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Finding Beauty in Tragedy

Finding Beauty in Tragedy

My husband just had a devastating stroke and the power of Jewish humor is helping me get through it.


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!

October 3, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 27

(16) Tonna, December 30, 2012 9:15 PM

Understand... many things. I wrote you earlier, (Like about 5 minutes ago!) about losing the love of my life, David (may his memory be for a blessing!) very recently. Our last adventure began, on Nov. 13th, with me taking him to the E/R...he was having shortness of breath. Things seemed to be improving, slowly but was his heart...congestive heart failure, again! Unfortunately, 5 days later, while still in the hospital, he had a heart attack. Right in front of me, his cardiologist and two nurses! It only lasted a few seconds...very long seconds...but, he looked at me, said "Tonna", I said back to him "David...I love you!", then it happened a second time...this time he coded. David didn't speak any more...with words, that is, but, once he came out of sedation...he was there! He heard our words to him and would smile. He was so broke my heart. Sadly, David passed on December 8th...on Shabbos and the first night of Hanukkah, which was perfect! Baruch Hashem he was able to be with us long enough for his two children, his sister and even his ex-wife to arrive, all from out of state! He was even able to "speak" with his two grandsons thanks to his son being able to get them on the phone with him. I was very blessed to have been able to spend some "alone" time with him as the rest of his family was resting from their flights. All through the night, me, alternately talking my head off, us smiling and "talking". He being so sweet and me almost bursting with such love for this beautiful man. What a blessing he has been in my life! I told him so many times that he was the "love of my life" and the "angel in my heart"! The first time that he looked at me and smiled after coming out of sedation, I told him that I was going to just tuck him in my pocket and take him home! His eyes were so bright and he had the most beautiful smile I've ever seen in my life! Baruch Hashem! Thank you for your words and G-d bless you, Marnie!

(15) Joey, November 15, 2011 8:22 AM

Best of luck and God's blessings to you, Ian and your loved ones!

(14) Shari, October 9, 2011 3:31 AM

Who said you have to work out?

Marnie, you should check with your local Rabbi to see if there are any chessed agencies that have volunteers that would come to give you a break. There are people that would be willing to volunteer their time. Some of them even have experience. If they don't have experience, find a time that would be least problematic. As far as the gym, find one with a jacuzzi, a pool or a suana or steam room. Who says you have to work out? You should also find out if you're entitled to a home health aide a few hours a week. Medicare usually does offer it for a few weeks after you come home. By the way, there are tricks to getting Ian off the floor if he falls. I learned some pretty interesting skills along the way. Make sure you tell Medicare that he's fallen, they're more likely to give you hours. It's important for you to get the support. You might also find out if someone at the hospital or rehab would be interested in a few hours of home care. If there was someone at any of the facilities that you like, see if they're available. They're usually not too expensive, but make sure you find out what the going rate is. Don't go through an agency, they charge more and pay the aide much less. You're doing great, keep walking on the funny side. It's great for both of you. (And your readers, too). All the Best and Love, Shari

(13) autisticglobetrotting, October 6, 2011 10:56 PM

laughing through the tears

I laughted ,I cried and I sympathized-More power to you!

(12) Anonymous, October 6, 2011 9:55 PM

stay strong

You are one amazing woman and G-d should give you strength to deal with all He throws your way. May you continue to see the positive and even the humor.

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