It was Christmas morning - for us, a Sunday morning pretty much like any other - when She Who Must Be Obeyed handed me the phone, a worried expression in her eyes. It was my brother - The Other Elisson - on the line. Not much to be concerned about... except my brother almost never calls us up on a Sunday morning.
“Dad’s had a stroke.”
“It’s not life-threatening, but he’s paralyzed on his left side.”
Shit, shit, shit.
I flashed back to the last time I had gotten a similar phone call. That had been nearly twelve years ago, when Dad had had his heart attack. He had been in the midst of a racquetball game - a regular activity - when, without warning, he had gone into cardiac arrest. Lucky for him he was playing with a retired fire chief who knew how to administer CPR until the paramedics arrived with their jumper cables. They revived him and got him to the hospital, where he underwent multiple bypass surgery.
Later, he would describe the experience as not entirely unpleasant. “I was going for a shot and suddenly I thought, ‘I’m going to faint now.’ There was no pain at all. If I hadn’t woken up, it wouldn’t have been a bad way to go.”
But that was then. This was now, and even though it was not a life-threatening situation, it was most certainly a lifestyle-threatening situation... because a stroke changes everything.
It had come upon him in the dead of night. Toni had been awakened by his breathing, which had become strangely labored. When she asked him if he was OK, he replied that he felt fine... but a few hours later, when he awoke to answer the summons of nature, he could not get out of bed. His left side was completely immobile.
Even as Toni and the Other Elisson tried to assess the situation, Eli argued with them. He was fine, he insisted... despite his complete inability to sit up or walk. This sort of Denial of the Obvious, I have come to find, is not an unusual reaction in one who has suffered a stroke.
Strokes are big-time scary. A stroke can kill you outright if it hits certain parts of the brain, or it can incapacitate you and leave you unable to read, to speak, to recognize loved ones, to swallow. It can create baffling alterations in perception. Its effects can linger for months or years with varying degrees of severity.
We all go through our lives, day by day, not noticing the subtle signs of age as it creeps up on us with its little cat feet. But every so often, cat-like, it will pounce. A stroke is anything but subtle. It is a Giant Step in the aging process, a quantum change of the sort that divides one’s life into two periods: Before the Stroke, and After the Stroke.
At the hospital, a CAT scan revealed that Eli’s stroke had been caused by a thrombus - a blood clot. (The alternative - a cerebral hemorrhage - is less common but even more fearsome.) Because it struck the right side of Eli’s brain, it paralyzed the left side of his body. Fortunately, his ability to swallow was intact, albeit impaired. He would be able to eat without having to use a feeding tube.
Most importantly, his mind was intact.
That’s the thing that, I suspect, is most frightening about any condition that affects the brain. The unique spark that animates each one of us is locked into our skulls - what becomes of us if that spark is altered beyond recognition?
I knew I didn’t have to worry about that as soon as I found out that Eli was sitting up in his hospital bed, cracking jokes. His speech was slurred but clearly recognizable. He knew who everyone was and could remember things... albeit with a few peculiar gaps. He knew he had suffered a stroke, but he couldn’t quite understand why he couldn’t simply hop out of bed and go to take a leak. And the left side of his world was simply... gone. It no longer existed for him.
He’s been in in-hospital rehab now for about ten days, where, with the help of dedicated hospital staff and the loving care of his bride Toni - their twenty-first wedding anniversary was just this past Friday - he will eventually relearn the basic skills of daily life. Walking. Sitting up. Everything we take for granted.
Your thoughts and prayers for Eli’s speedy and complete recovery, Esteemed Readers, are deeply appreciated.
His days of playing racquetball, alas, are over. For now. But he’s still Eli, hizzownself. Hizzownself! I know this without a shadow of doubt.
When, as he was sitting up in his hospital bed, I asked him if he was comfortable, he replied: “I make a living.”