

By Janet M. Gresham

Samson and Schwarzenegger, move on over!

The strongest men in the world aren’t made of muscle alone. Rather, they are fathers who stay the course when something goes awry with the children of their dreams.

They are the men who:

    • "hold up the wall" in the NICU when their babies are fighting to live.
    • cook grits and go to the bathroom with toddlers trailing when Mama is away.
    • provide insight only a father could give at IEPs.
    • exchange Little League baseball for a simple game of catch with a Velcro mitt.
    • discipline their child despite the disability.
    • find time to rock, read to and wrestle with all their children.
    • pick a wildflower for their wife when stress levels are still climbing.
    • sometimes cry despite a desire to remain stoic.
    • make mistakes and keep on trying.
    • accept and enjoy their child no matter the outcome.

I have had two such men in my life — my father and my husband. There are many more fathers who share their courage and commitment. To all of them, I offer tribute. In memory of my father and in dedication to my husband, I write this essay.

My twin brother was born with hydrocephalus. Back in the 1950s, there was little outside help, but our father used his ingenuity to strengthen Larry’s neck and legs so he was eventually able to walk. He and a welder customized a walker and fashioned a harness to hold Larry’s large head. When he was began running and flipping the walker, Larry had to return to a wheelchair. But, he didn’t like sitting in a chair and soon was walking.

As Larry grew, he developed seizures. His learning problems became more pronounced, and he often had headaches and dizziness. At times, his behavior could be extremely trying. Daddy was not naturally a patient person. So confident and sure in almost every situation, our father faced the challenge of his life in raising his younger son. Yes, he made many mistakes, but he did so many things right! He insisted that Larry needed some independence, so he bought him a three-wheel bike. Soon Larry was able to ride by himself around town. They went fishing together and out to eat. They played checkers and raised puppies and watermelons. Larry was given chores around the house that he handled well when he felt well.

My own husband has also demonstrated great coping skills. We had three children born within 20 months. Our twins arrived three months premature. When Clint and Jacob were born, their daddy kept a vigil in the NICU. He stroked their frail bodies, talked to them and prayed. While Jacob recovered, Clint experienced many setbacks. At age nine, Jacob is doing well, but Clint is severely visually impaired, has neurological disabilities and a shunt for hydrocephalus.

In their early years, both twins experienced frequent illness, and Clint had several surgeries. Their father handled nightly stacks of insurance papers and bills. He took over many domestic chores such as cooking breakfast so I could feed babies. He fed Clint and Jacob their late-night bottles, while I went to bed early with our 2-year-old. I took over the 2 a.m.feedings. After his full-time job, he came home but to more work with very little time for play. Now, we look back on those first couple of years and wonder how we managed. We often joke that we didn’t even use our furniture back then — other than the rocking chair!

Doug also designed devices to aid Clint’s therapy. When early intervention teachers told us Clint needed something to correct his neck extension, he made a foam rubber collar that supported Clint’s head, neck and back. The collar fastened under his chin with Velcro, and Clint wore it except when eating or sleeping. The collar worked.

Now Clint is older, and he and his daddy enjoy a good relationship. They go to his brothers’ baseball games . They occasionally go to the pasture where Clint likes the bumpy ride and listening to the cattle. When Doug arrives home from work, Clint (who is primarily nonverbal) will often surprise us and say, "Daddy," or "Da Doug." They snuggle on the floor where Clint gets a laugh out of pulling the pillow out from under his daddy’s head. One morning when the alarm clock rang, we heard Clint plainly say, "Daddy up." Only then did we realize that Clint knows his father gets up when the alarm sounds.

We never thought we’d reach this point — complete acceptance — where we thrill with Clint’s small gains without focusing so intently on whether he’ll walk or talk. Few things in life affect a father so deeply as a child with disabilities. So, to the fathers who have "held up the wall" and stirred the grits, I say, "Hats off and Happy Father’s Day!"

Janet M. Gresham © 1998, 2001

Janet Gresham is a former news editor and reporter. She now works at home near Selma, Alabama and is editor of Selma Showcase magazine. She also edits ParentShare, a local newsletter that is a service for families of children with disabilities.

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