For the previous 48 Thanksgivings, I never really got it. My son was born on November 25, and I’m certainly thankful for that- his arrival turned my life around at a pivotal juncture and made me in part the man I am today. He provides me an endless source of pride and inspiration, and I wish him a happy birthday, a day early. But this Thanksgiving means something different to me, something deeper.
I had a stroke in the early morning of August 2nd. It caused me no physical pain, and none of the classic signs of stroke, other than my speech became jumbled. I spent a week in the hospital, and now after three months I have returned to work, so outwardly all is getting back to normal. And I guess it is, at least in the day to day mechanics of life. I awake at the same time, go to work and come home. Other than not really enjoying loud music, it’s almost as if the stroke never happened.
But inwardly, everything has changed. As the old saying goes, you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry. I have never been “cute”, and I tend to gain weight, so I never thought of myself as attractive and popular, but I knew that I was smart. Unschooled perhaps, but well-read and with a burning quest for knowledge. The stroke has changed that- I no longer trust my brain. I fumble when speaking, particularly at end of the day when I’m fatigued. Words do not come as easily as before, and my writing is not up to the level I was accustomed to. My doctor says within 6 months to a year I can regain 95% of my abilities. I say no. The brain reroutes itself in injury, steering blood away from the damaged parts, and learns new pathways for the things it needs to do. So I have set as my goal not 95%- but 100%. Or 150%. Why not take this event as a motivation to get smarter? I read more now, to overcome my problems with numbers I have become addicted to Sudoku. I do logic problems, crosswords, and other puzzles everyday, to keep my brain growing.
Until my stroke, I didn’t “get” Thanksgiving. Until I faced the prospect of not having life- or dealing with far more setbacks that I have so far- I never really looked at each day as the blessing it is. I’m alive, able to exist in the world pretty much as before, but now I see that in a more spiritual way. I am not religious, I don’t believe in deities, but I truly believe that something, somewhere, wanted me to live. It has enthused my life with a greater purpose. I look at my friends, small in number but large in heart, and I am thankful for them. I listen to music with even more appreciation than before, just at a lesser volume. I read stories of stroke victims, including the great My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, and find comfort at the shared experiences of others.
But the stroke, although it has robbed me of some aspects of life, it has given me a far greater gift than anything I am temporarily beset by. It has given me an appreciation of love. When I was in the hospital, a dear friend came to visit. I have known Wade Lowe my entire life, ever since he moved down the street when I was five. His son was one of my best friends in school, and Wade’s guitar shop, Diapason, sparked in me a life-long love of guitars. He arrived in my hospital room, a place he was familiar with considering his two heart attacks, and said that once I got back we would walk everyday. And so we have. I jokingly call him my personal trainer, but he’s far more than that. He is one of the happiest, most loving persons I have ever met. He seems to exist to, as his daughter remarked, “to do good things for people”. He has taken me under his wing many times in my life, far more than I would care to admit. I hope to replay the favor- and the love he has shown me- someday.
My wife Nancy and I are not “people persons”. She would rather draft ten emails than leave a voicemail, and other than friends and family, dislikes the phone. But she forgot all that when I was in need. She worked the phones tirelessly setting doctor visits, getting me setup for speech therapy, and a hundred other things. She finished my sentences when I couldn’t, and listened to my frustration when things got rough without complaint. She took my dietary restrictions as a challenge to her chefing abilities, never once letting it get the better of her. She has comforted me when I am stressed or fearful, listened to my woes, and truly made me know, finally, what a “partner” is. I truly feel I wouldn’t be here without her. This Thanksgiving, unlike years past, is only the two of us. And that’s alright with me. Because until this year, Thanksgiving was pretty much just an occasion to overindulge and eat Nancy’s stellar cooking. Not this year. Having been faced with the alternative, I look at life- and particularly life with her- as a blessing.
I finally get Thanksgiving. I hope you do too.