Wednesday, November 15, 2017

that damn stroke

A nurse stood at the foot of Dad's bed and held up a pen in one hand, a banana in the other.

"Mike, point to the pen."

His left hand carelessly pointed to the banana.

The nurse set down the banana and held up a water bottle instead.

"Mike, point to the water bottle."

He pointed to the pen.

I thought he was kidding. I thought he was annoyed at the nurse for insulting his intelligence. This was a man who lived for Trivial Pursuit and participated in Jeopardy every afternoon at 3:30 - a grammar nerd, literary guru, and Cubs' stats fanatic. He was being asked questions suited for a nine-month old, and I thought he was playing her. The nurse repeated this exam several times throughout the morning, each time with similar results.

I couldn't stand it anymore.

"Dad. Stop it. Be serious. Point to the pen."

He looked back at me confused. The nurse wrote something on her clipboard and left.


We had been waiting all day for information, an answer, a suggestion, a next step. A new doctor came into the room and stood at the foot of Dad's bed as we circled around. But there was no information, no answers. Instead, the doctor kept a safe distance from optimism, swimming around in a vague territory of "more tests," and "just have to wait and see." If we were looking for hope that Dad might speak again or walk out of this hospital, we wouldn't find it from this doctor. 

Exhausted and defeated, it was clear we all needed a break. 

My brother and I, along with our spouses, ended up at Starbucks. I was thirty-six weeks pregnant and ordered an iced passion tea lemonade; it didn't seem appropriate.

Thirty hours ago Mom had found Dad on their bedroom floor, crippled and silenced by a massive stroke. Right now he was sleeping in a hospital room. He couldn't move the right side of his body and made weird noises when he tried to talk. His face was droopy, and he needed someone to wipe drool off his chin. While he laid in bed scared, confused, and unable to distinguish a pen from a banana, I was sitting outside a coffee shop on an 80 degree day drinking a fuchsia colored iced tea. Something didn't feel right, but it was also a relief to be out of that hospital, away from doctors who had no answers and offered little hope. There was freedom from the stale conversation that hangs in hospital rooms because no one knows what to say but silence seems worse. The familiarity of a coffee shop brought relief. I don't know how to navigate hospitals, awkwardly lingering around my dad as he lay motionless in bed, but I do know coffee shops. I know how to order a drink and idle by the counter. I know how to set up camp around a table, sip, talk, people watch, repeat. It was comforting to know what I was doing for an hour. 

We sat around the table, and I told them I didn't feel bad for my brother or for my myself. We had Dad, at his best, when we needed him most. He was there - baseball games, dance recitals, Six Flags, AWANA Dad's Night. He'd taught us to drive and took us to Cubs games. He'd moved us into college and walked me down the aisle. I didn't even feel that bad for my mom. I probably should have, but she was Mom; Mom can always handle it. 

Instead, I told them, my heart was aching for this baby in me who would only know a grandpa who sits in a wheelchair as a quiet spectator rather than one who gives piggyback rides and reads stories in a Donald Duck voice. 

My heart also ached for my brother's three-year-old twin boys. They were too young and wouldn't remember that just nine days ago their Grandpa was splashing them in a hotel pool and building a sand castle on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

That's when my brother cried. 

My brother is a man of action; he always has a plan, a next step. There was something about seeing him, elbow on the table, leaning into his hand to wipe away tears that told me this was bad. This was our great divide - the event that just split our lives into a before and after. 

I stopped talking and drank my tea. 


It was just after 4:00 in the afternoon on Monday, three days after Dad's stoke. I was sitting on the small plastic couch near the window when Dad waved his left hand, motioning me to come closer. He pointed to the clock and then back at me; his face was concerned and looked to me for an answer. I knew that look, and I knew what he was thinking. 

"You're wondering why I'm still here," I said. 

He nodded.

"You want to know when I am leaving."

More nodding. 

"You know it's 4:00, and you know we have a five hour drive back to Ohio. You are worried about us driving home in the dark." I said it as more of a question, not really sure if he understood details like time. 

But he nodded again and even smiled. He motioned at the clock and then at the door.

"We'll leave soon, okay?" I sounded like a teenager, irritated at my overly protective father. But I wasn't really annoyed; I was relieved and knew he also wanted to ask if I'd rotated my tires recently. 

He reached over and put his left hand on my giant belly. My throat tightened up, and I felt tears burning the back of my eyes. But I didn't want to cry, again. I didn't want to tell him my heart was crumbling with fear and that he had to get better so he could play with his grandbaby. 

"You think I should leave now so I don't have the baby right here?"

He laughed and looked at my mom as if to say, "Would you help me out here and get her to leave already?"  

That was the first time I saw a hint of Dad. Visitors with good intentions told us he was still in there; he was the same old Mike. But I wasn't so sure until he pointed to that clock.


The months after dad's stroke were confusing. I had lost the dad I'd known for 29 years and weeks later gave birth to my first child. I didn't know how to let the joy of motherhood exist alongside the sadness of dad's stroke, and even now, five years later, I cannot separate the grief and joy. I loved those early weeks of motherhood, but it felt selfish to be so happy when I knew my mom was miles away drowning in decisions and sorrow while my dad was barely moving or speaking. 
I was grieving the loss of my dad. I still am. But that seems strange - grieving the loss of a dad who is alive. 

He has come a long way from the man I saw in the hospital bed five years ago. I am thankful for that. But in my desire to be thankful, I haven't given my sadness the room it deserves. I haven't said aloud how much I hate that damn stroke. I haven't thought much about how I'm sad, and how I miss my dad, and how unfair it is that my children were robbed of their grandpa. 

If I give my sadness an inch, I am convinced it will take the mile. And then another mile after that, probably picking up anger and fear and bitterness along the way. Before long, I might be too far gone. 

But today I will say it. 

I hate that damn stroke. 

I hate that it took the life we expected for my mom and dad. I hate that it took the grandpa who wants to wrestle and swim and play hide-and-seek. I hate that my brother's twin boys had three years with that grandpa, but my children never met him. And I hate that I'm starting to forget. 

I have to try, really try, when I want to remember him. I have to sit in a quiet room and close my eyes if I want to hear his voice and remember the distinctive Italian gestures he'd use when telling a story. Sometimes I try to remember him sitting in the driver's seat of the car or mowing the lawn, but I can't, not anymore. It's strange how you can see something or hear something for decades, but then forget so quickly. 

I do not take Dad's recovery lightly. He took on years of therapy like a champ, relearning to speak and walk and manage with just his left hand. We are still adjusting to a new normal, but Dad is alive, and he knows his grandchildren. They build puzzles, play CandyLand, and sit on his lap to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. They have an inside joke about quesadillas, and Dad can bust out a pretty mean tickle monster with his left hand. They adore him, and I am thankful. 

But I still hate that damn stroke.


  1. I love you Joy, thank you for sharing your true and deep grief and your story with loosing your Dad.

  2. I am coming up on year 6 after my mom died, and I still have a hard time writing it. I find every time I do I end up writing it as a short story with different characters and as the narrator on the outside looking in. Not sure why. I would imagine there is something psychological about it. I am proud of you for getting your grief out there honestly and artfully.

  3. Joy, this is wonderful! Such honest words from a loving daughter. Thank you for sharing. I will share it with my friend Lisa - her husband had a stroke 18 months ago. Your parents had the opportunity to meet them. We love your parents!

  4. What a beautiful text. Sad, sad story. Still a great, beautiful and loving feeling. God bless you all