The words "home sweet home" couldn't ring truer for Wheel Blacks captain Cody Everson and wife Jessica Rose Everson. While the Christchurch couple recently bought their dream home, they barely had a chance to enjoy it while pursuing their gruelling and at-times life-threatening dream of starting a family.
It was a journey fraught with setbacks, heartache and a terrifying birthing ordeal that saw lives hanging in the balance before adorable son Emilio Jase Everson arrived on 6 July.
"It's pretty cool to look back on everything and have this outcome," Cody, 25, tells Woman's Day, gazing down at Emilio during the trio's first day home from hospital. "Being on the couch with our two dogs, watching Big Brother and looking down at Emilio feels surreal. He's such a cute little boy and so chilled, which is a dream."
Despite endless obstacles to fatherhood, Cody notes the couple still have four eggs frozen, so they may expand their brood further. He grew up with three brothers, which he credits for instilling the competitive nature that fuelled both his sporting achievements and fierce perseverance following a tragic accident at 15.
Having made the 1st XV and set on becoming an All Black, Cody's life changed after a tackle dislocated his C5-C6 neck vertebrae, crushing his spinal cord and leaving him paralysed from the chest down.
"I was told, 'You're probably never gonna walk again'. Being a 15-year-old boy, I said, 'Yeah, right'. My competitive nature kicked in and I went, 'I'll show you!' Unfortunately, I didn't walk, but I'm thankful I had that drive."
With family and friends' support, Cody kept so busy rehabilitating, there was no time to dwell on his accident. Regaining some arm movement and undergoing hand surgery that improved his grip, wheelchair-bound Cody returned to school but eventually dropped out.
"I struggled mentally to figure out my new normal, but that's when I found wheelchair rugby. Seeing what other guys were doing with their disability made me realise, 'It's not the end'. Then finding out there's a New Zealand team made it more than a hobby. It got me back in a team environment where I could push myself, have purpose and regain some control of my life."
Cody made the Wheel Blacks in 2014, bought a house and found love with Jessica, 29, after meeting through friends. She trained as a teacher before becoming his support worker and travelling with the team.
TVNZ 1 show Unbreakable chronicles the pair's attempts to conceive naturally, but since Cody has limited sexual function, he had to use a medical vibrator to produce sperm for Jessica to insert into her uterus. The first attempt saw him hospitalised with dysreflexia, which can lead to a stroke, and advised not to try again.
After a few more "disheartening" attempts, the couple pursued IVF.
A whirlwind few months followed. Cody proposed on a gorgeous hillside spot in Christchurch before the couple froze Jessica's eggs, attended the Paralympics, got married after winning a $30,000 wedding through Burger Burger, completed an embryo transfer and became pregnant. "We were shocked. It didn't feel real."
However, excitement turned to fear when Emilio's low heart rate saw Jessica rushed into an emergency Caesarean one day before his due date.
"There were doctors everywhere, inserting IV lines while rushing her into theatre. It was a traumatic entrance to the world, but he was fine!
"I held him, feeling so emotional. I felt guilty Jess was under anaesthetic and couldn't meet him after we'd both worked so hard to get there, but I was so happy he was OK."
Weighing 3.2kg at birth, Emilio's middle name honours Jessica's dad Jason. Following postnatal pre-eclampsia complications for the new mum, the family's finally home, where Cody's navigating daddy duty with his limited physical capabilities.
"We'll work towards me doing more, but right now I just talk s**t to him and he stares back!" the doting dad laughs.
Cody hopes having a father with a disability teaches Emilio the importance of being respectful, empathetic, perseverant and appreciating life. And while fatherhood means he has missed Wheel Blacks camps and tournaments, he's considering joining the team at October's Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Denmark, depending on how parenting's going.
"Wheelchair rugby gives me fulfilment and joy. It's gotten me so far since my accident, so it's about finding a balance where I can support Jess and Emilio, but also follow my passion. I want to take them along on the ride!"
Unbreakable premieres 8.30pm, Tuesday, 2 August, on TVNZ 1.
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