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Front Porch: How fear can change a day forever

Thu., May 5, 2011, midnight

It’s a few days before Mother’s Day, and I’m uneasy again.

If you are seeking some warm and fuzzy words about Mother’s Day and what a spiffy day it is, this isn’t the column for you. Although I’ve never actually done it, my inclination on Mother’s Day is to crawl under the covers, pull them over my head, and if I emerge intact the next day, well then, Mother’s Day will have been a success.

We mark the significant days in our lives, the good and the bad – weddings, birth of children, loss of loved ones, all of that. Every Sept. 11th, we remember the World Trade Center and worry about that kind of attack happening again.

If you’ve ever had cancer or a heart attack or other life-threatening event, you really can’t forget the day. And when it rolls around each year, you take mental note and maybe hold your breath a little. Your logical brain tells you there’s no reason that whatever happened will happen again on its anniversary; if it’s going to come again, it can come any time. Still, the day you first got hit becomes one of those anniversaries you always remember. And always fear.

That’s Mother’s Day for me. It was 20 years ago, on Mother’s Day 1991, that I had a stroke. I was in my 40s at the time, and this thing came out of nowhere. I did have some risk factors, but they were well managed. And for Pete’s sake, I was in my 40s! That’s really early in the stroke game.

I spent a week in the hospital, some of it in intensive care, a few weeks as an inpatient doing physical, occupational and recreational therapy, and many more weeks doing outpatient therapy. I had to learn to walk again, how to use my right hand again and everything else that goes along with stroke recovery. The good news was that I didn’t have any cognitive impairment and I was still alive.

But I was angry – not in the why-me sense, but at all the little things, like the frustration at losing my grip on a pen (I’m a little embarrassed now at how many pens I hurled at the wall followed by a colorful string of blue words) and at losing my balance when I’d forget my new reality and try to turn around too fast.

The stroke came just a few weeks before my oldest son was set to graduate from high school. Goodbye to any parties or celebrations of that significant event in his life. Instead of doing things with his friends, each day after school he would visit me in the hospital. “What do you say to your friends?” I asked. He gave me that deadpan look of his and said, “Oh, just that I’m visiting my mother in rehab.”

“Geez, Carl, do you think you could phrase it a little differently?” I asked. Again, the look. “Nope,” he said. He made me laugh.

My family rallied. I fought hard. I was able to return to work and live a life again – but a life forever altered. True, I got back a lot of physical function, and I’m pretty sure most people who meet me now can’t tell I’ve danced the stroke dance. I’ve learned to compensate for the things I haven’t gotten back. There are lingering physical issues that will be with me forever, and I can accept that (most of the time). I am grateful for what I do have.

But the fear is still there. If you’ve had one stroke, your chances of having another are much higher. I can handle physical impairment, I’m pretty sure, but I am terrified of losing my brain. It isn’t the stroke that kills me that I fear; it’s the stroke that half kills me.

I never thought I’d make it to 50 or 55 or 60. But this year I celebrated my 65th birthday, and I can’t express how delighted I am at every candle that appears on the cake. Wrinkles, achy knees, graying hair – bring it! It’s another year of experiencing living, of enjoying my family, my friends, my work, breathing.

Considering my history, I figure there’s likely a stroke out there with my name on it, but I hope it’s still a long way out. Learning to live without terror is the key thing – just as every cancer patient, heart attack survivor and others have to do.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can have a reasonably pleasant Mother’s Day now. It’s usually low key, and my family is good about that. Still, as Mother’s Day approaches, the big comforter on my bed calls to me.

Under it there is warmth, perceived safety, a place to hide.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached at upwindsailor@ comcast.net.


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