At 10am on Thursday 23 February 2012, life shunted me onto an unanticipated fork in the road.
I knew straight away I was having a stroke — even though I spent the next twenty or thirty minutes resisting the knowing. I couldn’t put my children through this! That was my first anguished thought. And there was no way I, a healthy, vibrant, busy young 60-year-old was going to step onto the medical treadmill. Oh no. I had visions of those compartmentalised plastic pill containers labelled with the days of the week. Not my style at all.
But I felt terrible, and very close to collapse. Couldn’t work out how ambulance officers could gain access to my apartment on the second floor of a security building. Couldn’t work out how to get to hospital. Managed to phone the government health line, where a calm, helpful nurse confirmed my instinctive diagnosis and urged me to get to an emergency department immediately.
So I did what I had to do: called my son. No answer — he was working one suburb away as a mechanic, but couldn’t pick up the phone. Called my daughter, who was working in a office half an hour away. At just 20, she took charge, stayed wonderfully reassuring and calm, organised me to wheel my office chair to the front door and unlatch it, then sit down and wait until help came. She got hold of my son, aged 23, and he came swiftly. Calmly gathered me up and drove me to the nearby hospital. I was there by around 11am. And admitted within minutes. What an extraordinary team.
I spent nine days in the stroke unit, and was discharged with an optimistic prognosis, as my brain scans had shown nothing, even though it was clear, clinically, that I’d suffered a stroke, caused by a heart condition, atrial fibrillation.
The shock waves kept coming for weeks and months afterwards. Trying to fill out simple forms revealed cognitive impairment, which was confirmed by neuropsychological testing. Damn. To this day, processing lists and multitasking of any kind, as well as retaining an overview of lengthy textual material, remains difficult or impossible.
Walking was slow, and got slower as the day progressed. This pattern remains. It still takes me between 16 and 18 minutes to walk a kilometre, and I sometimes need to pull out my trusty walking stick to get home from a local outing.
I slide swiftly into sensory overload in unfamiliar situations, when being driven at speed in a car, in supermarkets or large shopping centres, amongst groups of people, in bookstores, libraries and so on. I haven’t yet ventured into a cinema.
And all these issues contribute to the ongoing exhaustion I live with, which sends me to bed for the afternoons. I’ve not been out at night since the stroke.
I am no longer able to drive, nor able to work. For nine months after the stroke, I battled with our social services department to be granted my entitlements.
But probably the most constant issue I deal with is social isolation: being unable to go far from home, to go out for more than a couple of hours or so, nor to spend more than a short time in groups such as my precious writing group.
Slowly, though, the gifts have emerged, revealing themselves more comprehensively as the hours and days and weeks and months rolled by: the luxury of slowness; almost total freedom from stress; time spent on my bed, watching TV and movies while crocheting; visits from friends, and their incredible ongoing generosity and kindness; new forms of writing, like haiku; the stillness in which to practise mindfulness; care and support from a wonderful GP.
This was not the hardest year of my life. The year my marriage exploded was much harder. Both major events were life-changing. But the first involved profound betrayal, and a fierce battle to keep custody of my then young children. A battle against two people who, for many years, seemed intent on destroying me or at least forcing me to relinquish my children and disappear.
Now, post-stroke, what I’m dealing with is simply part of life. No malice involved. And I have all the time in the world to focus on adjusting, accepting, and learning creative ways of walking this new path in my life’s journey.
I reflect often on the blessings of being loved and cared for by my extraordinary son and daughter. Who have, as it turns out, grown enormously from meeting this challenge. I treasure the love and support from dear friends, many of whom have come into my life via my twin passions of Reiki/metaphysics and writing — via the way of the heart, and of authenticity.
What I have now is real, the basic essentials. Nothing socially imposed. I’ve lost any sense of embarrassment and can comfortably ask a young person to give me their seat on a crowded train. I can cross the road ever so slowly, and wave thanks to the drivers who have been forced to wait for me. Some of them wave back. One old woman even blew me a kiss.
I’ve learned to let emotions arise, to recognise and acknowledge them, then let them fade away. The process is becoming swifter and easier the more I practise it. And I have time and spaciousness to do that.
This stroke has taught me grace. What a blessing. I am coming to understand that grace is a key aspect of forgiveness, and that exploring both allows the deepest remnants of pain from past hurts to dissolve.
I’m looking forward to discovering more gifts in my new life; and to collecting my writings from this past year into a memoir. I look forward to working on new crochet projects. And, in time, I hope to forge a slow and gentle reconnection with my almost-completed novel.
There’s more I’d like to reflect on here, but there’ll be time for that in the coming weeks and months.
treetops dance to wild
raindrop beats — on my table
serene candle glows