Friend of a Survivor
Friend of a Survivor
A personal perspective as a close friend shares the recovery journey of a long married couple who find resilience and humor can be as fortifying as good nutrtion and vitamins.
When Margaret's husband, Earl, had his stroke, it changed his life and the lives of more people than we all first imagined. Of course it affected our Maggie; what would she do? Her kids were in Chicago and Indiana; so their grandkids only saw him twice a year on vacations. That wouldn't happen for a long time now. But no more coffee club at Helene's for Margaret. We didn't believe in book clubs. None of us retired teachers wanted to read another book like it was homework. We read enough on our own. Besides talking over coffee about our kids, their kids, and their 'issues' as they called them, was far more interesting and entertaining than any book on the bestseller list. Now Mags was stuck with taking care of Earl.
Oh sure, her daughter, Sherry helped. Sherry was the sterling daughter, always had been. In high school, Sherry had been in Honor Society, Young Nurses Club, and she had a part-time job at Franco's Pizza. She never got in trouble and wasn't one of those fast girls that got out of Catholic Academy and went wild in high school without all the nuns' rules echoing down the halls. One of the more worn-out mothers in our group at the time confided over a second glass of wine that she wished just once Margaret would get some grief from Sherry. It never happened. Now that we were all grandmothers, we beamed with expectant pride knowing Sherry would do the right thing by her mom and dad. So Sherry went over to the house, did the grocery shopping when Margaret was at the hospital and also visited her dad when he went to rehab.
But to be with Earl 24/7; that was the challenge. Earl was a known curmudgeon and proud of it.
Much as Earl drove all of us nuts, we had to admit the biggest and saddest change, of course, was with Earl himself. No more singing Irish songs and jumping up and dancing at the community potluck dinners. His brain cells were on strike and not sending any mental commands to move, tap his foot, to talk and "raise just one more point, if I may." No more card games at the VFW. His hands shook and his mind was blank as he stared at the meaningless squiggles on the cards that the activity volunteer said were numbers. No more reliving the foibles of his past, and debating political candidates at every pre-primary luncheon and enumerating just what was wrong with this country. Earl always had an opinion and never hesitated to share it with others. That his opinion was laced with negativity and narrow-mindedness was no deterrent to him.
Now not only were there no more political discussions, "ranting" Margaret called it, there were no more trips to the VFW. With the stroke Earl lost his balance, his mobility, his ability to make snap and concrete decision and so, lost his license.
Rehab and Physical Therapy three times a week helped wake up some of those brain cells that controlled locomotion. They gradually went back to work and started to send feeble messages to his muscles to shuffle his feet, raise his arms, and release his anger in words. At first the words did not make sense but the tone shouted rage at what had happened to him. For over two months he was bedridden and depressed.
His depression showed itself in anger and bitterness. He cursed at the nurses; he told Margaret he had nothing to live for. This, after she drove over to the hospital on a snowy night with Eskimo Pie, expressly forbidden by the doctor. But he had wanted it; so Margaret went out and got it. Don't think Margaret was a doormat. She took the bag of forbidden Eskimo Pie back very firmly and graciously and turned to leave. "I guess I can find someone at the nurse's station who will force themselves to eat this Eskimo Pie. Don't go away, Earl. I'll be right back." Margaret could deliver a reality check with style.
"No. Wait. Guess I eat."
"To think your life could be given meaning by a frozen snack." She paused at the door with the bag raised in her hand.
"Ah, Mags. Give me. Damn ice cream."
She walked back into the room, put the bag down still out of reach. "Be nice to me, E. I am the best deal in town. Don't you forget it." She put the bag on the tray table. As he took it, his hand lingered on hers.
Earl gradually reconciled to relearning all the basics of dressing himself, going to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, but not without challenging the inexperienced physical therapists with his moods. He was positively triumphant one day beaming as Margaret walked into his room.
"By golly, beat my record today," he said slapping his unaffected hand on the arm of the wheelchair. "Made little Serena cry in two minutes flat." Soon only the old guard nurses and therapists were sent to his room to reteach him to eat and walk again.
"Don't mess with me, you old coot," Betty the Battleaxe would say, "I'm stronger than you and I hold the key to the bathroom." She could fight fire with fire. "Besides, I know deep down you're just an old bear."
Somewhere in the 5th week when he started moving his right leg on his own and could bend his right arm enough to feed himself, something else happened. This dour Irish man became an almost childlike and grateful 75-year-old. He smiled at Betty. He patted Serena's hand when she gave him his meds.
When he got home, Margaret realized she needed to develop a bit of her own Betty Battleaxe attitude too. Yes, her husband of 55 years had discovered his inner child, but he was still demanding. "Mags, my love, I know you're busy, but could you put new batteries in the remote?" "Maggie, me darlin' what I wouldn't give for some of your homemade apple pie."
By the eighth week when Margaret was about ready to pack her bags and move out, Earl got the medical clearance to go out for walks. The VFW was too far to walk. But the mall, ah the mall, was only a ten-minute drive.
"Just what I want to do," she told us at a stolen coffee meeting. "Look at clothes for size 0 women in store windows and hear screechy music wafting out of the over-perfumed air from the boutiques."
It turned out the local mall walkers club was a sanity saving possibility. The main mall doors were unlocked at 7AM expressly for The Club, as the insiders called themselves, before any stores opened or shoppers or hooky-playing teenagers began their daily pilgrimage. It was clean, level, and air-conditioned. For seniors and those in rehab programs, it was safe terrain. A final bonus, the sponsoring hospital had a deal with Starbucks and Cinnabon--half price on the first round of coffee and buns.
"Margaret, let's go down there," Earl cajoled. "We can walk. I can get my coffee. Bert Hobart (a fellow VFWer and unabashed curmudgeon) goes every Tuesday and Friday." Margaret was not moved by this talk of rehabilitative care. Earl upped the ante. "I can walk and talk over old times with Bert and you can shop...I hear there's one of those scrapbooking stores there." Now Margaret was a scrapbooking addict, with dedicated scrapbooks for each grandchild, their birth years, then school histories, and a scrapbook of each of the twice-yearly trips to Chicago and Indiana. And so the deal was sealed. Once around the mall in and out of every nook and cranny was a mile. Margaret met Sherry at the Food Court or shopped and signed up for the scrapbooking workshops. Earl and Bert joined up in The Club and proudly wore their mall walkers tags around their necks not only at the mall but at Safeway, Home Depot, and yes, even to church. They walked, thrashing their way around the sofas, fountains and kiosks. First it was painfully slow with their walkers festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons and VFW patches. They graduated to the three-pronged canes, and finally they were on their own. They may have lost some physical strength with their strokes but they lost none of their competitiveness.
Soon Earl and Bert were in the 100 Miler Club, determined to log 100 miles in the mall. "These youngsters (the 40 and 50 year olds) think they're hot stuff. We'll show them." They were not above nudging slower walkers who did not heed their advance warning. "On your right. On your right. Madmen coming through." The only time the Curmudgeon Duo slowed down was to observe the younger female walkers in their Adidas walking shoes and Lycra spandex capri pink pants with matching hot pink tops.
Earl regained an interest in life. He asked about the grandkids. He watched the news and ranted at the news commentators in his weakened stroke-affected voice. He regained an interest in physical fitness and the human anatomy, especially that of women. When Bert went to Montreal to visit his daughter, Margaret got her own Mall Walker's Club tag and decided to join Earl in the walking. That's when she found out about this anatomy interest. She realized she had to steer Earl clear of the young women. He looked; he appreciated; and if he could, he reached out and touched. More than one young thing steered clear of Earl but occasionally he hit home--right on the buttocks.
Margaret told this to Sherry over coffee while Earl wandered the food court after one of their Friday walks. "He'd be out with a pinch in the blink of an eye," she said. "It got so I had him hold the card keys in one hand. I held his other hand. Why just this morning two lovelies went by and gave us a glance. 'Don't drop the keys,' I said to Earl and tightened my grip on his other hand."
"How sweet," said one of the lovelies. "That old couple is holding hands while they walk."
"Oh dearie, I thought" said Margaret, "If you only knew why."