She shook him awake and said "Matthew is here."
"There's Thay?" he mumbled out.
"What?" I had to ask.
"Thor thife, thor thife" he said, to clear things up.
"Oh, my wife! She's in San Francisco, has another week of school left to teach and was sorry she couldn't come. How are you doing?"
My mom was perhaps too optimistic when she spoke to me on the phone the previous day. It was far from the speedy recovery she described.
On Friday, December 7th, around 5:30AM, my mom and dad were setting out to begin their workday (They sell food on a lunch truck, a sort of convenience store on wheels that is sometimes affectionately described as a "roach coach." Growing up, I was usually too embarrassed to have such blue collar parents, and would hide it from friends by saying "they're caterers, they do catering, you know."). They were fully stocked and ready for their first stop at 6:00AM, but as my dad sat at a green light, my mom piped up from the grill in the back "go, it's green." My dad slumped over a bit, and she could tell something was wrong. The next thing she knew, he punched the pedal and fell to the right. The truck jumped the traffic island and knocked over a street light, but thankfully within minutes paramedics and firemen were on the scene. My dad is a large man, and it took them a good 20-30 minutes (according to my mom) to get him out and onto a strecher bound for the hospital. He was speaking at the time and reasonably coherent.
Around 10:30 that morning I got a call from my brother. Seeing my caller ID popup with "Michael – Home" didn't bode well. My first thought was "Why the hell is my brother calling me from his home on a Friday morning? This can't be good." He explained the problem and the prognosis. Later that day, I spoke with my mom and heard the same thing, a stroke, probably caused by a clot going up to the brain, his left side paralyzed. Saturday brought better news, that he could move his left foot down a little bit, and his left arm raised up involuntarily when he waved goodbye to someone. I felt powerless at home, didn't know what more I could do down in Southern California, but I headed out late Saturday to get down for an early morning visit Sunday.
When I got to the hospital Sunday morning, no one else was there with him in the Neuro ICU, just me standing at the foot of his bed. His body laid almost completely motionless while he slept, with tubes coming out of every possible place, connected to monitoring devices nearby. My thoughts ran to a couple days before when I read a few emails he sent me, and responded to his instant messages. Friday afternoon, I got a package he mailed me the day before. All that was lively just days before now looked empty. A battered machine lay before me, a machine that pumped blood and air and electricity through flesh and bone that used to talk to me was now still. The machine was hooked to other machines, cold, beeping, machines.
My hearing suddenly went into tunnel mode, and my urge to faint was only being held back by my inability to breathe.
Outside, under the trees I sat in the breezy shade for about twenty minutes before my mom walked past.
When she woke him up, he'd look up at us on his right side, and request handshakes. He had a surprisingly firm grip and mumbled a few short phrases to us. Later on, my mom told me about how he didn't recognize his brother or her brother from their visits the previous day but was happy to hear he knew who I was and recognized me. He asked to see the TV, watched it for about a minute and fell back asleep. We stayed a couple hours, following much the same routine. Wake him up, ask him questions, talk, and watch him fall back asleep.
It seemed clear his mental capacity was there, and like I mentioned before, his language centers were probably not affected. He can talk alright, it's just that his muscles seem to be causing the slurring. The damage appears to be physical and after three days, most likely long-term if not permanent. Mom mentioned he had lost 45 lbs on his most recent diet, but that he was up to his all-time high of 380 lbs when he started the diet. Recovery and physical therapy are sure to be slow, as he wasn't much of a walker before the stroke.
I talked with my mom about what big changes this would bring about. They're about twice my page, at 58 and 57 years old, but had figured retirement was still a decade away. Their house is a two-story one, with their bedroom at the top of a long curving flight of stairs and would have to be sold asap. Their business could be sold, and their truck along with it, or my mom could continue doing it with a new driver if my dad recovered to the point he could stay at home alone. She didn't seem to like the idea of her own early retirement or starting over with a job. They had various retirement investments, but she wasn't sure if now was the time to start drawing from them. She hoped their health insurance was good enough to pay for the long stay and post-recovery period. She brought up the problem I had pointed out years earlier, the fact that my dad did all the finances, and how she wasn't sure what bills needed to get paid or where they were at. She had been staying at her parents place (my grandparents) and would continue doing so. My grandmother is currently battling alzheimer's, so there would be two major problems she'd have to deal with on a daily basis from now on. The worst part of this whole thing seemed to be the toll his current absence would cause. They've been married almost 35 years, and during the last 25 years, they've spent almost 24 hours everyday in each other's presence. They slept next to each other, went to work together, worked alongside each other, came home together, ate dinner and watched TV in the house together. I look at my mom and see a woman that is missing something right now. I couldn't imagine what it would be like if he were gone forever.
I had received dozens of emails from people that had experience with their parents' strokes. The aftermath for each seemed to run the gamut. Some recovered fully in a short time. Some required a few months. A good deal responded to therapy, some in short periods of time, others taking longer. For some, the therapy seemed to reverse the process as the brain re-mapped new ways of controlling muscles, for others, the therapy seemed to simply make the paralysis manageable. A small portion didn't talk about recovery, and mentioned follow-up strokes and their parent's passing. It was wonderful to hear how others felt in the same situation, what I could expect, and what typically happens. Part of me wishes there were someplace to share such experiences online, to be browsed when the need arises.
It still remains to be seen what will happen next, but for now I can only hope for continued stabilization in his vital signs and a possibility for recovery.
She shook him awake and said "Matthew is here."