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A stroke of luck

I had been married for fourteen years to a man who accused me of going to the supermarket because it was “ a social occasion—you’re not kidding anybody.” One Saturday he stood at the end of our five-foot-long driveway hand in hand with our two children as the three of them wept to watch me back away. I was driving four miles to a baby shower. I wasn’t exactly accustomed to spending time apart from a husband. On the contrary, I was led to feel that separate spousal time was a sin nothing short of mortal and that it invariably led to marital demise.

That was Pete; this was Brad, and suddenly a whole new set of rules applied—none. Where before existed all sorts of negative associations with the word “wife” and “expectation,” now there was normalcy. If I needed to go to the dry cleaners, I could just go—with no assumption on his part that I would be having an affair with the pimply-faced Hispanic kid who starched the shirts. If the phone rang, I could—boldly—answer it. I’d been doing this, mind you, ever since I’d divorced the man whose telephone answering machine now announced that the caller had reached “Peter J. and Associates” (who were his associates?), but it didn’t count because now I was alone. Within the confines of a new marriage? You had to be kidding! It would take some adjustment on my part to avoid defensiveness and embrace freedom. In this connubial arrangement I wouldn’t have to rationalize why it was that I had run out of carrots and needed to go buy a bunch for the stew.

At first, whenever I had to leave, I effused apologetic remarks. I oozed unwavering affection and looked back over my shoulder to check Brad’s initial reaction as I opened the back door to go meet a girlfriend for lunch. Shockingly, he never shed a tear. I observed that my brief absence did not jeopardize the sanctity of our union, nor did it so much as momentarily interrupt his attention to computer research about fantasy football. Relieved, I realized I was allowed to be myself, to simply be—like any well-adjusted wife on the planet.

My therapy was further aided by Brad’s taking several small trips without me: photography workshops, attorney conferences and depositions, and wilderness outings with his sons—all requiring that he be away for a few days at a time while I hold down the fort and feed the dogs. I lounged in pajamas, made a grilled cheese sandwich (or two) for dinner, and languished in front of stupid television. I missed him, but I was otherwise content that he was having a good time (as was I) while missing me as well. We could do this. I was a married-lady grown-up.

After Kate’s engagement was official, she wondered if I would join her in Seattle where she, her future mother-in-law Kathy, and I might be able to nail down the wedding venue and vendors over a three-day period. She would fly from Arizona where she was teaching, I would drive the easy seven hours from Missoula, and Kathy already lived there. She would have preplanned our itinerary after all three of us had researched our options online. You’ve got it: Kathleen, Kate, and Kathy loose in Seattle. We’d whip through our list with plenty of leftover time to work in the flagship Nordstrom’s Half-Yearly Sale. Naturally, Brad approved—even further, he urged me to pack my bag and go—with the credit card. Be that supportive mother; it was no big deal.

But for me, it was. “Women do this every day,” I kept chanting to myself as something told me that I shouldn’t leave—some old vicious voice of censorship— phantom of The Don. Or it could have been the ghostly whisper of my aunt Suzanne from beyond the grave. She had once admonished my mother, her sister, for imbibing in a shopping-spree weekend with women friends to San Francisco.

“Well, I hope you’re happy that you have that new purse when you get home and your husband is dead,” she portended. My family background didn’t exactly preach that women are equal once they take their vows. I would force myself to do this; it would be good for me and for our marriage. Brad could spend “cave time,” which every sensible woman knows every man needs. He could bond with the boys—Gus and Cody, our German shepherds. He could eat nothing but junk out of paper boxes. He would not later accuse me of having had an affair with a gas station attendant when I’d stopped to use the restroom. This wasn’t a trick.

Road trip! I willed myself into enthusiasm about the adventure. I would sing along to all the country western CDs in the car player. I would catch up on cell phone calls with old friends. There was nothing like a few hours on an interstate to relax and let my mind wander; I hadn’t done that for a long time.

I crooned, I called, and after seven hours on the road I careened onto Kathy and Bill’s street that runs right alongside Seattle’s Lake Union. Bill was away for the weekend playing golf with his son, the groom. This ensured the perfect formula for another thing I’d never done: girls’ weekend. I’d checked in with Brad a couple of times to learn about the latest development on our home construction, and now day was nearly done. Kathy and I would dine out, just the two of us, and then retrieve Kaitlin at the airport.

The first challenge was to stay awake that late. Her flight was due to land at 10:30 P.M. It was postponed until 11:00, then 11:30, and finally 12:15. Do airports ever close? I tried calling Brad to engage in lively conversation about what bills had come in the mail that day, but he was sleepy and said his neck ached from falling asleep on the wrong pillow in front of the TV. Okay, fine. Go to bed.

It was painful to try to distract ourselves with television—you can do that at age 20: stay up half the night to watch Saturday Night Live or actually make it until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Kathy and I napped alternately, like naval officers assigned to rotate the watch. Every piece of furniture in their charming New England houseboat was far too comfortable to rouse me, however, and I started slipping while on guard. Finally, we pleaded with their black Lab, Puck, to wake us up when the time came. Luckily, we never had to find out if he was that well trained.

By the time we returned from the airport we were looking at 1:15 A.M. I hadn’t even peeked at anything past 10:00 P.M. for quite some time, so I couldn’t have predicted that I would cross some biorhythmic line that would suddenly not allow slumber. I lay blanketed in bed and invoked the sandman, but to no avail. Alas, I surrendered and told myself five hours later that “at least I’ve rested.” I dragged myself out of bed, showered, and enjoyed a pot of coffee with Kathy, then took Puck for a walk. My daughter, oblivious to Puck’s sloppy kisses and the morning activity all around her, slept soundly on the family room sofa. Ah, youth . . .

We were off in a cloud of—well, in Seattle there isn’t much “dust.” Let’s just say it wasn’t raining yet. Over our coffee Kathy and I had already narrowed down the guest list, glanced over the country club menu options and talked wild turkey about liquor—open bar or not? Now we were ready to face the first photographer on the club’s “recommendation list.” Kate thought she had her mind made up—she liked the young married couple with whom she had spoken over the phone. There was one other who “sounded good.” We agreed that it is always best to meet at least two vendors for perspective before signing on the dotted line.

Kathy knew the ins and outs of downtown alleys and parking places so she deftly drove. No sooner had we rejected the $10,000 photographer who referred to himself as “an artist,” and whose pictures of brides were all titled sideways to create “effect,” than we were on our way to meet the young couple to whom we paid a deposit. They were definitely the wise (and affordable) choice.

“Let’s celebrate with an ice cream!” I proposed, since up ahead the Baskin Robbins logo loomed like a beacon.

After one spoonful off the top of my scoop, my cell phone rang. It was Brad. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise as I catapulted into the tale of our morning. Finally, he broke in to say, “I’m at St. Pat’s Hospital; I’ve had a stroke.”

Say that again?

After seven hours on the highway in the middle of the night, I was at his bedside, having left Kate and Kathy with a handful of signed checks to “finish the wedding, please.” So much for my girls’ weekend. Brad had reassured me that he was doing well when he’d called, but still. That all-night drive on I-90 back to Missoula wasn’t my favorite journey, let me tell you. Images of my post-stroke paralytic mother banged against my brain. We’d just started to build the house—what now? Would he suffer another stroke before I got to him? Wait a minute! The wrong husband is dying! Somebody upstairs jumbled my prayer!

I used the modern convenience of hands-free cell phone calls to keep me awake, contacting every member of the family, all of whom were aghast. Mark and Ryan were naturally horrified for their father; Clary was terrified for me; my sister called every half hour to make sure I was still conscious.

But I got back to Missoula, and where that seven hours went, I cannot tell you. Love that phone. Brad had experienced what’s called a “spontaneous dissection” of the carotid artery, a type of rare stroke no one I’ve told the story to has ever heard of. We hadn’t either. It had nothing to do with his health, thank God, and only to do with a freak “injury,” if you will, to his artery. The likelihood that he will have another is no greater than for you or for me.

Well, maybe not me—at the rate I was going, something was gonna give.

Spontaneous dissection is a type of stroke that usually strikes people who are forty years of age. Good news, honey . . . you have the body of a forty-year-old (Brad having been fifty-six at the time). The patient experiences a small tear in the interior cell membrane of the carotid artery, this “flap” then allows blood to clot there, the artery becomes completely occluded, and the clot travels to the brain, causing a stroke. As I say, this event has absolutely nothing to do with health. It is an artery injury, much like a tear in the Achilles tendon, for example. The patient typically has no plaque in his arteries (makes you wonder if a little plaque is not a bad thing—bring on the bacon!)

So how does one know if he’s about to spontaneously dissect? Not readily. Symptoms can be somewhat chalked off to a long night at the bar or a version of the flu. The night before his stroke, Brad felt a brutal neck-ache, but since he had drifted off to sleep in front of the television before retiring for the night, he figured he’d “tweaked” his neck.

“It hurt so bad that I couldn’t put my head on the pillow,” he remembered. Later the doctor informed us that this, in fact, was most probably when the artery was in the process of dissecting.

Upon arising, Brad’s head ached, but so brutally that he canceled a shooting-range outing with a friend. For a headache? And not one arising on the heels of a drunken jag? This, my friends, was one bad “average” headache. He lay down on the sofa because he had no choice, and within moments, sensed his left side go numb—arm, leg, face—the whole magilla.

“They felt so heavy,” he remarked after the episode. And when he tested their weight, he found they would not move at all.

Thank God he had the presence of mind and lack of pride to make it to the telephone (“Not an easy task,” he explained) whereupon he misdialed 911 three times before finally getting it right, then found he was unable to speak, except to manage the words “I am in trouble.”

By now we all know that the first three hours subsequent to a stroke are vital in terms of staving off even more cataclysmic damage to the brain. In Brad’s case, the medication used to stop brain bleeding did not need to be administered, since, although the artery in question had become occluded, the flow from his other arteries was flawless and delivering plenty of blood to the brain. If in three months the damaged artery were to reopen even partially, doctors would consider performing a dangerous surgery. In answer to prayer, Brad’s artery opened on its own, the flap healed, and after one year, his mobility was completely restored—right down to those pesky fingertips that took the longest to heal.

“As long as I can tie a fly, I am happy,” Brad sums it up.

Amen.

Kathleen Clary Miller is the author of 300 essays and stories that have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant, The Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, Orange Coast magazine, Missoula Living magazine, Flathead Living magazine, The Johns Hopkins Memory Bulletin, and The Christian Science Monitor. She has been a regular columnist for The Missoulian (western Montana’s daily newspaper) for the last two years. Her current monthly column “Peaks and Valleys” appears in Montana Woman magazine. She has contributed to National Public Radio’s On Point.

She lives in Huson, Montana.


2 comments

  1. Deborah Ferns - December 4, 2009 8:20 am

    Kathleen, Love (LOVE) your style of writing and the way you drive points home with humor instead of toxicity! So very glad your Brad is doing well with the “tie a fly” and all that it involves!

  2. Indianapolis Homes for Sale - April 9, 2011 1:17 pm

    Deborah has a great point (along w the great picture hah) that the humor really allowed me to digest your points and ultimately kept me reading to the end.. and it’s a relief to hear Brad’s priorities are still light-hearted!

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