How Losing My Wife Forced Me to Be the Father I Never WasMartin Spinelli
The moment I became a father was transcendent. Just after midnight on Christmas Day 2001, with snow falling outside, my son was born in the house that my own father and grandfather had built. A more “Norman Rockwell” scene would have been hard to imagine. I was the first person to hold my little boy, and when I looked on his face in the light from the fireplace, I knew my life had changed forever.
As my young son grew from an infant into a toddler, my career was growing as well. While he was learning to sit up, crawl, and speak, I was being published in academic journals, having my radio pieces broadcast around the world, and flying off to conferences in Finland and South Africa. I loved my family and thought of myself as a good father, but I was also restless and ambitious professionally. And, I’ll admit, sometimes I prioritized my career.
Four years and 10 months after my son was born, I was about to give the keynote address at a huge international media conference in northern England. It was going to be a high-water mark in a career that I was seriously invested in. But when two police officers approached me nervously in the lobby of my hotel, I knew I’d never give my amazing speech. They told me there had been a highway accident: my wife Sasha had been killed, and our son Lio was very near death in a hospital down in London. I raced to the airport, caught the first flight south, and tore through the city to get to the hospital. En route I tried to convince myself that none of this was happening, that there been some horrendous mistake. How was I going to cope without my Sasha? And how was Lio going to make it without his mother? There, in pediatric intensive care, I found my only son with a fractured skull, brain damage, and a horrendously shattered left leg. The dim light from the life-support computers illuminated his battered and bloody face.
At this moment too, I knew my life would never be the same.
Gone was that high-flying career — a career that had taken me on research trips all over the world (which also meant that I missed un-missable moments like first steps and first sentences). Gone was my wife — my love and collaborator, my partner for 14 years. And, if most of the doctors were to be believed, Lio would soon be gone as well; they told me he likely wouldn’t survive until the next morning.
I stayed by Lio’s side all night long, trying to suppress fear with prayers, meditations, and images of him doing all the things childhood was supposed to have in store: playing football, camping on hilltops, building tree houses. When dawn came, somehow, the machines were still beeping, and Lio was still with us. He’d made it through the night.
With a feverish hope in the possibility of my son having a future and a budding sense of my role in it, he and I, father and son, began our long trek out of the darkness. It was through that journey that I would learn what being a father was really about.
With every step forward, doctors rewrote his “best-case scenario,” but we were still cautioned not to be too optimistic. I was told he might spend the rest of his life in a coma, but his eyes opened within two weeks. Then I was told he would probably never walk, talk, or feed himself again. But every time a limit was set at his feet, my little boy refused to listen. He managed a recovery that his doctors now call miraculous.
It is tempting to say that Lio did all this simply through his own strength of character, but I know it was a team effort. Every day for three months in that hospital, I, with a huge amount of help from our family, did everything possible to get him out the door. I read to him from his favorite books about animals that climb to the moon. I told and retold his favorite stories about dragons and elves and magic berries in a little valley in the Italian Alps that we visited every summer. Over and over I sang him his favorite song about a mouse that cost two pennies. And, three times a day, I would trace little lines and circles on his face and limbs as special brain-stimulating music was playing to him through headphones. All of this built something unbreakable between us.
Once, after hours of wrestling to keep the metal fixator on Lio’s leg from poking other parts of him, I caught myself laughing about how my life had been so utterly transformed. Only days before, I had been on the top of my game as an academic, lecturing and publishing. Now I was an anonymous caregiver to my completely dependent child struggling to keep his legs still. I remember that scene so vividly because I was laughing instead of crying. I realized then, bizarre as it sounds, that I was happier than I had been in a long time. I had a sense of fulfillment I’d never have gained from my career. All the professional striving that had been so much a part of who I was before the crash showed itself, in that moment, for what it was: a slightly desperate hamster wheel. My old life had had its rewards, certainly, but they didn’t mean nearly as much to me as what I was doing with my son. There, in that hospital room, it was clear what I was meant to do with my life: be the best dad possible for my son.
Just three months after the crash that killed his mother and probably should have killed him too, Lio was attending the mainstream elementary school where he was slated to start before it all began. During the months and years that have passed since then, I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible about patience, support, encouragement, and the trust that can grow between a father and a child.
Now, six years after the crash, I’ve gone back to my academic gig part time — but only enough to keep us afloat financially. While I still enjoy my colleagues, have fun with my students, and take pride in my writing every now and again, the place where I feel most content is by my son’s side. And whenever I feel myself getting a bit too distracted with things like deadlines, bills, and adding lines to my résumé, I remind myself of the clarity I felt when Lio was in the hospital. When I do this, gratitude floods into me for each and every small, beautiful thing that comes into my life. Every time Lio kicks a soccer ball or plays a piece on the piano, every time he laughs with friends on the playground or climbs a tree, I’m happy beyond my ability to express. And then my mind usually wanders back to one sunny morning in December a few weeks after Lio was released from the hospital. He put aside his metal walking frame and managed, unaided, his first post-crash steps on the blue carpet in our little front room. I think of my 4-year-old’s steps, steps I was told he would never take, as beautiful recompense for having missed him walking the first time when he was a toddler.