One Year Out

The thing about anniversaries is that some anniversaries are really good and celebratory and involve cake and stuff and some anniversaries are bad and make your heart hurt and your stomach fall and encourage you to crawl under the covers for the entirety of the day. Yesterday’s anniversary was the latter. It has been one year since Bob suffered a stroke.

A few months ago, Bob was formally released by his neurologist with the instruction to please, don’t come back. I believe the doctor’s parting words to Bob were, “You were very, very lucky.” Out of the host of physicians caring for Bob, his brain specialist was probably my favorite. Also, his work was the most critical of any of the doctors those first few days. Bob’s neurologist was handed the tricky task of finding the right level of intravenous blood thinner to administer. The blood thinner was meant to thin Bob’s blood just enough to ease flow while reducing the risk of additional clots forming but the medication couldn’t thin it too much or Bob risked bleeding in his brain at the site of the four existing clots. I remember talking to the neurologist in the ICU and him admitting that it was all a risk versus reward equation. The risk of a brain bleed with the reward of preventing clots. It was a fine line and there were no guarantees. Can you IMAGINE having that job? Being responsible for making the call in such a dicey situation? I can’t, but am exceedingly grateful for people gifted with that level of confidence.

I think I’ve worked to bury some of the more stressful memories of that first stint in the hospital, like the possibility of permanent brain damage. But, that’s the thing about anniversaries. The forgotten details tend to bubble to the surface.

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For someone who suffered a stroke twelve months ago, Bob’s recovery has been remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that we’ve mostly moved past the daily impact his illness had on our lives. For the better part of a year, I’ve asked him several times a day, “How are you feeling?” But, I’ve noticed over the past month or so, that I’ve stopped asking. That’s a tidal shift for me – moving from the assumption that Bob is unwell to the assumption that he is well, unless otherwise informed.

The most lasting impact of Bob’s stroke has been his lingering physical exhaustion. It’s closely tied to the level of chaos and stress surrounding him at home. The part of his brain that was injured seems to be the part that deftly handles noise and mayhem, the type three young children tend to create. Weekends can be exhausting for Bob with the general insanity level of our home, leading to the need to rest at regular intervals. Recently, we ate dinner with dear friends and by the time we arrived at their house, Bob had been subjected to a full day of kids and their incessant demands with no respite. He was mentally taxed and retreated to our host’s basement after we arrived to nap for a bit. (Our friends are awesome and totally understanding and probably wished they could nap at random, too.)

However, even the physical exhaustion seems to be improving recently. One year later and Bob seems to be back running at 100 percent. Well, back to Bob’s version of 100 percent anyway.

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I’m not upset or mad that Bob suffered a stroke. It’s just something that happened to us. I started to move forward almost from the moment it occurred. My goal was to make Bob well, to enact improvement and progress. For everything to be better. To SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. I learned a few lessons along the way, too.

The first being that medical science is inexact. Throughout the past twelve months, I have been consistently surprised at the amount of just… guesswork that goes in to treating sick people. Before Bob’s stroke, I just assumed that, when diagnosed with a problem, for the most part, doctors knew pretty much how to treat that problem. Modern medicine isn’t really like that. There’s still a significant amount of surmising, speculating and theorizing. That’s not a bad thing. It was just unexpected to run into so much shoulder shrugging from so many people with so many advanced degrees. I mistakenly thought doctors had all of the answers. I learned this past year that they don’t, no matter how badly you wish they did.

I also learned that nurses are basically unheralded. We saw nurses more than anyone else during Bob’s hospital stays and almost without exception, they were kind and compassionate. They shared advice and reassurances and anecdotes and survival stories and ensured we had a single room and were just generally really amazing. I ran into Bob’s discharge nurse at Target several months later and although she didn’t remember me when I approached her with words of thanks, she still asked if she could give me a big hug and sent her best wishes to Bob.

This past year proved that while almost everyone knows what to do to help in a crisis, almost no one knows exactly what to say in a crisis. They will undoubtedly say the wrong thing a good percentage of the time. It is inevitable and we should probably accept this as a universal truth and cut everyone some slack. It’s hard to find the right words when someone is suffering and sick. Some people will offer standard platitudes of “everything happens for a reason.” Some people prefer denial and will tell you that “he doesn’t even look sick at all!” Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of… finiteness and will change the subject entirely. Some people don’t know what to say so they won’t say anything at all. This is all okay. Really. WITH ONE EXCEPTION. We need to all agree to ban the practice of telling a sick person a story about this other sick person that they know from work or their cousin’s wedding or their mom’s book club that had a stroke too – “JUST LIKE YOU!” – and was incapacitated for life because of it. Tales of death and despair told to someone facing death and despair is never helpful. We need to work together to knock this off.

While I may have been downtempo and reflective during yesterday’s anniversary, I don’t think Bob was. We didn’t talk about it much actually. He spent the day cleaning up flower beds, giving Cub Cadet rides to the kids and practicing marksmanship with Charlie. Maybe that was Bob’s way of commemorating such a transformative day.

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May happens to also be American Stroke Month. HOW CONVENIENT, people who decide these types of things. Also, I kind of feel like it should be called, “American Stroke Prevention Month,” people who name these types of things. American Stroke Month sounds a little too glamorous. Kind of like something you’d like to catch. Anyway, I had no idea what was happening to Bob the evening he suffered a stroke and described his condition to the 911 operator as a “cardiac event,” since I assumed something in his recovery from the cardiac procedure he had had the day before was causing his problems. She knew better from my description of Bob’s symptoms so the EMTs that responded were therefore ready to treat a stroke victim. Remembering the “FAST” acronym is easy and identifying even MILD symptoms early on can make a huge difference in treatment success.

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So, maybe cut this out and paste it to your fridge or something. Do it for Bob and stroke survivors everywhere.

Dissonance

One of the few times Bob and I really seem to notice our age difference is when we discuss music. Bob’s musical tastes seem to have peaked around 1978 and have remained there for decades. When we were first dating, he used to play Jim Croce and the Eagles and vintage Billy Joel (not the River of Dreams Billy Joel from MY youth). I’m not arguing for music superiority since I listened to Vanilla Ice, Wilson Phillips and Bell Biv Devoe in high school and certain Celine Dion songs can still make me cry. So, it’s not that. It’s just that we basically have a complete disconnect on what we each like to listen to.

To remedy this, for Christmas, I gave Bob a new iPod. This way, he I could download his old person music to his own device and he could play it at his leisure. The very first thing he asked me to download to his iPod was Wings Greatest, a compilation of greatest hits from some band called Wings.

“Sure, whatever, there you go,” I said, as I handed him back the iPod.

I proceeded to watch Bob air guitar and air drum for the next two hours while quietly karaoking to Wings. It was like he had been given 1978 back. He kept trying to hand me an earbud so I could share in the glory that is Wings but I declined.

What I didn’t realize is that all of our Apple products are awesome and smart and advanced and are synced so our iPod and our iPhone and our MacBook all talk to each other all of the time and they were all sharing Wings’ playlist. I discovered this when I plugged my iPhone into our speaker docking station and it started blaring some ancient Paul McCartney/Wings collaboration.

Now, I’m pretty sure there’s a way to create different albums for different users on our different devices but I haven’t had the time to figure all of this out in iTunes. I am easily overwhelmed by technology and also very lazy and I have three kids and so I just hit “Shuffle” when I play my music library.

Also suspicious is that whatever algorithm used by iTunes when you hit shuffle seems to favor Bob because my phone plays an inordinate amount of Wings Greatest (sometimes one song right after another) when it’s supposed to be “shuffling” through Dave Matthews or Katy Perry or Pearl Jam. (Also, despite an extensive music library, the algorithm also plays that one Ho Hey song and the Frozen ballad over and over again until my ears bleed.)

The shuffle feature must be broken. Or, Wings is playing a joke on me.

Here’s what we’ve been listening to lately. (Well, everyone but Bob. Bob is still listening to Wings.):

I hear this song and pretend my deck isn’t coated in ice. Joshua Radin, ft. Sheryl Crow, Beautiful Day

We listen to this song when we’re having a rough day and I can feel the frustrations mounting in my brain. The kids and I turn this up really loud and jump around the kitchen while the floor shakes. It works out the issues. Also, this would make an excellent addition to an exercise mix. (If one knows how to do that sort of thing.) Bleachers, I Wanna Get Better

I listen to this song and think of Millie. It’s about a brave woman. Esmé Patterson, Bluebird

When I had to have my laptop serviced, the Apple guy made sure all systems were working before I walked away from the Genius Bar. He pulled up iTunes and played this song and I was kind of embarrassed and I’m pretty sure he was judging me because he looked like his musical tastes were much cooler than Carly Simon and then I awkwardly explained how great the movie Heartburn was but he was twelve so he didn’t really GET IT. Carly Simon, Coming Around Again

Are you listening to anything good lately? And, don’t say, “Wings.”

Rhymes With Nifty Hive

My relationship with Bob began at a dinner held in his honor. In December of 2002, I had been working for Bob for only a few months and while we were professional at the office, our affection for one another was becoming clear. He was celebrating his 43rd birthday and asked if I would join him and a small group of friends at a restaurant in Old Town. I didn’t want to meet his friends for the first time without backup so I begged my best friend and her husband to come along, too.

I remember being nervous that night. I also remember laughing a lot. Having a fun, flirtatious time. It was a birthday but also a beginning. Bob often points to that birthday, that night, as the start of it all. His birthday wish granted.

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Three years and one wedding later, just ten days after he turned 46 years old, I gave Bob what could arguably be described as the best birthday present ever, a brand new baby.

We spent the days surrounding Bob’s birthday and Henry’s arrival, over Christmas of 2005, assembling the crib, giving our Shetland Sheepdog extra attention and hypothesizing over whether we were having a girl or a boy. We had decided against putting up a Christmas tree that year because we knew we would have our hands full both before and after the holidays but our friends wouldn’t have it. They delivered a freshly cut tree in the back of their pickup truck with one of them dressed as Santa.

I used to make fancy pressed coffee for us on weekend afternoons and I can remember sitting around in our tiny house, sipping coffee and appreciating the scent of the huge Christmas tree that took up half the real estate in our living room. This was the last of Bob’s birthdays that we would spend as a party of two.

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A few years later and with the addition of one baby Charlie, Bob’s 50th birthday looked very different. The entire Washington metro area was in the midst of a massive snow storm and I had waited in line for over an hour at the grocery store, with hundreds of other panicked shoppers, to buy ingredients for his special dinner.

I had purchased a new flat-screen television for Bob in honor of his birthday but had stashed it in our neighbor’s basement weeks before to keep it a surprise. The streets were covered in a few feet of snow so navigating the large, heavy box back to our house in secret proved challenging. My former neighbor and I still laugh about the two of us walking down our Del Ray street, in the dark of evening, with a huge TV box awkwardly hoisted between us. We looked like we were taking advantage of the bad weather to loot.

Bob spent his 50th birthday shoveling snow with Henry and napping with Charlie. On the sofa. In front of his new TV.

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Millie arrived in time for Bob’s 52nd birthday; such a bundle of joy. We were still reeling from the addition of a third child – a girl! – when we celebrated.

I gifted Bob with a painting for his birthday that year. I handed my father a photograph of a particularly wonderful moment during a particularly wonderful weekend Bob and I had spent with the boys earlier in the spring and my dad recreated it on canvas. It is precious.

We put our house on the market only a couple of weeks after Bob’s birthday so I remember this time being especially hectic with punch lists and things to do. I don’t believe we even hung the painting until we were relocated to Richmond.

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Tomorrow, Bob turns 55. I’m not sure what he thought 55 would look like way back in 2002, when we were making googly eyes at one another across the table at the Union Street Public House, but I’m pretty sure neither of us envisioned this.

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This birthday will probably be a lot like every other birthday Bob’s had since we’ve been together. Much the same but also different. This year, my parents will be here to help celebrate. I will make a favorite dinner for Bob and present him with baked goods and a present and try my hardest to make his big day, only five days before Christmas, a special one.

A special day for a very special man. Happy birthday, my love.