This photo was taken in May of 2012 the day we brought Lucy home from the breeder to her new, forever home. My mother had made the trip to Philly and back with me that day and looking at this photo always brings back a flood of memories from the past several years. In May of 2011 my mom suffered a massive stroke; below is an essay I wrote for the National Stroke Association’s website just several months after her stroke.
Struggling to Find the Words
“I love you.”
Those words, spoken by my mother, have never meant more to me than they do today. The reason? A massive stroke that left my mom struggling to speak.
With a career in college athletics, “free” weekends aren’t exactly in my vocabulary. So when I got a phone call from my dad on a sunny Saturday afternoon, April 30, 2011 to be exact, I was in the middle of working a lacrosse doubleheader. His phone call happened to come at halftime and I figured he was just calling to say hello, so I picked up.
Turns out, he wasn’t calling to catch up.
“Katie, your mother had a massive stroke early this morning.”
I know when some people get traumatic news, they remember nothing. I remember everything. Where I was standing—in the middle of the field while the teams warmed up around me. What I said—“no, she didn’t.”
I remember wandering aimlessly around the field while my dad filled in the details: my mom had suffered a stroke in the early morning hours but no one knew until she failed to wake up the next morning. She had been suffering from a bad cold so when my dad woke up, he left her sleeping. He eventually got concerned that she was sleeping so late so he went to check on her. That’s when he found her lying on the ground beside the bed, a large cut on her face from a fall out of bed, and unresponsive.
I told my dad I’d get home as soon as I could. In fact, I was ready to jump in my car right then and drive home to my parents’ house in New Jersey. And then I remembered I was stuck at work.
I had to pull myself together long enough to finish the first game and find someone to replace me for the second game. Somehow, and this is where things got blurry, I found workers to fill in. I called my boyfriend, whom I also work with and who also was at his own athletic event hours away to fill him in.
I’ll never forget that his first words were to ask if I wanted him to come home and drive with me to New Jersey. That nearly did me in, especially since we had only been dating a few months, but I held back the tears and told him I’d be fine and would call him later.
As I walked off the field to head home to quickly throw together a bag of clothes, the tears started and didn’t stop for the entire two-and-a-half-hour drive home, which has never, ever felt longer.
My brother met me at home and together we drove to the ICU. We found my mother’s room and that’s when I felt the worst kind of pain I’d ever felt. My mother, my best friend, was pale as a sheet, lying on the hospital bed with a neck brace strapped on, tubes helping her breathe, IVs covering her arms, machines insistently beeping and a large, red scrape across her right cheek.
All I remember is absolutely breaking down. I’ve never cried that hard in my life. Looking back on it, I wish I’d been able to handle that scene better, but crying was the only reaction I had.
When I was younger, I’d sometimes felt embarrassed that I considered my mother my best friend, but ultimately I know I’m lucky. Before her stroke, we talked nearly every day starting the day I went away to college and as recently as the day before she had the stroke. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her, nothing about which I couldn’t ask for her advice. We could spend afternoons talking, shopping or doing nothing at all. I considered going home to New Jersey to spend a week with my parents my yearly vacation because I am genuinely at my happiest there; that’s where I am “me.”
So, my biggest fear immediately after the stroke wasn’t that my mom might be physically impaired or that she would have a long road of recovery ahead of her (that part was a given). It was that she might never remember me and what I am to her. And for a while I convinced myself, pessimist that I am, that she wouldn’t. During those days in the ICU, and even after she was moved to a regular room, she couldn’t speak, was barely awake for more than a few minutes at a time and could not give any indication she was aware of her surroundings and who was in her room.
The improvements were so gradual they were easy to miss, but my mom started to stay awake for longer stretches and began trying to get sounds out. Eventually she was moved to a rehab clinic for inpatient therapy—physical, occupational and speech.
She learned to walk again and to use her left hand to better compensate for the damage done to her right arm and hand. But speech was the slowest to improve; she so badly wanted to talk but just could not get the words out.
Several months after the stroke, she was home from rehab and back at my childhood house taking her daily walks, making herself meals and visiting with friends at our house. But none of that meant as much to me as when she finally uttered “I love you” one night during a call home. It was so unexpected I found myself sobbing yet again (something that had become a trend over the past months).
It’s not still easy for me to comprehend what happened. Nights are the worst for me. Partly because I can’t shut down my brain and partly because I can’t help but wonder if my mom knew she was having a stroke that night but couldn’t do anything about it.
But every day she keeps at it, keeps trying to put more and more words together and I could not be prouder of her, something that as a daughter I never thought I’d feel. Speech still doesn’t come easy to her and chances are it never will. A full-fledged conversation may never happen; it’s all a waiting game. But the one thing I hoped for most came true—she remembered me and remembered what I meant to her and what she means to me.
I love you too, Mommy.
Today, my mother still cannot hold a conversation. Yes, she can get words out but lengthy conversations aren’t feasible and it’s not always possible to pick up on her train of thought. Her writing also lacks the ability to put coherent sentences together which is incredibly frustrating for her. She knows what she wants to say or write but cannot say or write the words the way they are in her head.
I realize this is a bulldog blog but my mother’s stroke forever changed our family. What it didn’t change, though, was my closeness with my mom. There was no one else I would have wanted to make that trip to Philly with me to bring Lucy home and there’s no one else I’d rather leave my dogs with than my mom. She lights up around my dogs (both Lucy and foster doggies!) and truly loves having them around. Every time I call home she always asks about the dogs and puts up with me when I show her an unending stream of doggie pictures.
Not sure where this post was going other than to say that the photos of Lucy and my mom always bring a smile to face, something that hasn’t been easy for the past couple of years.