My wife’s stroke was totally unexpected. By any reasonable measure she was right at the bottom of the risk ladder. But whilst the masses obediently follow statistics, life deals each one of us our own personal hand of cards with no apparent rhyme or reason. If we are lucky, we receive a flush of serendipitous spades, loving hearts and sparkling diamonds. But sometimes it is the dreaded Ace of Clubs – landing with a sickening thud. She says feels like she has been hit over the head with a hammer.
We never know how we will react to a situation until we are in it. When people kindly say to us “I know how you feel”, they rarely do. We have never been down this path before. And it was a complete shock. Debbie is fit and healthy – everybody has said it – she is the last person anyone would expect to have a stroke. “It’s bizarre” she says.
Shock and a strange feeling of calm
It is a shock – which is sinking in slowly. When the smooth skin of day-to-day routine of life is ripped away to expose the raw flesh of reality, we have to generate our own anesthetic. My first response was strangely calm.
When I rang her on that fateful day, as she lay on the settee having been violently sick, I was naturally anxious. But I was able to function, think clearly, have coherent conversations, pack up my bag and leave the office . I was able to drive five hours through heavy traffic, safely, to message people, to deal with the fact my headlights weren’t working, to find the hospital and the ward. Most remarkably of all – I was able to successfully operate the car park ticket machine. Nor did Debbie despair or panic. We found the resources – as so many when faced with a shocking and unknown event – to function and to stay in control.
Exercising the caring muscles
At the same time, I was in this strange position of having to look after my wife. You will be unsurprised to hear that more usually she looks after me, or I am away from home looking after myself. Here was was the role reversal – she was in a hospital bed, unable initially even to sit up. And yes she has the vast resources of the NHS at her disposal to look after her medical and practical needs – but I was her emotional handrail, and she needed to hold on tightly.
My rather under-developed caring muscles were getting some unexpected exercise. And like the first trip to the gym after Christmas – my initial enthusiasm soon turned into puffing and panting. I count my calories and my steps, I measure my runs and my bike rides. If I had an app on my phone to measure my care, compassion, giving and generosity (towards other people, not myself), I’m not sure I would have been hitting too many targets.
I found myself in this strange role of reassuring and sympathising with her. That wasn’t too hard. The harder test was when she gave me a random list of personal items to bring from home. I realised I didn’t know where she kept her shoes, never mind her contact lenses or turquoise pyjamas, “the ones with the rabbit on”. My biggest failing of the whole three days she spent in hospital was to bring her conditioner rather than shampoo. My excuse that the bottles are virtually identical just didn’t wash.
I am reminded of a man who gave up his career to nurse his wife. She was very ill – confined to her bed and didn’t even know who he was anymore. He did so without complaining. People praised him for his incredible devotion and sacrifice. In all humility he explained that his decision was made forty years earlier when he promised to love her, in sickness and in health. I aspire to be 1% of that man – it was finally time to invoke the first half of that couplet.
But – here is the news. Caring is good for us. It feels good. It takes us out of ourselves. Giving is better than receiving. We are made to love, as much as we are made to be loved. In the end, the love we take really does seem to be equal to the love we make.
Friends will be friends
And as we are talking about caring – we discovered, unsurprisingly (sing-a-long with me) that friends will be friends. And when you’re in need of love they bring you care and attention. So hold out your hand, because, right to the end, friends will be friends.
We have been showered with messages, deluged with cards and flooded with flowers. We ran out of vases quite early on – the latest bunch are perched precariously in a water jug.
We have almost drowned in casseroles, curries and chocolates. Hopefully the statins are keeping down the cholesterol levels. But yes, we find ourselves floating in pools of compassion and swimming in lakes of love.
A reminder of mortality
And my final stunning insight is that one day life will end. Yes, we all know that, why do you have to remind me?
But that day may be closer than we want to think it is. The part of my wife’s brain which was affected by the stroke is dead, and will never recover. By some miracle, the rest of her brain will assume the tasks of the deceased, like a colony of ants rebuilding their nest after an attack. But the dead part remains dead. She said that she always thought she would live into her eighties, now she is not so confident.
Mortality has tapped us on the shoulder and said “psst – remember me?”
My wife seems to have forgotten the deal we have that she is going to die after me, not before me. This has been a clear understanding based on our respective abilities to cope practically and emotionally in the light of the departure of the other. It have told her that would be very discourteous of her to break that agreement. I guess I need to write it down and add it to the will we haven’t yet written – some sort of a post-nuptial agreement.
In the school playground, we played a game where one of us would stand facing a wall. Another child, starting at a distance, would have to creep up behind without the first child hearing. The child looking at the wall had to listen carefully, and if he or she heard the creeper moving, spin round rapidly and point at them. If, at that precise time, the creeper was moving, the first child would win, if not she or he would lose.
We rarely see mortality arriving. It creeps up behind us whilst we are distracted, whilst we are looking at the wall. We cover our ears so as not to hear. But he is there, slowly creeping up behind us, as sure as anything in life. And we never know how close he is.
Live and love for today
All of which has been rather a helpful reminder about priorities. We don’t know how many years or days we have to live. Wednesday October 28th was going to be another normal day. Thankfully, we have made it to November 8th in good shape. One day at a time. As have you – if you got this far living and reading.
So let’s really love the ones we love – with tsunamis of care and deluges of love. And live for today – because today is all we know we have.