The Anatomy Of A Stroke [Xmas Days]

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
can’t see
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that’s holding me”

– Guided By Voices

The Anatomy Of A Stroke [Xmas Eve: Day 6]

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.

The Anatomy Of A Stroke [Day 5]

My dad is always clean shaven, usually to within an inch of his life, utilising ripping upward strokes with the kind of razor that would probably have me hiding behind the couch. So it’s also been strange going in and seeing the ever expanding field of stubble creeping across his face, quietly adding to the unfamiliarity. Myself, I tend to lean toward the designer stu… uh, laziness. I cannot lie. [Essentially: don’t shave for about six days, beard begins to itch, resultant shave, rinse and repeat. When people meet me they’re invariably left with a first impression of smart or borderline hobo, depending on which part of the cycle they should bump into.]

Prior to my arrival this afternoon, he’d been shaved by a male nurse from Tonga, was sat virtually upright in his chair, eyes conspicuously flickering with life. The overall transformation was quite extraordinary: the guy sat in the chair looked remarkably like my dad!

“Well,” he said, “I was worried you might try and kiss me again.” Our inter-family affections aren’t exactly legendary. “And it was beginning to feel a bit like two hedgehogs mating.”

As well as the obvious visual improvement [the left side of his face had lifted, too – now able to drink without that post-dental work backwash we’re all familiar with], there was notably more movement in his leg and there was even a little movement in his arm. When I think back to how he was just three days ago. Extraordinary.

He’s also warming with increasing enthusiasm to the idea of this document. [Another reason to shave?! Make himself presentable to the world. I’m ready for my close-up?! : )] “I could be famous. It might become a book or play, or something. I noticed there are signs to a theatre just down the way.” Uh, it’s not that kind of theatre dad. ‘He knows that,” my step-mother quickly replied. I knew that. He knew that. He was even sharp enough to share a joke at her expense. We laughed again.

I asked Jo on the way out if we were in danger of getting ahead of ourselves here? She said the signs are hugely encouraging, and at this rate the preface of ‘months’ to recover may well begin to pull back to a greater emphasis on ‘weeks’, but it doesn’t diminish the size of the stroke. There’s still a long way to go yet. And more than a little leg room for the less positive aspects of my dad’s personality to re-emerge.

The Anatomy Of A Stroke [Day 4]

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.

The Anatomy Of A Stroke [Day 3]

My father appears to have discovered the secret of one hand clapping.

I stared at him quizzically. He knew I was there, but he was somewhere in his own world, flickering his hand back and forth, sometimes slowly, sometimes faster, for no apparent purpose yet extremely focussed in his conspicuous task. ‘What are you doing?’ I eventually asked. He laughed his newly lopsided laugh, “I’m clapping.” Meanwhile, his left hand remained entirely motionless, steadfastly refusing to join in the applause. It would seem that in his head he was indeed clapping, but his eyes revealed something entirely different. I say ‘eyes’, but his left, of course, currently another casualty of muscular dysfunction. “Sounds good to me, ” he said, and laughed again.

After yesterday’s lurching sideways shock, it was good to have an important part of him back; lucid again, much brighter in the eyes, yet no longer in hospital: “I’m at the Upton Inn.” A dry sense of humour makes for a strange bedfellow at times like these, but it was genuinely him. And I think he’s going to need the sense of humour in the weeks and months ahead.

My dad. Alan. Now rapidly approaching his 79th birthday. And yet, even with his two hip replacements, an already dodgy arm and a chronic neck problem that was meant to see him attend the pain management clinic early in the New Year… this time last week, he played 8 holes of golf! Moaned about the pain, the freezing weather and his current form, roughly in that order.