My Pet Rock and Other Fictions

Submitted by Joan M. Fenske RN, MS, PhD

Tags: brain damage Disabilities family

My Pet Rock and Other Fictions

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“You’re not going to call Dad a “pet rock” are you?” Jill asked incredulously.

“Mainstay?”  Glancing at Jill, I replied.

Oh! Oh! This wasn’t an acceptable answer!

And, Jill cringed.

“What do you mean?” asked Jill, frustrated. “What your saying makes no sense!”

“I’m explaining why your father and I didn’t split up, get divorced, after Kenneth was born. Most couples can’t endure such a tragedy, having a child with brain damage. People ask: ‘what kept you two together? ’” I clarified.

 “I’m giving it my best shot, describing what made the difference. How we weathered the storm.”

“What does Dad say?” asked Jill, always her father’s daughter.

“Only how busy we were”, I replied. “We had no time to think about splitting up. It wasn’t an option. We never spoke of it.”

All I remembered is running around meeting deadlines, getting Jim and Brian to school, to music lessons. I was pregnant with Jill soon after Kenneth was born. I continually made and kept medical appointments.

My “to do” list never ended.

Fortunately, I was helped. My bizarre behavior gained us help; help with babysitting, housekeeping, and medical problems. We obtained psychological support for our families’ chaotic dynamics. I couldn’t keep track of our assigned Social Workers. Service duplications occurred but there was no time to sort out Social Workers’ assignments.

Being super busy meant never dwelling on any problem for long. Being super busy also meant keeping one step ahead of the emotional wave coiled, swelling up behind us. Overt depression loomed as we raced ahead: our son’s significant problems unfolding with each pediatric visit.

Most mothers I met, caring for their disabled child, were single mothers, left by fathers unable to bear witness to their disabled offspring’s reality. Once I meet a father who’s son’s brain damage was due to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. In this case, the mother left. The father visited their beloved son, now a brain damaged resident of a long-term care facility.

Knowing how different each situation was, I never judged who went or stayed. Each tragedy played itself out uniquely. Mothers and fathers coped as best they could.

“What unknown dynamic kept us together?” I wondered aloud.

“A pet rock is a metaphor. It’s a metaphor I use to characterize our relationship”, I explained.

Jill shrugged her shoulders, still unimpressed. She hadn’t noticed any schisms between her parents while growing up, just the usual loud voices and familiar fights. We sat down to dinner together each night, no matter the state of our families’ affairs.

“Dad’s dutiful. He valued our marriage. He’s a good father. Nothing changed that.” I said.

“We never blamed each other for Kenneth’s brain damage. It was the hospital that made mistakes by inadequately staffing labor and delivery. We blamed the Saturday night staff for incompetent care. We knew something was wrong right away.”

Jill never liked hearing details of her brother’s birth injury. It made her sad, but she listened.

“Other reasons kept us together. Dad and I are health professionals, working in hospitals and are experienced in delivering patient services. We understood how the health care system worked; or was supposed to work”.

“Accepting Kenneth’s brain damage was dreadful, agonizing, yet we knew in a relatively short period of time, Kenneth’s failure to thrive and poor developmental status was due to birth trauma, nothing we had any control over.”

“That helped us not blame each other”.

“Instead, we blamed ourselves”, I continued. “Individually, we’d mull over Ken’s birth again and again, figuring out what might have been different. Why Ken had been born on a Saturday night? Why did we seek services from a known understaffed facility? Each of us incessantly churned these thoughts over in our minds. Even with psychiatric support, Dad and I never shared our thoughts. It was too painful to discuss out loud”, I said.

“By supporting each other, we held each other up. Neither of us could face Ken’s tragedy alone. We stuck together to survive”.

Efforts to explain her mother and father’s deeply abiding attachment to each other made Jill impatient.

“You loved each other,” snapped Jill. “Isn’t that the truth?”

“Yes, it’s the truth. But the way we loved each other made the difference. We loved each other as a steel bond. Being welded together sustained us.” I answered.

Jill was not easily persuaded.  She had been unaware of the enormity of Kenneth’s problems. Kenneth’s problems overwhelmed us. Perhaps she thought all families bellowed during dinner. Kenneth was 17 months old when she was born, she never knew any other way.

I wanted Jill to understand what I was trying to convey. I wanted our conversation to be a unique mother-daughter bonding moment. I offered another metaphor.

“Imagine a large craggy rock holding down a piece of string with a kite fluttering at its end”.

“Oh no”, said Jill, and grit her teeth.

“Dad’s the rock. I’m the kite”, I said.

“Dad’s rough around the edges but as you hug him, you sense he’s trustworthy. You feel safe and secure”. I explained.

Jill, recognizing the feeling, nodded her head in agreement.

Guardedly, Jill listened.

“We remained married because I trusted Dad to keep me. He understood I knew ways to help Kenneth, to find services for him. Dad saw I loved Ken. Together we struggled along as Kenneth’s problems became known”.

“Many can’t care for a child with severe developmental disabilities. An infant with developmental disabilities devastates parents. Their commitment to each other unravels. Many ‘bail out’ as they sense they have no choice. It becomes a matter of going down ‘with the ship’ or ‘saving themselves against all odds’. It’s a terrible dilemma. Parents of newborns with developmental delays are routinely referred for crisis intervention”.

My explanation droned on. Discussing this with Jill helped my own understanding.

 “I trusted Dad with our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t upset our relationship during Ken’s crisis. He offered me the space necessary to flounder and flail as I attempted to get over my shock and back on my feet. I felt completely undone and wondered if I was so ill I’d never function again. I tried not to let it show.”

“Visualizing Dad as a rock and myself as an attached kite gives me great comfort. Dad never let me down.”

“Sounds like love to me”, chided Jill.