What A Stroke Taught Me About Living And Dying (but mostly living)
A friend asked me a question the other day; she said “Other than having your kids, what was the best thing you ever did?” And then she quickly followed up with “And your worst thing that ever happened to you, what was that?”. Wow, obviously.
I imagined this would need careful consideration (she was a potential date and this felt an awful lot like an interview for the role of male suitor to me) but the answer came quickly and without exception or caveat.
My best thing ever other than having my kids? Having a stroke when I was thirty one years old.
My worst thing ever? Having a stroke when I was thirty one years old.
Lots of things have come close to both of these, everything from love to heartbreak, wellness and illness, adventure and loss; I’ve swum and sunk a little through them all, but if there was any one single event that could grab both titles with both hands and confidently walk off into the sunset, never looking back, confident that it will never be surpassed as the best and the worst of everything, it was that damned, blessed stroke.
I’m not going to bore you with the detailed medical story, that was never the point, that was just the necessary process. I want you to know why I loved it and hated it so passionately. But here’s how it happened.
What it feels like to have a stroke (really weird)
My ex-wife had got up and gone to work and I was still thinking about getting my ass out of bed ready to get my eldest up and ready for nursery, he was only three at the time, still kinda needy; takes after his dad.
I got up, stood in front of the mirror and became quickly aware that there was two of me looking back. Odd. I tried to rub the anomaly from eyes but it wasn’t shifting. Then came the dizziness. And it kept on coming. I got back on the bed feeling pretty weird. ‘wow, so this is vertigo’ I remember thinking. Then it really took off, it felt like you’d imagine downing three bottles of vodka to feel. The world was spinning to such an extent that I had to cling tightly to the bed post for fear of falling off the edge of the world. I went from freaked out to terrified in an instant. Not because of the awful, physical sensation but because of the single thought that pirouetted into my head; “I’m going to die now and my three year old son is going to find his dad, dead. And he’s going to have to wait with me, gone, until somebody else finds us”. I cried for fear of that. And then it all dissipated enough that I could make out the buttons on my phone enough to make a call to a local friend.
Just for context, it turned out (after a year of not knowing how or why it had happened) I had a small hole in my heart that lead to a small clot forming between the two chambers of my heart. They eventually figured this out and shoved a tiny metal umbrella up through the arteries from my groin and into my heart, opening it out and sealing the blighter. Problem solved. I am now officially a cyborg. Aside from feeling sick, slightly tingly down one side and enormously flustered to the max the only residual scaring was a small twitch in the little finger on my left hand, nothing more than slightly annoying and making certain ukulele chords a bit of a bitch.
Not all scars are obvious
Except that wasn’t the only scar. For the next few years I found it extremely difficult to be left alone with my children (even when number two came along 4 years later). I was terrified of dying and leaving them to find me. At home, in the car, out and about. It was always there; a full cloud always threatening to burst. It made it hard to be present, and it caused a boat load of anxiety. For everyone. I even had a plan with my ex girlfriend (Yeah I know, a lot of ex’s lately – turns out not everyone likes weird geeks – who knew?) that if I should die in the night, she had to make sure I was wearing pants and that she got the kids up and out of the house. Imagine that! Now stop imagining it.
It felt as though at any given moment a powerful unseen force might come along and snatch the air from my lungs and switch my heart to off. Next to that, a slightly twitchy pinky finger was hardly a chore.
I tend toward the optimistic naturally and I eventually found my way past that line of thinking (gratitude, healthy living, gratitude, meditation. gratitude, journaling, gratitude, writing and gratitude), but it’s still there, lurking in the long grass whispering “one day my friend, one day…’.
I guess we all hear that whisper every so often, not always about the same things but that gentle reminder that nothing is permanent; everything changes. Nothing in the history of the universe ever has or ever will be made permanent so us weener sized carbon based life forms have got zero chance at immortality. It’s really not about the time.
Lady Luck is a freaky mistress
Life is far more complicated than can be summed up in that old cliche “life is short” Life is life. More accurately; YOUR life is YOUR life. It could be another sixty years or it could be another ten minutes. The how long is irrelevant, only the how good. My best guess right now is that you have roughly 75% control over that timespan, if we’re talking healthy living verses being a berk. Luck, family history and how your genes express themselves (German engineers or Pollock) make up the other 25%. So you have a huge say in how long and how fit for purpose during that time. But lady luck and her wheel of fortune sit overhead like Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans, spinning the heck out of that random tool and pointing it at us all. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It is what it is.
Why I’m grateful I had a stroke
If I hadn’t had a stroke I would not be as acutely aware of how precious everything is. Not just the flowers and the oceans and the mountains and all that stuff, but the things I have. The people and the experiences I share with them. I’m no longer afraid of leaving my kids, I’m too busy being grateful that I have kids. I no longer worry about what lady luck throws at me because I’m maxing out my 75% control, I’m doing what I can. If I can’t do anything about it, then it’s not worth a thought. I know more about life; how to live it, how to enjoy it and exactly what parts of it make me happiest (and which to avoid) than I could ever have hoped for had I continued to move obliviously through life, stroke free and unaware of what hands can be dealt in a heartbeat. The tattoo on my pinky is a reminder of that (if I’m not sure which way to go, it’s always the heart. The two little dots are my boys).
I hated that stroke but I love it too. Thanks stroke, I have more now and I know what to do with it.
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