January 9th, 1986 was a Thursday. I know this because Thursday was bingo night, and as my mom left to go play, she said “Keep an eye on your dad. He’s not been feeling well lately.” What? I was twelve, in that blissful age before puberty, when I still secretly played with Barbie dolls but acted too grown up for them to everyone else. We’d just gone back to school after Christmas break, and seventh grade was finally starting to feel less scary and more manageable. That Thursday night was the first time I’d thought of my dad as vulnerable. And I did keep an eye on him. I watched him pace, because he was worried. I watched him fold his hands on the dining room table, then move his left hand away, leaving his right hand, unmoved, where he’d left it.
The next morning, Mom woke us up at 6:30, which was unheard of. We always got to sleep until 7. We came downstairs to find both our parents, clearly concerned. Dad was going to Moorhead to see the doctor. They’d talked to him on the phone, and he’d said, “Oh, Dewey, I’m sure it’s a pinched nerve. But maybe you better let me check it out.” Uncle Harry would drive (because my dad didn’t like my mom to drive while he was in the car, because he was sexist that way) and they were leaving right away. Could we get ourselves to school? Of course. I was twelve, Jess was eleven. “Don’t worry,” Mom said. “We’ll call when we find out anything.” Dad was quiet, though. And when he got up to put his coffee cup in the sink, his right arm brushed the jar of jam on the table, and he didn’t even feel it.
We didn’t hear anything until after lunch. I figured this was good news: if it was a big deal, we would’ve heard by now. Instead, during lap 3 of gym class, the high school secretary called for me from the gym door. “Your dad’s in intensive care,” she said, gently. “They’re taking good care of him.” I didn’t know much about hospitals, but I knew nobody went to the ICU for a pinched nerve. I cried a little bit, then, in the gym, but swallowed hard and went back to running laps. “They’re taking good care of him” I said over and over in my head. In the end, my Aunt Beverly had decided to not tell us it was a stroke. She didn’t want to scare us, and didn’t want us to hear it from school personnel.
At the end of the school day, we went to Aunt Bev’s house. Our mom wasn’t home yet, and Dad wouldn’t be coming home for a while. We didn’t know then that it would be 5 months before he could come back to live at home. We didn’t know a lot of things.
My mom came home around 8pm. She brought with her a slim photocopied book called “So you or someone you love has had a Cardiocascular Accident (CVA)?” I read that thing cover to cover that night, and though I learned he had nine of the ten warning signs of a stroke, I still had no idea what had happened to my father. I knew by then, though, that he’d had a major stroke on the doctor’s examining table. If he’d had it at home, 30 minutes from the hospital, he likely would’ve died.
On January 10, 1986, my childhood ended abruptly. Our family’s protector, breadwinner, and comic relief was in a hospital room, and he would never be the same. None of us would ever be the same.
Every stroke is different. They can be caused by blood clots or hemorrhages, and depending on where they occur, they can cause damage to various parts of the brain. In my dad’s case, he had a large blood clot on the left side of his brain. This left his right side totally paralyzed, and his speech was very affected: he now had an inability to speak coherently.
Doctors assured us that we were lucky. He’d been in the hospital when it occurred, and had gotten treatment right away. He was quite young for a stroke victim (55) and was very very strong. I remember one dark-haired doctor assuring me that though my father may never regain the use of his right arm, he would surely walk again, and probably talk, too. But after a week in the hospital, doctors were concerned. Dewey wouldn’t wake up. He didn’t eat or drink any fluids for a day and a half. It turns out that because he was young, his brain had not shrunken as much as older patients, and when it swelled in response to the injury, it put him in a coma. For four days.
Our pastor drew us to prayer. One especially hard day, just after Dad had moved home, Pastor met with Jess and I and encouraged us to believe in miracles. Pray hard enough, be pure enough of heart, and your father will get better. Perhaps this is my flawed memory, but that was the distinct impression I got.
I prayed everyday for a year. I prayed with my whole heart, begging God to heal my dad, to let him walk again, to let him tell me he loved me in clear English. I realize that praying for strength, or patience, or calm might have been better prayers, but I didn’t want those things. I wanted my father back.
He was still my father, of course. In his wheel chair, with a thick plastic brace for his right arm, he spoke to us enthusiastically of things he wanted checked. Did we turn off the basement lights? Did mom’s bike need new tires? Could we get him more coffee? He communicated all these things, and so many more, with only nonsense syllables and the occasionally confused “yes” and “no.” We played a lot of twenty questions, and we all got frustrated often. But we did it.
We cared for him at home for six years. He could feed himself, but my mom dressed, bathed, and toileted him. She became both parent and caregiver, and Jess and I were assistant caregivers. We went to Courage Center a few times, and it was helpful. We all grieved for what we’d lost, and felt guilty because he was still with us, after all. I was a horrible teenager in many ways, and looking back it’s clear that I should’ve had counseling. Instead I got really angry for a few years.
My first year in college, Dad started getting sicker. We found out later that he had near toxic levels of his anti-seizure meds (4% of stroke survivors go on to become epileptic as a result). Because of this, and because I was three hours away in Morris, and because we didn’t want to lose two parents to this stroke, we decided to find him a room in the nursing home six miles away. At first he resisted, but one morning in September, when Mom and Jess were both at school and I hadn’t gone back to college yet, I woke to him yelling. Running downstairs, I found him lying on the kitchen floor, surrounded by hot coffee: he had fallen out of his chair while getting himself a fresh cup. I lay down beside him, and started crying, and said “Daddy, we can’t keep doing this. Okay?” And he agreed, and we lay on the floor and cried together awhile. And then we cleaned up the coffee and called our neighbor to help me pick him up. Within a week, he had his own room at the Lutheran Memorial Home.
Once we straightened out his medications, he did really well at the home. The nurses adored him, and vice versa. My mom spent every day after school with him: as a nurse aide, I knew this was unusual, and I told her one day, “Mom, you don’t have to be with him every single day, you know.” She looked surprised. “But I love him. He’s who I want to be with.”
Eventually, he lost both his legs above the knee from complications of diabetes. Other than that, though, his health was largely stable. He would wheel himself (in the electric wheelchair he got as a result of the amputations) out to our car with us after we visited, and check to see that our tires were properly inflated. He held our hands, laughed at our jokes, and tried to tell us the nursing home gossip. It wasn't a bad life, really.
On June 26, 2002, he and my mom walked me up my driveway to the backyard, where Shaun and I got married. It was a wonderful day, and Dad tooled around town in his chair, and we took lots of pictures, and then went out for dinner.
Less than a month later, on July 25th, he died in a small town hospital after a major heart attack. We were all three with him, and Jess and I stayed up all night, telling him everything we could think of: what we hoped to name our children, if we had any, and how we would tell them all about him. We promised to take care of Mom and of each other. But that’s a story for another post.
This is why strokes are so close to my heart. Thanks for reading all this way. I still miss him. If you didn't know him, it's too bad, because you probably would've liked him.