All great stories have a turning point, but unfortunately not all people get to live out great stories.
The story of my family and specifically the relationship with my dad was fortunate enough to have the turning point when he had his stroke. The clichéd near-death experience provided the also clichéd life re-evaluation that has changed the way my father relates with almost everyone around him.
First off, every stroke is different. Severity, location, and recovery are all individual and will be different for almost every situation. Our story may not be the same as yours, but I hope we can find common ground.
Our story begins on Christmas Eve of 2018, just weeks after my dad finally retired as age 69 after working in construction for 50 years.
As our family gathered for the evening after supper to open presents, my dad was put in charge of present distribution. He had devised a numbering system for the gifts with a legend that he kept instead of writing the actual names of the gift recipients on the package. Don’t ask why…it was just the way he did it. Wrapping gifts was one of the things he did around the holidays to help out, and if he was wrapping, then he could be in charge of how the wrapping and labeling process worked. And normally the system would have worked fine, but this year things took a turn.
As he picked up a gift, he started searching for the number that was on the gift so that he could match it with the legend and see whose gift it was. So he searched. Then searched. He couldn’t find the number.
Simple enough, the family assumes the unnecessarily complex labeling system is to blame, and the gift was mislabeled or unlabeled.
Meanwhile, my dad is getting more flustered. Everyone else (kids and grandkids…about a dozen in all) is getting slightly impatient and wanting to move on. This continued on for much longer than one might think is reasonable in hindsight.
Finally, my dad says that he can’t see, and that everything is blurry. Finally the adults in the room realized that something was wrong.
Collectively, we decide to promptly bring my dad to the Emergency Room. Getting him to the car in sub-zero temperatures on the icy sidewalk while he cannot see well had its challenges, but it happened nonetheless swiftly, and within a matter of minutes he was in the ER. A stroke was the seemingly obvious concern, which was shared with the medical staff at check-in.
The doctors eventually came to the same conclusion.
But they came to that conclusion about 24 hours later, after the damage had been done. There were fingers pointed at a misread CT scan, but whatever the cause, no interventions were made, and my dad’s life and the lives of those around him are forever changed because of it.
The Immediate Changes After the Stroke
The stroke changed my dad and the stroke changed the way those around my dad interact with him.
The physiological changes were immediate, easily identifiable for the most part, but unclear of their permanence. In general, the physiological changes are the easy ones to obsess over because they are so obvious and they seem like they may be remediable. The initial changes for us included some loss of memory, but most notably an inability to find the right words to express what my dad was thinking. Basic verbal communications of what he wanted, needed, and thought were very challenging. In a lot of ways it was challenging for those around him who wanted to help, but more so it was challenging and frustrating for my dad as he became upset mostly at himself for not being able to verbalize his needs. Names, words for everyday objects, and almost all communication (with the exception of cursing, which somehow seemed to stick) became very jumbled. We could tell that he still could process thoughts and emotions clearly and recognize and want to interact with visitors, but he couldn’t communicate with words because the words were no longer tied to the objects, people, and thoughts with which he interacted.
Growing up, my dad was never much of a communicator. But he never truly needed to be, either. As a Midwestern male, the norm was (and still is) to repress any feelings one had and to, under no circumstances, actually vocalize these feelings. Occasionally the feelings would come out, most often in the form of yelling or arguing or erupting in some fashion over issues that finally reached a point where they could no longer be pushed down, but then things would return to normal after everyone ‘got over’ whatever caused the eruption. No changes were made in response to the conflict, but we all just eventually moved on and forgot or forgave or most likely just ignored the real issues at play.
The norm was (and still is) to repress any feelings one had and to, under no circumstances, actually vocalize these feelings.
Now my dad was put in a position, for the first time in his life, where he would need to communicate clearly and regularly with those around him, and not only was he out of practice but also physiologically unable to do so.
There were other impacts of the stroke on his functioning, but he was able to retain most of his physical functioning. He got to walking and other physical therapy activities relatively quickly.
While not as clear as the change in his speech, the other most notable change that I observed was in his emotions. My mostly rigid father had become more sensitive and in touch and willing or wanting to share, or maybe just not being able to suppress, his feelings.
Coming to Equilibrium – A New Normal
One of the most amazing and at the same time somewhat depressing is the ability of humans to adapt. Within weeks of the stroke, my dad had not shown a lot of progress on his speech, and as a family we more or less adapted to what we thought was the ‘new normal.’ In some ways it felt as though this new development wasn’t much different from the way things were before. At times it was hard to remember my dad as somebody different from who we saw today. This helps, I guess, from a coping standpoint, but seems wrong in a way in that we are dismissing so much about who he was for the decades before the stroke.
Our new normal over the next several months consisted of an extended hospital stay followed by a long recovery time in a nursing home. We discussed on a weekly basis as a family when or if my dad would be able to return home, and what that might look like. If it were to happen, things would be different from what they were pre-stroke, but there was always this lingering desire for things to return to the closest version of the ‘old normal’ as possible.
My dad’s speech did improve. It was a long and a slow process, but with months of speech therapy, he has regained almost all of his pre-stroke ability to verbally communicate. He’s and she’s still get mixed up, and a few other quirks have stuck around, but everything else seems ‘normal.’
However, I’ve come to realize that this is not actually a return to the ‘old normal,’ but rather our adaptation to the new circumstances and a protective inability to remember what things truly used to be like. This is a good thing. And a scary thing. Most of all, this is a necessary thing to help us not dwell on what could have or should have been and instead move on with our new status quo.
The Danger in Adaptation
What is necessary and what is best aren’t always the same.
We have adapted so that life can move on without a constant fear of what could happen or a disappointment in what cannot happen. The need to move on without the fear of what might happen can go too far. It is easy and also natural to want to pretend that things are the same, and live with a ‘life goes on’ type mantra.
But some fear is good. Fear is the only thing reminding us of our mortality, and with a dad who has a growing collection of health warning signs, acknowledging his mortality may be the best thing for making more of his second chance. Fear may be the only thing to prevent a true return to the ‘old normal’ where we didn’t appreciate the father-child relationship and where communicating happened on a need-to-know basis instead of a want-to-know basis.
Fear of not getting to know my dad now stimulates conversations about his childhood and growing up in a different era and meeting my mom and what he did when traveling for work and places he visited and all of the other things that too many kids don’t get a chance to know about their parents.
Yes we have adapted to the change in our lives and are reverting back to fewer visits and fewer phone calls, but it cycles, and there still remains an underlying appreciation for mortality.
The Permanent Changes
Strokes change people, and the biggest changes may not be with just the one who had the stroke. Many people in our family suffered my dad’s stroke. It was a trauma. Was, not is.
Relationships have changed. My parent’s relationship changed. The stroke came at the very beginning of what would already have been a major life change of retirement and living under the same roof all day of every day. My parents always had an unofficial maximum time during which they could both be home before they would fight. After forty-plus years of working in a construction career that required weeks and months on job sites in faraway places, my parents learned how to function pretty independently. When my dad was home for extended periods of time with a job in town or a gap in employment, my parents’ marriage was strained. There must be some truth to the idea that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ or maybe that presence makes the heart a little bitter.
Now the extended time at home together has become the norm. There are still arguments, but anecdotally they are far fewer than anybody expected. Maybe I’m trying to make more of it than it is, but it’s almost as though they actually appreciate one another. I don’t doubt that this was always the case, but it was never visibly or audibly observable. There still aren’t affirmations of each other’s appreciation of the other, but there aren’t the proclamations in opposition of the idea, which is a (hopefully) permanent change worth noting.
Lastly, my own relationship with my dad has changed.
My relationship with my dad was like that of countless other older Midwestern millennial males. We had a functional relationship that was mostly absent of any emotion. My father supported our family, he was at almost every sporting event that I participated in, we ate dinners together and spent holidays together, but we didn’t interact too much beyond that. We didn’t spend time together outside of when the entire family was together. We didn’t go on hikes together or talk about my school days or his work days.
Most of that has changed, some of it as I grew into adulthood and had my own children, but most of it sadly not until my dad had a stroke.
My dad can’t support the family in the same way that he was accustomed to doing so, but he is more able to support our family in small ways that were previously foreign to us. The most notable change on his end is that he talks to us. He initiates discussions. Most of the time the discussions are typical small-talk, but there is also no filter on his opinions or his feelings so the conversations can lead much deeper than just the weather or a new building that is being built in town. It turns out that communication really does make a huge difference in relationships, even if the communication doesn’t seem like anything dramatic. It’s a crazy concept for those who grew up without it.
The most notable change in our overall relationship, though, has nothing to do with the physiological after-effects of my dad’s stroke. The biggest change that came from living with a new dad after a stroke is how my long-delayed appreciation for what my dad means to me finally sprouted. I text my dad regularly. We call each other occasionally, which never was a thing before. I got to regularly visit my dad, and made it a priority during his recovery process, and I recognize that letting things slip back to their status quo of holiday visits would be a regrettable mistake. I am excited when my dad gets to stay with us for a while and I enjoy watching the way he interacts with his grand-kids and how they interact with him.
A year after experiencing the stroke that we were all sure would be a traumatic change for the worse, we have all changed, and living with a new dad and living as a new son have been changes that required some getting used to, but are now changes I’m glad came about even if they weren’t under the best of circumstances.