The Saturday before Christmas 2011 my husband and I were travelling down route 9 on our way to the mall to buy toys for tots when suddenly he cried out, something’s wrong, something’s wrong. He jerked the car out of traffic and up onto the nearest curb. Out of habit he shut off the ignition and tipping his seat back tried to regulate his frantic breathing. He was having a stroke and our lives were changed in an instant.
The next day in the hospital we were both inexplicably happy. It could have been worse. We still didn't know why this had happened but Phil was still alive. He hadn’t lost control of the car and killed anyone. He had lost all sensation on his right side but could still move, talk, think, and most importantly, remember. We counted our blessings and nothing, none of the trivial stupidities of life, seemed to bother us. The euphoria of that near-death experience was wonderful and lasted about two weeks. Then we crashed.
Seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full depends on how much sleep you get and how many things have gone wrong on any given day. When life sucks, no matter how many beautiful crimson Cardinals perch on the fence or how many people sing your praises -- you still feel like killing yourself because you know it’s just a matter of time before the Cardinals die from habitat loss and the people who think you’re wonderful change their minds and decide you’re not worth much after all. The basic understanding that you can count on nothing is so depressing that you feel like you might as well end it now. Let’s face it, we’re all on a collision course with death and there are no guarantees that anything good will ever happen. In fact, most days, life is a great big pain in the ass.
Two weeks after the stroke, Phil had started to regain some slight sensation in his toes and fingers. He continued to work hard, go to physical therapy, alter his diet, take his medications, and exercise while doing his damnedest to maintain a positive attitude. On the down side: he couldn’t drive, shave himself, or cut his fingernails. He could, however, tie his shoes after several clumsy attempts, dress himself slowly, walk a decent distance without assistance, and feed himself, often dropping the food before it reached his mouth. He lost 10 pounds in two weeks on the stroke diet. Without health insurance his three-day hospital stay would have cost us over $17,000 (and the food was terrible). The ambulance ride, all six miles of it, was over $1,000. Physical therapy cost hundreds an hour. Our $4,000 deductible was a drop in the bucket. But was that bucket half-full or half-empty?
The stroke had come out of the blue. One minute we were chatting about what toys to get, healthy, happy, minding our own business, and the next Phil was down. Everywhere we went we found friends, neighbors and complete strangers with similar stories. Fearful and breathless, often speaking in hushed voices, their stories needed to be shared: the sudden, catastrophic helplessness, the miraculous recoveries, the silence of coma, the sadness of death. But every story began with the unexpected event and the complete helplessness to do anything about it. Every story reeked with confusion and betrayal. If lives could be ruined so suddenly and without warning, what if it happened again?
Five months later we replaced our old standard car with a second-hand Prius and Phil started driving. His right side is still numb but not as numb and weak as before. If I put something in the palm of his right hand he still can’t tell me what it is but his fingertips can tell if he’s touching something smooth or textured. The brain heals slowly but it does heal.
If we sacrifice a lamb to the gods maybe nothing more will happen and we’ll be safe. If we keep our heads down maybe we’ll be spared the fear and uncertainty of the human condition. Or maybe nothing we do or fail to do will make any difference. Maybe the only possible way to live is moment by moment because that’s the only sane choice available and literally that’s all there is, moments, this one, now this one, now this one.