At the beginning of his hospital stay, I had a sense of urgency that things at home needed to be put right because as soon as he was out there would be no time to attend to anything. Our lives would be falling apart in the rearview mirror as we embarked on the road to recovery, maybe even in another city. I would need to leave behind a manual for all of it.
There were many scenarios over those weeks.
The first one: He would spend a couple of weeks in a rehab facility, approved by insurance, one week at a time.
We would visit him each day at 4,
with dinner and the dog (we’d find a way)
to exchange stories from our days.
Only after dinner we would leave and he would stay.
We would get to know the cast of characters. If they didn’t provide enough speech therapy we would supplement with extra hours, because not being able to say what he thought he was saying was the worst. He would say something but the sounds were not words, they had all the cadence and the affect of words, you could tell the ideas were beating their fists on the walls, but the sounds were like hibbitty hibbitty and then he would try again, frustrated with my inability to know what he was saying. Dumbass, he would exclaim, what I’m saying is hibbitty hibbitty.
Speech therapy, I would tell anyone who would listen, is going to need to be a really important component of his recovery.
What I didn’t say, what I assume everyone understood, was that how can you suddenly not comprehend the intent and meaning of someone who has occupied your brain for 30 years, someone you didn’t even have to look at to know they were laughing too and why. His language is worth fighting for.
Back then, the speech therapist came every day. His comprehension was better on one side than the other. Watching her initial evaluation gave me the same falling down the elevator shaft, pit in the stomach feeling as did the early days of pursuing a diagnosis for the Older Daughter, who had been all nouns and no verbs back then, and so I see the uphill climb ahead. Slow it down, use fewer words. It would be familiar advice to him, too. We had enough conferences and consultations with therapists in pigeon Makaton, and brought home the laminated cards about feeling angry and brushing teeth. But he can read, and he’s trying to tell us something, but he won’t answer her question or attend to her task. Is it because he can’t or won’t?
He would send me from the room, frustrated by my unwillingness to accede to the thing he was trying to say or to admit, acknowledge, or agree with, or to. Look, I would say, I don’t even know what category this topic is in. Is this about family, work, hospital, food? I would say the words and write them. Is it this? Is it about this? He would write words that were not words. And I would wonder is the concept of categories of topics even the kind of thing that makes sense to him. How badly hit was his receptive language? I would hide around the corner and cry silently, muffling my nose-blowing as best I could, while I waited for the next doctor or therapist to round.
You need to find a new way to communicate, the nurse told me, a youngish man, circles under his eyes, a knowledge of how strokes change people.
Everyone in the stroke unit was trying to get out. One woman spoke in completely intelligible sentences to her daughter who was not there and coaxed the nurse to be her accomplice. I need to get out of this place, she would explain. Another man kept trying to leave his room and his wristband would trip the alarm and the nurse would have to guide him back.
Each room its own tableau of sadness. Back in ours, he writes New Yorker on the pad and when I show him the magazine he is so happy and I am absolved for a while.
On the day of the stroke we had gone to Costco. Every time we made that turn onto University Drive he would always hagger me (the Older Daughter’s own verb) about how I changed lanes too late. Will you just let me explain? he had said that day, and so we sat in the in the parking lot and he walked me through it. The only person who could hit you if you go wide early, he said, is some impatient bastard behind you, like me, who passes you on the right.
I was unlicensed and 20 when we started dating and so he had coached and polished my rudimentary skills, and still felt compelled to say somedays when I was 39 or even 50, You can go after this car. But he taught me to drive and I will help him relearn whatever it is he needs to do. I think of his advice to me on taking curves, to keep your speed and look further ahead because your body will follow your eyes.
Not rehab yet, they say, we need to administer some medicine for his heart. He is transferred to the cardiac care unit. The speech therapist still comes. When the name of the new medicine scrolls across the ticker he is trying to read it. I write it down and he looks it up it on his phone.
I still don’t know what he was trying to tell me, but I tell him whatever it is, I’m sorry, and he needs to forgive me for now and do the speech therapy worksheets and we have to be patient with each other.
They add antibiotics.
It’s not like we’ve never been to the hospital before.
I wrote a story once where a boy signed a girl’s yearbook love or later and she’s not sure which. He had written me a note like that, scrawled on a pad, at the time I was writing the story. A gone to store, back at six, stable relationship kind of note. His handwriting was always terrible, I had to explain that to the nurses. This is not stroke damage. He never would have signed off with later; I knew it was love. In the story, I opted for ambiguity.
He shaved as the nurse and I watched, admiring his dexterity, like spectators at a slalom event, doing anticipatory winces, and just kind of overall being amazed that men do this to themselves. No nicks. A week or two weeks later he can’t even use that hand or arm.
The actress is familiar. And I am never the one who gets there first, never. We race each other to look up the name of the movie, a twisted tale of college football recruiting, where all flesh is chattel. This is a day I will return to often, a day of peace and being together.
It’s like a long wasted day in college, hanging out in the THs, watching cable, waiting for the Cookie Man, when your whole life is furled, just waiting to be revealed, which it will be, along an unwinding ribbon of road, from Chicago to Alabama, along the tracks from Poughkeepsie to Union Station, JFK to Heathrow, Paris to Gare de Montepellier-Saint-Roch, Alabama to anywhere.
And then we are watching the surreal Westerns with agonizing death scenes. As the townspeople gather to see the long shadows draw across the dry earth so too is he condemned. Clocks tick and doors reverberate.
So begins the scenario where they want to support his breathing. The aphasia workbook that I had ordered back in the last scenario sits on the counter at home like all 10 pounds of the Restoration Hardware catalog, offering an unobtainable fantasy lifestyle.
I watch videos about the rehab place in Atlanta. While the Younger Daughter interviews at colleges, I am applying him to rehab. I describe his incredible potential even as it ebbs away.
Please come back, please come back.
I bought a rake. I bagged leaves. I scattered wildflower seeds in the little slope of yard we called the meadow. I washed my car by hand. I had researched, as he slept, the best way to wash a car, whether it was acceptable to use dishwashing soap. I caressed the car’s abraded surface with Turtle Wax shampoo and regretted having withheld my attention for as long as I had.
A month before the stroke I had bought a dotted line journal and a bunch of fine nib pens and started to write down these lists and set goals and track habits. I felt I needed to get a handle on my life. Luckily I had mapped out the Younger Daughter’s college tour so when it came time for friends to scoop her up there was a game plan. He was the planner. I was the packer, the keeper of files, but not the doer. Bloody house, we might say when a thing happened, because of all the negotiation it involved, the finding of people, and hoping they would materialize.
There are footsteps on the roof as we huddle within, waiting for them all to leave so we can be alone with our sadness.
I was determined to get things done as well as he did. I would be us. Look, I could say, when he returned. I fixed the roof, twice; once in a place you didn’t even know about. And then the kitchen tap sprung a leak. Of course. As they do. I caused repairs to be done. I had a guy look at trees.
Summer turns to fall to hints of winter. We got our flu shots. There were no more conversations with him, only exchanges. I ordered heartworm medicine for the dogs, which is a process. The girls and the dogs had their checkups. The mail order pharmacy we used changed and HIPAA HIPAA HIPAA this entailed paperwork and phone calls and more faxes. I had the tires rotated, the oil changed. I put the service receipts in chronological order. I left detailed instructions for the cousins who came from three directions and for the sitters and texted back and forth—with the Younger Daughter and with friends who were picking up and dropping off—about the care and feeding of the children and dogs.
Now there is nothing to do but these things. But no sense of urgency.
Weeks later I attend a grief group at one of our many parish churches and park the car under the enormous electrical pylons where a thousand birds congregate, eating and then releasing a storm of purple berries. When I return, fresh from the small circle of prayer, the ghost of strangers’ hands in my own, there is no time to refill the bucket and wring out a large non-abrasive cloth, but only to drive through the touchless automatic.
Foam splatters against the windshield, the heavy rollers descend, the thick carpet tongues lash the roof, twining around the sideview mirrors.
I drive on, through pharmacy windows and ATMs, always running errands, downloading forms, now checking the box for widowed, making it official again and again and again.
After we were through the part where everybody says goodbye to him and returns home, and we have eaten the last of the food they left behind and are running out of paper products, there is no avoiding going back to Costco. Making the turn is hard. Going wide early as he instructed was the last thing he ever taught me how to do. I’ve been figuring out the rest as best I can ever since.