‘Of all people who suffer from a stroke. About a third are likely to die within the first 10 days. About a third are likely to make a recovery within one month. About a third are likely to be left disabled and needing rehabilitation.’ The Stroke Association 2011.
It’s still admittedly early days, but to our and the stroke team staff’s collective incredulity, it’s looking increasingly likely that dad will predominately, if not entirely, inhabit that middle third category.
I’ve often had my doubts as to the complexity of my dad’s brain. But now, thanks to recent events, I think we’ve finally had it confirmed beyond any lingering doubt: it’s quite a simple one. I mean, to have made such extraordinary progress from where we were barely a week ago, clearly there’s not a lot in there to go wrong, eh?
So, today you get him in his own words, from the journal [below] I tactfully gave him for Xmas. My dad’s never been much of a writer. And he’s certainly never [to my knowledge] had a journal. So this is all new territory. All part of my subconscious feeling that was the catalyst for this documentary, all the psychological tooling up for what seemed like the challenge of his life.
You also get to subtly witness another aspect of my dad here. We’ve been through a great deal together in our time – notably after being cast adrift when my mother suddenly left home when I was 12-years-old [taking my then not-quite 2-year-old sister with her]. I’d find it difficult to adequately express how much his support through the baffling teenage years meant to me, but it’s also no great surprise, here, to witness his somewhat perfunctory prose. He’s a genuinely lovely man, but emotion and feeling would often require an electron microscope to locate. Maybe the journal will find them?
Update: [Day 11] I’ve just put the phone down to my step-mum, effusively telling me that in front of the disbelieving consultant/stroke team on rounds this morning; dad got out of bed, walked to the kitchen, made himself a cup of tea, drunk it, then walked back to bed. : )
My friend Amy wrote the other day: Life matters. Dignity matters. Love matters. And if Xmas encapsulated anything, in all its strangeness this year, it was how they all came together with the spirit of hope.
Dad has continued the gentle upward curve over the Xmas period: his mind becoming increasingly clearer; his appetite slowly returning; once hoisted out of the bed he can now stand for short periods; and I’ve quite warmed to the steely determination he’s begun to adopt with the more stubborn left hand – attempting to crush mine in our newly adopted handshake. An auspicious thumbs up on the progress, so far, then.
Oh, and I won this year’s traditional, familial Xmas Day arm wrestling competition. Albeit the winning of the coin toss arguably proved important. Best of three, alternate arms, I won the toss so chose to start on the left for a 2-1 win. Result! : )
As the rewiring continues, the daytime dreamlike hallucinations are apparently curiously entertaining. Birds flying in through the window and sitting on the bed opposite. Dogs casually wandering down the ward. Random faces appearing in the curtains. And the fixtures and fittings occasionally swirling around in elaborate dance formations. I’ve been there when this happens. He’s perfectly awake and lucid, describing the scene as if its inexplicable that I can’t see it, too. And yet, as soon as he closes his eyes, opening them again wipes the hallucination away like a real life Etch-a-Sketch. The strangeness and charm of stroke recovery.
“Reaching out for a hand that we
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that’s holding me”
– Guided By Voices
It was early evening before I managed to get in to visit and my footsteps quite literally echoed down the corridor leading into the ward. There were no other visitors, a skeleton staff and a swathe of empty beds; everyone who could be home for Xmas, long gone. An eerie calm now drifting through the normally animated and industrious air.
Dad greets me with a slightly weary smile and “I’ve not had such a good day today.” He says this without a trace of either humour or irony…
Thirty minutes in his company, however, soon reveals still further measurable improvement; brighter in his thinking [and demeanour, when more with it], almost effortless flexing of the knee, a creeping reaction in his arm and even the merest hint of a grip appearing in that, the most stubborn, hand.
That subconscious autonomic greeting, then, another reason for this document. We’ve all curiously enjoyed his sharp and gentle humour slicing through the otherwise heavily underpinned tension of the week. But this is also going to be a potentially significant factor in his battle to recovery; his humour can sometimes mask a default personality which will often sit with a drink held in a glass measured as half empty rather than half full.
The challenge facing the majority of stroke survivors is certainly multi-layered: the brain [already extraordinarily impressive in its rewiring project], the mind and body combining. The latter’s coupling intrinsically linked. Recovery is ultimately often measured in desire, determination and commitment to the challenge. [e.g. To actually do all the physio exercises that he didn’t do after the last hip replacement; rather than bemusedly complain about a lack of progress and an incredulity as to the lack of recovery via some mysterious form of osmotic ether!]
Festive baubles to you and yours. Next update is likely to be in a couple of days or three.
As I walked down the ward, there he was, sat up in a high backed chair, his left arm draped across a pillow on a large tray clipped into the chair – the whole scene taking on a curious time lapse quality that had seemingly taken him back to childhood. The team had put him in the chair using a hoist and a complex series of movement restricting straps.
‘Show him what you can do with your leg, Alan,’ said Jo. Dad somewhat theatrically waves his right leg in mid-air, the surgical gown riding up like a can-can girl from the Carnival of Freaks. ‘Not that one!’ He was smiling, his eyes and face already notably brighter than yesterday.
“I’m going to take a penalty*,” he said. I looked down, his face a picture of contorted focus… nothing. Then, after a handful of seconds that hung in the air like an hour, his left leg sharply snapped out and back from the knee; a sudden spike of electricity. “Oh, bugger… I missed.” Smiles all around, none of them broader than that belonging to my step-mother, eyes now welling with happier tears, sat a few feet away. We were all hugely encouraged, but this was still only the beginning of the long road ahead.
I had to hear the slightly disconnected story of being meticulously restrained in the hoist that had landed him in the chair. “I thought they were strapping me into a parachute and putting me in a bomber over Germany.”
My dad. Alan. He was born in 1933, in Bristol: due to it’s aircraft industry, one of the cities notoriously blitzed during the course of the Second World War. I know the experience had a profound affect on him as a child, but it’s not something he really talks about. He spent his entire working life at the BAC [the British Aircraft Corporation]; mostly as a gifted toolmaker, and in his later years, with flight operations. One of his tasks… packing parachutes. He’s never jumped out of a plane, though, with or without one… until now.