This past Sunday marked the anniversary of my husband’s stroke in 2002. It seems like Bryan’s stroke is lifetimes away and yet I can feel the same lump in my throat as I recall that phone call from him the following morning telling me he needed an ambulance.
We had been dating for about two years and were engaged in our near nightly phone conversation after he and I had each gotten off work. At that time, we were dating long distance and he was commuting back and forth from his small town to mine on weekends. In between, we’d connect after work by phone to talk about our days and what we’d like to do the following weekend together. But on this particular evening, we were both grumpy and tired. I could hear Bryan squirming and moving around on the couch and he told me his right side was tingly, nearly asleep. Must be that he slept on it wrong or worked it too hard at work, he said. A tinge of concern hit me and I voiced it. We fussed a little about how clingy I was being, but quickly made up before we said our goodnights and each went to our respective beds.
I didn’t sleep well all night wondering. Something didn’t seem right, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started to call him again to check in on him, but stopped myself. It was well after midnight by then and we both had to get up early for work. Still, I slept fitfully and was awakened the next morning by Bryan’s hesitant voice. “Don’t worry. I’m OK, but I’ve called an ambulance and Mom and Dad,” he said. I popped straight up out of bed, nearly knocking over my wheelchair next to me. I asked him what was wrong, ready to grab my keys and blow off work in my messy hair and worn out night gown. He demanded I stay put, that he would call me when he figured out something. He had managed to limp to the shower and get clothes on, but the tingling in his arm and leg were getting worse. Reluctantly I stayed put, but I kept grabbing the phone or my keys at my desk, wanting to hurl myself across the distance between here and there to get to where he was. I was terrified.
He called a little while later to tell me the doctor had told him it was a stroke. He was having even more difficulty moving his right side and it was basically numb to the point of painful tingling. He was treated and sent home with his parents where he stayed for the whole summer so they could care for him until he could do for himself. I came over to visit and it was awkward. I wanted to open every can, bottle and package in his mother’s house – help him pee even, but he had to relearn on his own. And, I was just “The Girlfriend”. It wasn’t my place. Who was more qualified to take care of him during this time than his mother after all? And I was strangely more aware of my disability at this moment than I ever had been before. Not only was he in the most vulnerable state I’d ever seen him in, but I was helpless to help him – or so I thought. And I also represented a living example of what could’ve happened to him had the stroke been worse than it was, or he could’ve died.
Still, we ended up reassuring one another that I wasn’t going anywhere – didn’t want to either, that I was needed. He had, up to this point, never run from any challenge in my life since the day we met, from holding my wheelchair as I transferred into my car on our first date like gentlemen hold doors for ladies, to spending time with me when I was down with the flu or recovering from a minor outpatient procedure.
I couldn’t bunk at his mother’s house. It wasn’t completely wheelchair-friendly, but enough so I could visit and sit with him. Occasionally, I would get a hotel close by to ward off commuter’s exhaustion. I wasn’t as experienced at driving back and forth as regularly as he had been the last two years, so it was my turn. And so, until he was more able to be out and about, I spent time with him watching television, renting movies, eating meals together, keeping him company and trying to be the best girlfriend I knew how to be. I encouraged him through the cruddy rehab exercises he needed to do to get his strength and flexibility back and called often to check in on him when I had to go back to work.
In the three months it took before he was back in his own apartment and then another three before he was back to sharing commuter dating duties, we learned a lot about each other and ourselves. We drew closer. I’d been annoying him on and off wondering when we might take things to the next level, and we still joked and jabbed about it during his recovery, but I was more patient. I knew this was where I was meant to be. I’d known it for some time in the back of my mind all this time, but it was in the full front of heart and mind by then.
My first lesson was that taking care of a loved one when you yourself are a bit more dependent doesn’t mean you can’t swap roles. No, I’m not talking in kinky terms. That’s a whole other blog post. But I learned I could take care of him by advocating with the hospital when he went in later to have a hole closed in his heart where the blood clot from the stroke passed through. When he wasn’t getting the care that I and his mother thought he should be getting, I went into advocacy mode to make sure the chief nurse, attending doctor and the hospital administrator knew who I was and I wasn’t going away until things were set right for him.
Having a disability doesn’t mean I can’t be a model of encouragement and patience for him as others helped him learn to dress, do therapy and get back into his life. I learned we could really lean on one another. And, he could literally lean on my chair, using it as a walker when we went out if his leg got tired from walking or standing too long.
Further, I was encouraged that he wanted my help, welcomed it. He wanted me around even when it’s usual for a guy, in his weakest moment, to slip off into a cave of isolation and pride. I found myself wanting to leave him when he would slip off into a nap while we watched television, then he would grasp my hand and squeeze it, eyes still closed, as I tried to slip away. We laughed more, were quiet and tender more together – even more patient. Something I’ve never been good at it. Sure we were anxious to figure out how long it would be before he was back to his old self or if the limp and manual dexterity issues were permanent, but we were together and that’s all that mattered. This overwhelming spirit of, “We’ll figure it out – together” washed over us both from then on.
He eventually recovered with only a lingering fatigue after too much typing in his right hand and has to take medication for blood pressure. He still can tire easily, but then so can I when I’ve got a lot physically and emotionally going on. We married in 2005 once his hospital bills were paid, he could afford the ring and found a job closer by me. We’ve since bought our first home and hope to move in by the end of May, beginning of June.
We’ve learned to slow down and enjoy the journey, not so much worried about the destination as what’s going on right this minute. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our plans. We do have them. It just means we are flexible and willing to take things day by day, minute by minute, see what happens.
It’s said you never know, like a tea bag, how strong a person is until you put them in hot water. We’ve progressed together from tea bags to wine, like the wine at the wedding at Cana in the Bible, where Jesus turned jugs of water to wine. Usually the best is served first and then the lesser quality wine is poured when everyone is too jovial to notice. But at the wedding at Cana, the good wine was what was served last.
And we’re still awaiting our best, thinking the last experience and the one before that already was, but it isn’t. Not yet. The best, as they say, is yet to be. Cheers!
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