Right now any call of urgency from my mother can wake me from a dead sleep to ready to run a marathon. This is explains how at 4am she called to me from the other room, "Leslie, I need help," and I went from whatever dream I was having to standing in front of my dad without knowing how I got there.
Dad, who has now several strokes that we know of to date*, was sitting on the bed confused. He didn't want to go to the bathroom like he said originally. Something else was wrong. Mom and I guessed and looked at each other with concern. These days we're on high alert for any changes or loss of awareness. We both thought this could be bad.
Suddenly he started talking more clearly than he has in days.
"I am trying to tell her," points to me, "where the potatoes go. She didn't listen. We," he crosses his hands in front of him, I secretly cheer about his crossing the midline for his brain as he continues, "we miscommunicated!" He talks in his broken, although understandable, speech, "She said Ice Cream. I was telling her where the potatoes go! And that show!" He gestures to me and then at his brain and shakes his head, "You're Stupid," he says to me. I laugh. "Yes, it's frustrating when you miscommunicate. I didn't know where the potatoes go?" He says, "You're a Potato."
We convince him to go back to sleep. Mom and I shake our heads and shrug. "I think he's processing the day. He said every word he heard today. It's like dreaming but out of his mouth."
There is no room for taking things personally with a stroke victim. As strange as that 4am event was, I found it slightly amusing and very fascinating. Watching and caring for my dad recovering from a stroke is not only emotional and physically draining, but also fascinating. It is also only a temporary time for me since one day I will return home, which provides me with some perspective.
During my first trip to Texas, a week after returning from Thailand, I visited my dad in the rehab hospital. Mom and I had a new routine for a few days. I'd take the first shift with Dad at 6:45am for breakfast before she arrived so I could go work during the middle of the day. I'd return during therapy in the late afternoon and we'd both be there until after his dinner. We would return home and both finish up our work before going to sleep.
Sometime during that week it hit me. I don't know why I hadn't fully processed this; but knowing how disabled my dad is now, I realized this new normal was going to become more difficult. Mom's new normal when Dad came home, and after I left, would be relentless. Dad can't be left alone. He needs constant attention to ensure he doesn't choke while his body still learns to swallow. He even chokes on his own saliva at times and panics. He can't walk, although he forgets this and tries to get up sometimes, his body not remembering his own new normal. All of this while Mom is still teaching online and now home bound with Dad, except for managing to get him in to the car for Dr. visits.
Transitioning Dad home took two of us. I left the second day he was back feeling slightly guilty but having helped him get settled and shuffle things in the house so Mom could help him get around.
Stroke recovery isn't like recovering from the flu. It's also something too many of us are going to have to deal with in our lifetime. Most people will know someone who suffers from a stroke, usually a parent or older close relative. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for men and third for women (even more than breast cancer). The number of people who have reached out to me to share their stroke stories is incredible. It's both comforting to know we're not alone and terrifying how common it is.
I've been re-reading My Stroke of Insight (Amazon, TED talk) to connect to what my Dad is going through. There are several great pieces of advice in her book that Doctors now recommend and that we follow consciously.
During the recovery of the first three strokes, even in the time I was here with him, I watched his recognition and speech bloom. In as little as six days, his coordination started to come back. While he could still not walk or talk or eat independently, he started to communicate better and he began closing his mouth again. His sense of humor came back and his face began to move in expressions we recognized as Dad.
That day I left for home, he smiled for the first time. A goofy, Dad-like cheesy grin, but he used his whole face, all the muscles responded.
After we were told he collected six more strokes, the recovery not only started over, he regressed. I hopped on a plane the following day and arrived to a man who was not only worse off than the person whom I left, but wasn't even the same person I saw at the start of the previous visit.
Time is bizarre. In only six days, Dad improved a thousand fold and in the following three days, he regressed ten thousand.
Right now our days are mostly worry, patience, forgiveness-- for ourselves and each other-- and more worry. It is essential we keep our minds from going to dark places. Sometimes, albeit becoming more and more brief, Dad shows up. "Looks like you might have something in your mouth still after brushing your teeth." "W H O M E E E?" He suddenly showed up after 15 hours of sitting, staring and drooling. Dad will suddenly show up behind his eyes and make us laugh.
Ten minutes a day now. That's how much time we have with him. Come on, Dad. Don't slip in to the darkness. We have Aggie games to get to this fall. I'll keep showing up and so will you.
*Turns out, he just had another stroke when this happened. Life, hu? It keeps on with the curve balls. #getWellDad