by Janis A. Brams
Perspective One: The Storm
Sometimes we sense the storm coming. We smell rain in the air or recognize the aches that accompany damp weather. Other times storms take us by surprise. A gentle breeze turns wild, uprooting trees that have stood their ground for centuries. Life is upended. Situations change.
When I open my eyes that March morning, something bright floods the bedroom, and I squint awake. Strange, I think. My husband, Michael, keeps the bathroom door closed this early, so I can sleep. I feel a faint irritation.
In that instant, before we realize something crucial has happened, we base our thinking on yesterday’s truths. Yesterday, finishing a piece I was writing was most important, and today revisiting that draft was to be my focus. Then I see Michael sitting still and silent on the bed, staring at me as though willing me awake. “Are you OK?” I ask.
“Nnnn, nnnn,” is all he can say. The air crackles and clouds move in. This storm has arrived without warning.
Our eyes meet, and I sense he is afraid. The feeling is alien. I’ve seen Michael, a physician, handle numerous medical emergencies. When my dad passed out, when my sister’s husband suffered a heart attack, when our daughter lost her baby and when his dad needed hospice, Michael’s calm demeanor supported us and helped us move through our fear and pain. But now his brows are arched, and his lids are lifted high. I recognize his angst.
Always, words roll between us: What might a symptom mean? How should we handle a situation? We look to one another for answers, for opinions, and for help. But this time, his speech is inaccessible.
My brain clicks in, and I know what is happening. “You’re having a stroke,” I say. I keep my voice even and calm. Michael nods his head.
“I’ll call 911.” I slide out of bed and help him lean against the pillows. Then, I grab for my phone and dial. The operator picks up.
“My husband is having a stroke.”
I stare at Michael as I talk and say the words that might alter our lives. I don’t dare think beyond the moment. If I step into this nightmare, I’ll be stranded, unable to function without the husband who needs me now.
The voice at the other end has little inflection. “Please tell me your address,” she says. “Is he having trouble breathing?”
“No,” I answer, staring at his chest.
“Can he move? Does he feel weak?”
I shut my eyes for just a second and respond in a steady voice. “No, but he can’t talk to me. He’s unable to speak.” Stay efficient, I think.
When the storm clouds release their deluge and the waters rise, we climb to safe ground, but this time, the path is muddied. I grab for Michael’s hand, noting how well his fits in mine. For over four decades, we’d been a couple, a twosome, our lives entwined.
The voice on the phone interrupts. “I’ve dispatched paramedics, but let’s stay on the line. I’ll walk you through what to do. Put any pets in another room.” Karma, our dog, watches me from her bed. “Come girl. Daddy’s sick. I need you in the guest room.”
“Now, unlock the door.”
I run down the hallway, gripping the phone. “Done,“ I say, focusing on the voice, a faceless series of directives speaking to me through empty space.
“Gather his medicines and place them in a bag.”
I do it all, repeating each request after she says it. The repetition calms me. When I return to the bedroom, anxious to see and touch him, he is staring ahead, his hands in rounded fists lying on his lap. “I’m done,” I say, brushing my fingers along his cheek. He turns to look my way and nods his head.
Shelving my fear, I think about what to do next. Who needs to know? “I’m getting off now,” I say to the operator. “I have to contact family.”
I call Joe first. Joe and Michael have been practicing pediatrics together for 38 years. We’d come to the High Desert from Syracuse, New York as acquaintances but were soon a family. I stroke Michael’s arm, waiting for Joe to pick up the phone.
“Hey,” he answers, “good morning. What’s up?”
And I say it once more. “Joe, Michael is having a stroke.” Each time the words fall out, a strange alarm rings in my head. This is real, I think, and am startled all over again. For the tiniest moment, I feel overwhelmed. Then, I silence the voice that warns our lives might change.
“What?” Joe says, and I note the shift in his tone. His voice goes soft.
“I’ve called 911, and they should be here any minute,” I respond. The words echo in my head. They sound foreign like I am reading scripted lines.
“What’s happening?” Joe asks, and I recognize his doctor voice.
I explain that Michael can’t speak, that his smile is crooked, but he is alert and aware, just a little bit weak. “I’ll be right there,” Joe says.
As I set my phone down, the door chime sounds, and I meet the paramedics in our hall. “He’s this way,” I say, and we head to the bedroom. I leave for a moment to bring them his meds, and in that short time, our room is transformed. Equipment attached to his chest, arm and finger monitor his vital signs. “Can you smile, Dr. Brams?” one of the four paramedics asks. “What do you think, Mrs. Brams? Do you notice a difference?”
Michael and I stare at each other, and I feel us floating in unchartered space. He tilts his head and lifts his shoulders, a familiar gesture. My eyes sting. “It’s crooked,“ I say. “His mouth goes up on my right.”
“We notice that too,” the lead paramedic replies. “We’re going to airlift him to Loma Linda.”
I am trapped in the thick of the storm on a path we’ve never hiked. We are here, I think, marking the moment, like a burnished wood map labels the head of a trail. I feel terror rising and push it down, longing for yesterday when the skies looked clear. Now, as I scout our way, I feel the first cold drops of a rainfall, the wind in my face.
“Where do I go?” I ask the lead paramedic.
“You’ll meet us in the Loma Linda ER. Do you have someone to drive you? You shouldn’t go alone.”
“Yes, Dr. Maloney is coming.”
From somewhere, a gurney appears, and they wheel Mike past the kitchen. “Just a minute,” I say. I whisper I love you into his ear, and he smirks at me, the kind of smile his father had. His eyes are moist, and I feel his words, I love you too. I follow them out, and the ambulance disappears, a red-light flashing. I stare at the empty space, rooted to the ground, hushing the soundtrack that plays in my head: Michael’s had a stroke.
It is almost sunrise when I close the door behind me and walk to the guest room to free our dog. There are calls to make and a bag to pack, and I know that Joe will be arriving soon. Our bed is a jumble, covers and pillows tossed to the side, but I climb in anyway. I rest my head on the pillows where Michael’s head has been and think about our years together. High school, college, moves…making babies and raising them, planning our daughters’ weddings, welcoming grandchildren, saying goodbye to our own dear parents. We’ve done these things together, but our partnership is threatened now.
I reach across the bed to pick up a patch from his chest lead and notice others buried in the sheets. I hold them in my hand, trying to ignore the sudden emptiness I feel. Leaning into the wind whipped up by the storm that has found us, I struggle to move forward. She is here, I think, inside me, a woman strong enough to weather this. “We’ll see,” I say out loud to nobody, to everybody. I wonder if this squall will move on or if it will stall above us, wreaking havoc. It is too soon to know. The front door opens, and I hear Joe calling my name.
Perspective Two: Silent Monologue
Trying not to rouse my wife who lies curled next to me, I drop one foot off our bed followed by the other and move through the bedroom shadows toward the bathroom door, which I close with a gentle hand. After turning on the light, I walk past the mirrors and the shower to our closet where my sweats sit waiting for me. I step into pale gray pants and feel a bit off-balance so sit down on the low cherry stool my wife uses to drag suitcases from upper shelves. Reaching for my sweatshirt, I pull the soft fleece over my head but find I need to sit longer than usual, and I can’t decide if something is the matter.
A few minutes later, I stand up, slip into my flip-flops and walk toward the bathroom sink where I stare at my reflection and think how normal I appear. Maybe I’m feeling dazed, maybe my thoughts seem distorted, maybe standing, sitting, and walking feel as though they’re happening in slow-motion because I’ve not been sleeping well. Last night, I woke several times before giving up and getting out of bed to make my coffee. I decide to test this theory and pick up the eye drops I use each morning with my right hand, tilting my head back, and then using my left hand to pull an eyelid out of the way. I squeeze the drop into my eye, but nothing happens and when I look at the tile counter the bottle is sitting tipped on its side. Now I know that something’s happening, something’s wrong.
Feeling worried, I try another morning ritual, unscrewing the toothpaste cap and reaching for my toothbrush, which feels somewhat reassuring since the cap comes off. Looking in the mirror, I can see the brush near my open mouth, but I cannot move the bristles along my teeth.
Then, I notice that though the hand that holds my toothbrush is clenched in a normal fist, the fist feels flimsy, so weak that it can barely keep the plastic brush raised level with my lips. Through the fog settling over me, a signal sounds. I swing open the bathroom door. No longer concerned about the light that floods our room, I sit down on the bed next to my sleeping wife.
I say her name, Jan, but though I say it clearly in my head, I’m aware the room stays silent, and I freeze, too frightened to move again, staring at her, willing her awake. I don’t wait long because her eyes open, and she looks at me sitting so close, watching her, and she says, “Is there something wrong?” In my head, I say yes but still the room is silent, and she sits straight up, her eyes on mine and speaks again, “Do you think you’re having a stroke?”
I nod, yes, and the only thoughts that cross my mind are questions like what if I can never speak again? What will my life be like? She switches places, and now reclining against her pillow, listening while she calls 911, I hear her say the words again, “My husband is having a stroke.” As I watch her mouth move and the words form, I am afraid for her, for how her life will change if my loss of language is forever, how she’ll deal with me. When she leaves the room to unlock the door for paramedics, gather my medicines, and move our dog to another place, I only feel fear, a series of what-if questions that leave my throat tight and my cheeks wet.
I hear the paramedics and when they greet me with an empathetic voice, “Hello, Dr. Brams, we’re going to help you,” I can nod and even halfway smile since the tools they use are familiar. Each check they do: blood pressure, pulse oximetry, and heart, monitored through leads glued to my chest, inspire a silent monologue, “You’re doing what you should; you’re right on,” and they continue as if they hear me, applying gentle pressure to my leads, asking questions I can answer with a nod, contacting the hospital, and requesting an airlift. While I follow what’s happening, I keep trying to form words, but the only voice I find makes nonsense sounds and the fear grows. When they move me to a gurney and my wife demands they stop so she can kiss me and whisper a soft I love you in my ear, I wonder, what if you have to care for me and speak for me? I shiver from the cold outside and listen to the ambulance door slam shut. Then, I hear the whir of the helicopter blades as we lift off and think how will I talk to them, my grandkids?
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing