On August 5, my husband of 30 years, Ian, had a devastating stroke. I found him wedged between two kitchen cabinets. He couldn’t get up, nor could I lift him. At first I thought he’d tripped. It quickly became clear that something horrific had happened.
I called 911, then ran back to him.
In that moment, we both felt it might be our last together.
In that moment, we both felt it might be our last together. Through tears, we spoke the words that had been silent between us for far too long.
Our marriage hasn’t been idyllic. But, much like the Cyclone at Coney Island, the highs were thrilling. On top, it’s been a heady journey with this brilliant former New York Times senior editor, who opened up the world to me; a world of scholars, actors, and Nobel Laureates. It was Ian who encouraged me to write, and edited my early pieces. Somehow, we made it through without divorce or serious bodily injury. His genius as an editor was in two deceptively simple principles: “If it ain’t broke, don’t futz with it.” and “You’re a writer if somebody pays you!”
And now this lifelong wordsmith, was struck down. He’s lost the use of his left side, his speech is slurred, and there are blood pressure, and swallowing issues. For those who have been through something similar, you know. You know the fear, the horrific insult to the body, and most of all, that life, will be forever changed.
He’s currently in a fourth rehab, and then Medicare in-house is over. I’ll bring him home if I have to carry him on my back. (Massage offers, welcome.)
I’ve been through devastating tragedy before, and know that these times shadow you forever. The thoughts, feelings, fears, are easily re-triggered with each new crisis. Yes, they can weaken the soul, but they can also strengthen, providing they’re met with optimism, determination, the ability to major multi-task at warp speed – and yes, humor.
“Humor?” “Stroke?” For those who poo poo Jewish humor, I promise you, it’s not only alive, it can keep you alive. It’s even “catching.” There are now hospital staff, from African-Americans to Filipinos, saying “Oy vey!” when he swallows wrong, and “chutzpah” a lot -- usually about me.
CASE MANAGER: “Well, he’s not making the progress we’d hoped for, so … “
ME: “Mamala!? I’m deaf, he can’t speak! Finally, a perfect match! OK, true, we can both plotz and no one will find us, so, how about we get him into the best next rehab and work on his criticism skill. Trust me, he’ll correct a parrot.”
I’m up to three shows a day. I’m thinking of taking it on the road: “ ‘Stroking’ on Your Summer Vacation!”
I’d open with Medicare. I’ve learned when you’ve had a stroke on Medicare you’re suddenly Mr. Popularity. At the first place, a lady visited to make short-term rehab plans at her facility. But wait … there’s more. Then, a chipper fellow with teeth like piano keys and a brochure that resembled the Mirage bopped in. It seems Medicare pays them $140 a day, so the competition makes Survivor contestants look like they’re in a coma. At his place, Ian would be surrounded by antiques (faux), satellite TV (which no one could work), a fridge that fit nothing, and cute “activities” like “let’s-do-our-nails-Wednesday.” So there he went. Finding an empty glass, however, was a problem they hadn’t yet licked.
“Can Jews take shower on Thursday?”
Of course, I turned to the government -- a fate that should have its own Yiddish curse. For this you need more than humor. Hysteria helps. Speaking of curses, or more precisely “sins” Ian’s come up with a new one. On a particular Thursday night, a lovely Filipino CNA, asked me in broken English: “Can Jews take shower on Thursday?”
ME: “Wha …? Back up Rena, what are you talking about?”
HER: “Well, Monday, he say ‘Jews can no take showers on Monday.’”
ME: “Who said?”
HER: “Yo husband say ‘Jews no take showers on Mondays. So Thursday OK for Jew?”
He can barely talk or swallow, yet in this new “world according to Ian” (who doesn’t want to be shlepped to a wheelchair), Jews can’t shower on Mondays. I saw his lip curl.
“You couldn’t have at least chosen SHABBOS?!” I asked. I suggested that staff run his ‘religious reasons’ by me in the future.
Driving. Megellan, I’m not. As soon as someone says: “Go South on I-95, make a U-turn at the Interstate …” I start humming the theme from Jeopardy! When Ian had to be transferred yet again, I was told Medicare doesn’t cover it. I suppose the Feds expect the “stroke stork” to “beak” them down from hospital to hospital. So, I bravely decided to take him myself . Picture it. Wheel chair, catheter, and a 140 pound man who can’t walk or hold his head upright.
On the ten minute ride, there was Ian, strapped in next to me – pointing at a STOP sign, a mile away. As usual he was directing my driving! Naturally, I couldn’t find the right entrance. I said: “Don’t worry, we’ll find it soon,” to which he replied, quite clearly: “No we won’t.”
Another “positive” is, I’ve lost 25 pounds, can lift a Hummer, and could enter NASCAR – as a human vehicle. This, from a woman who, on August 4, assumed only two positions: lying and sitting. The next day, I revved from zero to 100, racing, shlepping, rising at dawn, unpacking our apartment including 5000 books, running to the hospital, learning occupational, speech therapy, and yes, automotive maintenance.
I call it “The Stroke Diet.” I’d take it public but it still has a few kinks.
Ask any of “us” relatives of stroke victims. We can tell who we are. We’re the ones wearing our clothes inside out, who alternate from hyper mania to coma, with fucilli-gone-wild do’s. (Finally, a nurse “dreadlocked” me.) In this small private world we bond instantly. One Black mom, Doris, (whose son had a stroke), and I fell into each other’s arms. Her comment? “We’re gonna live a long time, honey.” Why? At the same time, we said simply: “Because we have to.”
Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for the 3000 years of Jewish mishpocheh, whose strong DNA I’m privileged to have running through my veins. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the Jewish women who have gone through unimaginable pain and loss especially during the Holocaust. I take enormous comfort from them. If they could endure torture, the camps, gas chambers, then this, I’ve decided, must be a cakewalk. Every moment I feel their loving arms around me, and hear their words: “We are a culture of rachmones; of survival. Do what you must, mamala. One step at a time. Because you have to.”
I don’t know what the future will hold. But now I “Look to the ottoman!”
The other day I bought an ottoman on local webcam E-bay Channel 108. What a find! A 50 pound used, leather ottoman for storage which could double as a much needed table, for 15 bucks!
One of my Jewish mama-muses tapped me on the shoulder, saying: “Bring it to the hospital. Show Ian. Show him … the future. That you believe in the future, with him home. A future with new understanding and promise between you.”
So I shlepped our ottoman the mile from the car to the hospital (sitting on it every 30 feet). I’ve been known to be quirky, but a woman, clothes inside out, with half a head of dreadlocks holding a massive round ottoman, was, as one doctor put it: “A first.”
Ian liked the ottoman. I went on to describe “the deal,” where we’d put it, etc.
I don’t know what the future will hold. But now I “Look to the ottoman!” The way I figure, life’s a lot like that. A bit worn sometimes, a bit frayed … but built of precious material. And oh, the capacity for beauty, that has been, and God willing, is still to be stored!
I’d like to take an important moment to publicly thank those, most in the least position to help, who have done so with rachmones, and love. This, to me, is the highest of mitzvahs, and you are my angels!