Sunday, May 13, 2012
I am walking when it happens — walking and thinking of Brazil. We were going to Brazil this month — plans made last summer, when the world was a different and bigger place.
Brazil. I think about the flight and the conversation we would have had, the excitement at visiting the place of my dreams. I think about the Pantanal and the caimans, the food we would eat, the smiles we would share.
"Are you OK?" A man is over me, leaning down and blocking the hot sun from the face. "You passed out."
"I'm fine," I say, struggling to get to my feet. Fucking heat. I am not far from a friend's apartment so I stop there for a brief respite, a cool washcloth. My friend calls 911 and I am pissed. I don't need 911. I wave off the ambulance and go home. I need to sleep.
I wake up that evening with a leg that won't cooperate. Another friend comes by and we go to the emergency room. In less than five minutes a doctor has me tracking his finger as he moves it in front of my face — here, there, here. "Squeeze my hands," he orders. I do as I'm told. I'm tired. Not enough sleep. I want to go home and close my eyes.
"Level 2 stroke," he says to a nurse.
It still doesn't hurt.
I'm typing with my right hand and my left index finger. Every now and then my left thumb comes into play. It's better now than it was a week ago, when I found myself flat on my back on the 8th floor of Cox South.
But it still sucks. I was walking three-four miles a day. The night before it happened I was strolling with a friend, the evening air eddying around us, and I briskly and boldly boasted: "I could walk for miles!" Now I can do a few hundred feet with a quad cane. Fucking quad cane. It evokes old men with brittle bones, of life on the definite downside.
"It'll get better," my helpful, hopeful friends say, and I believe them. Fierce hope drives me these days. It's a hope conceived largely from anger — maybe not the healthiest place, but at least it's not Pollyanna. I'm not one of those guys who bases life on wishes and clicked heels. The only way I'm going to ditch the cane and the limp is by busting ass. I have to prove to myself — and candidly, to a few other people — that I'm not some used-up waste of space, a too-old man who's no longer vital. Again, anger. Whatever it takes.
I was angry in the hospital. A worker came by with a test — "smallest to largest circle, can you do it in order?" — and I smart-assed my way through it after giving her a withering look of disdain. No diminished brain power here. Just a left hand that won't fully cooperate and a left leg that trembles when I try to lift it too high.
The occupational therapist brought me putty and helpfully suggested I put beads or coins in it, and pretend it's a treasure hunt. It's good that I didn't tell her my helpful suggestion on what to do with the putty.
My friend Leigh probably offered the best therapy during her visit. As she got up to leave she asked me to walk her to the doors of the stroke unit — probably 50 feet from my bed. I was reluctant because I didn't really want her to see me rock the quad cane. I have some pride left.
"Get up," she said, so we started the trek — out the room, take a left, up the hall. After a few steps Leigh turned around, flashed me a sharp smile and said, "Hurry up, old man. I don't have all fucking day."
Ah, Leigh. Way to kick my ass. I stepped it up.
A few more words about anger.
I look at friends in a whole new light these days. The most sincere expressions of compassion and love are coming from unexpected quarters, from people I never expected to be so kind. I'm genuinely touched, and a bit confused about what to do with this newfound knowledge. For now all I can do is be humbled and amazed at the hearts beating inside their chests.
Conversely, I'm confused at the actions of friends who've stayed away. I get that this is a freaky thing to grasp; I'm freaked out by it, too. It's one of the reasons I've been hesitant to use the word "stroke" in any public way, until now. When someone emails me to ask what's up, and I tell them, the first response is usually one of horror. I can appreciate that. I'm not sure I'd know what to say, besides "I'm sorry."
Still, the silence from some quarters roars in my ears. It's not like I'm dead — I just can't skip down the halls at work (yet) and I won't be winning any foot races (yet). There's nothing scrambled upstairs. Maybe it would be better if that was the truth; I wouldn't be so acutely aware of the distance some people have put in place. Perhaps it's their way of coping. Stay away from stroke boy, lest the lameness affect you. I can't hate anyone for it. I'm not in their shoes.
But I can be confused, and that confusion weighs on me and makes me angry. Was it something I said or did? Or is this just a convenient time to take a powder and pay me back for being an asshole? Answers would be nice but they won't be forthcoming — not sincere ones, at least. Confrontation has a way of breeding well-intentioned deceit. So I respect the silence as best I can and try to slough off the anger. It's not helpful to healing. As Jules said in Pulp Fiction, "I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd." I don't want to be the tyranny of evil men. I don't want to hate.
Which brings us to now — one week and one day after.
I don't know what the future holds for me. I type for a living, and this exercise has been good. Trying to restore muscle memory is vital.
It's also the first bit of writing (as opposed to typing) that I've done in more than a month. I stopped writing in April, after inadvertently upsetting someone with something I'd penned. That experience jolted me into throwing away 20-plus years worth of clips and a year's worth of new material, and ever since then I've been searching in vain for The Writer who used to live inside me. He's still gone — this is more tentative and stumbling than anything I've done in years — but maybe if I type enough words he'll hear the awkward clacking of the keyboard and stumble back home.
(Someone suggested that maybe the writing void was a precursor to the stroke. I hadn't really considered that. It's more likely that a lifetime of hard living created the circumstances, but I guess anything is possible.)
Having a stroke did not inspire me to write. I find the experience especially uninspiring; frankly, it's been a real bummer. I've always struggled with depression, and this has not been helpful. I once told a friend, "A lack of darkness is just about as good as sunshine." I still believe that, but Jesus, this has been one dark motherfuck of a week — thick layers of clouds obliterating any trace of light. I've got to snap out of it, but for now, sunshine has turned her face from me.
The best I can do is hole up in my place and do my exercises — squeeze the putty, push against my leg, work till I sweat. I allow myself the luxury of 10 minutes of crying a day. Even a bad-ass has to break down sometimes, and the cat doesn't seem to mind much, so long as I don't forget to feed him.
I guess I wrote this to exercise the fingers and exorcise the emotional tumult. In one sense, it worked. My fingers feel better.
I wonder if I'll ever make it to Brazil.