Woe.” He says the word as his blue eyes peer intently into mine.
“No.” I repeat the word. “Watch where I put my lips and teeth, Dennis.”
“No.” This time it sounds much more like what it was meant to be. We repeat it about a dozen times and go on to the next word.
“Why,” I say, exaggerating the position of my mouth and he mimics me. We do the next six words, a dozen times each, and then flip the page over and begin on the phrases.
It’s been three months now since a very large stroke on November 13 reduced my fifty-eight-year-old husband from the independent man he once was to someone dependent on others. He once rode a motorcycle and was an avid reader in his spare time. He often visited several elderly shut-ins and was building a large model railroad layout in our basement. He once worked with numbers for a living.
Paralyzed on his right side, he is now in a wheelchair. Today he neither reads nor writes. He speaks in “sentences,” but only he knows the meaning of his speech. I guess at what he is trying to say. His hand gestures give me a clue, and we daily go through a guessing game to try to communicate.
However, he can think. For that I am so thankful. He knows what’s going on, can tell time, remembers friends and events from the past, and knows what month it is. He plays checkers and he built and painted a birdhouse with is left hand, quite a feat for a right-handed person. I am thankful for the intensive therapy his has been receiving on the stroke unit of the hospital.
Now he is trying to tell me something in his unintelligible language, his eyes intently fixed on mine as he leans forward in the wheelchair. Hand gestures express what his words can’t.
“Is it about me?’ I ask, starting the question-and-answer communication, to which he responds, “No.” He says “no” easily when it is spontaneous and not part of his word list. Spontaneous speech is stored in a different part of the brain.
“Is it about you?” A nod. “Does it have something to do with coming home?” Another nod. I’m getting lucky. I get out the pencil and paper, doing a sketch. “This is where the ramp needs to go.” I’m still guessing as he puts on his reading glasses and looks at the paper.
A few days ago, our son, Tim, visited Dennis in his hospital room. Seated in his wheelchair, Dennis unfastened his seat belt. He stood up and leaned against the wall, grinning broadly. Triumph! Then he sat down. He took great delight in showing Tim what he is able to do. He now does a shuffle walk with the aid of a couple therapists, making progress one step at a time.
A while ago, a friend of mine referred to Dennis’ stroke as a tragedy. I’m sure most people would think of strokes as tragedies. I thought about it for a while, and concluded I would rather see it as a major /challenge/ in our lives. “Tragedy” looks backward at all he has lost, and he has lost so much. However, “challenge” looks forward to what Dennis can regain if he works hard enough at it. “Tragedy” speaks of defeat, but “challenge” focuses on hope for the future, and we are holding on to hope.
Dear elderly friends in Australia wrote to us immediately when they heard of Dennis’ stroke. One of the Bible verses they included to encourage us was Romans 15:13. A couple days later my sister sent us the same verse, and previously I had written it down myself. What’s the chance of all three of us picking the same verse? I’ve concluded that the Lord wants me to focus on it. Romans 15:13 reads: “May the God of all hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” We’re still holding on to hope.
Did this stroke catch me by surprise? Not exactly. It’s as if the Lord had been preparing me for it six months before it happened. Only I didn’t know ahead of time exactly what some of the things I was experiencing meant.
From May to November, I had been playing a CD of a quartet while I was driving our car. One of the most meaningful songs starts out “Jesus, I am resting, resting, in the joy of what thou art.” The other one which I listened to over and over again, often pushing the repeat button, was “Faithful One” by Brian Doerksen, which starts out “Faithful One, so unchanging” and has the following words in the chorus: “You are my rock in times of trouble, You lift me up when I fall down. All through the storm Your love is the anchor, My hope is in You alone.” When I was listening to it in past months, I never knew why it was so meaningful. I wasn’t going through a “storm” at the time. . . But now it’s clear to me in the midst of the current storm. Jesus is indeed my Rock and His love is my anchor.
In October, I began sending out our fall newsletter. (We’re involved in mission work and send out newsletters several times a year.) On one page was a picture of Dennis sitting next to his father, who has Parkinson’s and is in a wheelchair. One day as I was writing a note on one of the letters in a space a few inches below the photo, I looked at the photo, and a thought popped into my mind: “Dennis looks like he should be in a wheelchair too.” Now where did that weird thought come from? Was it because there is a close family resemblance with his dad? Was it the expression on his face? I quickly searched the other photos in the letter. Did he look unwell in any of them? Maybe a bit older. . . But why the strange thought about a wheelchair? Over the next four weeks the thought came back again and again as I continued to write notes on the letters. I looked at the photo many times—just what was I seeing? I finally finished sending out all of the letters on Nov. 11, two days before Dennis’ stroke.
Because I often go to a ladies’ gym at 6 a.m. to exercise, I often would go to bed earlier than Dennis. If I was half asleep when Dennis came to bed, I would reach out my hand and squeeze his. One night, about three weeks before his stroke, I thought, “Don’t ever take this for granted. Some day his hand might not be there to squeeze.” After that, I was more attentive to the fact that life is filled with uncertainty. A few days after his stroke, one of the first means of communication was when Dennis squeezed my hand.
In these three ways, I believe the Lord was preparing me for what was ahead. But it was only /after/ Dennis had his stroke that I saw the significance of each thing that happened.
Today is Valentine’s Day. Our daughter, Rachel, ever the romantic, reminded Dennis what day it was when she visited him at the hospital this morning. She accompanied him down to the hospital gift shop, where he selected a rose and lovely card for me. He signed the card by printing his name, which took great effort. Later this afternoon, tears filled my eyes when I arrived at the hospital and saw what he had gotten for me.
As I drove the eleven miles home from the hospital today, I noticed the days are getting a bit longer. It’s still winter up here in Calgary, but we get a taste of “spring” each time a warm Chinook wind comes through and melts the snow. There will be changes ahead before too long.
There will be changes ahead for Dennis too. Someday he will be coming back home. What he is today won’t be the person he will be three months from now, six months from now, or a year from now. How far he will progress is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, it’s one day at a time, one step at a time—not just for Dennis, but for me as well. Life isn’t easy, but in the storms of life, I know the Lord is in control. Our hope truly is in Him.
© Janet Seever, 2005 [email protected]
The mother of two adult children, Janet Seever lives with her husband in Calgary, Alberta, where she writes for Word Alive magazine. She has had a variety of articles and short stories published in magazines and on Internet. You can find more of Janet’s writing at www.inscribe.org/janetseever