It was a glorious Indian Summer day. Red and yellow leaves twirled down from maple trees along the street. I enjoyed their leisurely descent as I took my morning walk. I felt their lazy rhythm in my stride. Soon, I knew I’d break into a run, the pace that had been more familiar to me for years.
I was a month into my recovery from a stroke, a late September occurrence that caught me unaware one morning at breakfast, and my doctor had finally given me permission to start running again. I’d be able to run for twenty minutes—a long way from the sixty minutes I usually ran, but a blessing nonetheless.
We were in that time of year when summer was taking its leave. Here in Ohio, we knew winter wasn’t far off—those days of short light, those gray days of cold and ice—but for now the sun was shining on me, and the lawns of my suburb in northwest Columbus were green. Still, when I turned to the north, I felt a bite in the wind.
I was struggling with the question of who I was on the other side of my stroke. Before it happened, I was an ambitious, driven writer who also loved to teach. I spent countless hours writing, or talking about writing, or preparing to talk about writing. I’d published my first book at the age of forty, and I felt I’d had too many lost years and too much lost time that I needed to make up. I spent my days exercising, writing, reading, and teaching.
But when I first came home from the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to run, lift weights, or go back to teaching. I had no interest in the new novel I’d been writing. I couldn’t concentrate well enough to read. I was too preoccupied with the sobering truth of what had happened and the fact that I was the one to whom it had happened. I remember lying in my hospital bed in the Neuro Critical Care Unit at Riverside Hospital, unable to make myself say the words, even if only to myself: “I had a stroke.” Although my family had a history of stroke, I thought that, at the age of fifty-seven, I was still too young and in too good condition for that to be my fate.
Sometimes, though, the future comes more quickly than we prefer. It came to me that September morning when I was in my dining room, reading the morning newspaper. I’d been lifting weights in the basement, and I imagined this Sunday would be like any other: breakfast, writing, class prep, maybe a football game to watch. But then, over oatmeal and coffee, my vision closed in at the edges and then cleared. I tried to lift my right arm but couldn’t, nor could I move my right leg. I tried to call out to my wife, who was in the kitchen, but I couldn’t say the words I’d formed in my mind. My tongue was dead weight.
Luckily, my wife heard the sounds I was making and recognized right away what was happening. She called 911.
I knew what was happening, too. As we waited for the paramedics, I knew I was having a stroke. I could say that I was scared, and that would indeed be true, but the truer thing would be to say that I knew I had no choice but to give myself over to the care of the paramedics who would come. I was helpless, and I knew it.
“Lee,” I said, and I heard how slurred and strangled the word sounded.
“Lee, we’re going to get you on a gurney now.” He wrapped his arms around my torso, and I tried to stand. “You don’t have to do a thing,” he said in a voice I remember as kind but also firm. “Just let me lift you.”
At the hospital, a CT scan confirmed that a blood clot had traveled to my brain. The neurologist said he wanted to give me tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a clot-busting medicine.
“It’s your best chance for recovery,” he said. “But I have to tell you, there’s a chance the drug could cause a bleed in the brain.”
I remember how thin he was, how he wore a yellow bowtie, how his olive-colored skin shone in the bright light of the emergency room, how much I wanted to trust a man who seemed so vibrant. I gave him a thumb’s up.
By five o’clock that evening, I’d regained the use of the right side of my body, and my speech was back to normal.
When the neurologist saw me the next morning, he said, “I have to tell you the truth. Yesterday, I was pretty worried about you.”
Two days later I went home. I had no physical impairments. There were no signs whatsoever that I’d had a stroke.
The nurses were smiling as I left. One of them said to me, “This is a good day. Usually, when someone comes in the way you did, it’s a long road to recovery. But look at you.”
To everyone around me—my neighbors, my students who dropped by to visit, my friends—I must have seemed fine, but the truth is I was a mess. My anxiety was so high I couldn’t sleep. An echocardiogram at the hospital had revealed what my cardiologist believed to be a patent foreman ovale (PFO), a hole between the atria of my heart. We all have this hole when we’re in the womb, and it closes when we’re born. For roughly twenty-five percent of the population, though, it doesn’t. That hole allows blood to move from the right atrium to the left, which it isn’t supposed to be able to do. If a clot slips through, as apparently it did for me, it can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. I worried that it could happen again.
My cardiologist ordered me to wear a heart monitor for twenty-one days to make sure I had no arrhythmia before performing another test to confirm the presence of the hole and then to discuss implanting a device to close it.
I’ve always been a worrier by nature, and now that my health was in question, I had sufficient reason.
“Your body is in full ‘flight or fight mode,’” my family doctor told me when I went to see her.
I perched on the edge of her exam table while she sat on a stool and made notes in my chart. I could hear the muffled voices of another doctor and his patient in the room next to mine. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I could only hear their murmuring, and it touched something inside me that quaked when I remembered how only a few days before my speech had failed me. The air conditioning in the room was too cold, and I could feel my fingers trembling.
“I’m a fighter,” I said.
Then I wept. I wept because my students had sent me windup toys to add to the collection they knew I had. I wept because of Chirpy Bird, and Robot Guy, and Nunzilla, and Knight on Horse. I wept because colleagues had come to help with my classes, because friends had called with words of encouragement. I wept because of all I’d almost lost, and in spite of that fact, love was all around me.
My doctors wanted me to walk three times a day, gradually increasing my distance, and this was good because I’m the sort who, when confronted with a problem or an obstacle, wants to be able to take immediate action.
So I set out. My first walk only lasted ten minutes and left me stunned with how weary I felt. It wasn’t long, though, before my stride lengthened and the minutes ticked by, and I came to look forward to my walks. They were the most glorious parts of my day. I’d been a runner for over thirty years. When I run, I enter a zone in which I can disappear. I become breath and heartbeat, muscle and sweat. The world recedes. Time goes with it, and I’m barely conscious of what’s around me.
In the days immediately after my stroke, I was without the structure my life as a writer and a teacher normally offered me. I was also, though, free from the hectic pace it often required. I was on a medical leave from teaching, and I wasn’t writing a bit. The nights were torturous for me because I couldn’t trust my sleep for fear that I’d have another stroke. But the days—those lovely autumn days—were just right for sitting in a chair by the window and noticing how the quality of light changed as the sun sank lower in the west, to feel the warmth on my hands, to savor the way time slowed, to mark it by what gave me pleasure, no matter how small a thing it might be: the Pixie Crunch apples my cousin brought me from the orchard, so juicy and crisp; the tones of a wind chime; the scent of late-season roses; the way the shadows of tree limbs, jostled by the breeze, moved across the wall.
Then the times would come when I’d rise and step out into the slow and lovely world. Walking through the neighborhood at what at one time would have seemed too slow a pace, I began to learn the value of staying as long as I could, fully alert and thankful, in the present moment. Those walks centered me at a time when I needed to remember all that blessed me. Even as I moved closer to good health—closer to being able to run again—I vowed to never forget these days when my stroke forced me to slow down, to take stock, to rely on the goodness of small pleasures.
So on that glorious October morning, when I set out for my twenty-minute run, I took note of the leaves that twirled to the ground through the muted light. I felt as if my life was somehow contained in those leaves, and in that light, and the call of crows overhead, and the orange cat asleep in the sunlight on a doorstep. I felt the meaning of my life expressed in what I took the time to appreciate. Because my stroke had forced me to slow down, to cherish the minutes I was allowed to walk, I was learning to treasure the everyday details that in the end result make up the moments of our living.
On an Election Day, when I was five, a man gave me a Golden Delicious apple while I sat in the car outside the country church where my mother was voting. My father, who had cast his ballot while my mother stayed in the car with me, said, “Tell him, ‘thank you.’” I did, in a small voice, because I was a timid child. We were often an angry family—my father filled our house with his temper—but now this man had given me an apple so big I couldn’t close my hand around it. It was the most wonderful thing. I held it to my nose and breathed in its sweet aroma. I asked my father if I could bite into it, and he told me I could. I’ve never forgotten the taste of that apple, and the kindness of the man who gave it to me, and the corn stubble in the field across the road from the church, and a few yellow leaves on a hickory tree, and the way the sunshine felt on that long-ago day. I took it all in, that moment of grace, as I did years later when, as I prepared to run, I cataloged the twirling of the leaves, the crows’ calls sharpened by the clear autumn air, the orange cat who woke and stretched. I knew, come nighttime, I’d carry those images with me into my sleep, talismans of sorts to carry me through the night safely into morning.
When I walked, I felt only somewhat like whom I was before my stroke—a person on the move, eager to achieve. I mainly felt like a new person—a better person, one who could push himself, and still be passionate about all the pleased him, without losing sight of all the many pleasures the world had to offer.
My doctor told me to begin with adding five minutes to my morning walk. During those five minutes, I recalled the life I’d once had—that intense life that ambition gave me—and the man I’d once been. I was glad to again make his acquaintance, only this time I was well aware of my excesses and the damage they could cause to health, both physical and emotional. I knew how to keep my focus without losing myself in it. I knew how to open myself to the world around me. I began to gradually add more time to my walks. In the long stretch of years when I was able to run without concern over my health, I sometimes forgot to give thanks for the sheer joy of each step. I grumbled over my balky joints, my sore feet, my tight calf muscles. I rushed to fit in a run so I could get to the work that lay ahead of me that day.
It was all different after my stroke. I couldn’t forget the blessing that running is to me, and when I finished, I always walked awhile so I’d be sure to remember the virtues of moving at a slower pace, taking in the world in all its glory, thankful that I was there to see the way the leaves fell, to hear the sound of the crows calling, to watch the orange cat grinning in the sun. Here in the Midwest—here in the middle season—I was learning to make room for both the younger and the older versions of myself.
Now, four years beyond the stroke, I run five miles every other day, and I’m thankful for that gift. Most of all, I’m thankful for time. Although I wish the stroke hadn’t happened, here on the other side of it I’m doing what my mother always told me to do on those nights when the anger in my home kept me from falling asleep. “Count your blessings,” she told me.
And so I do. Leaves, crows, cat. I remember them so well. I gather them to me, become one with them as I remember the way my body moved through space and my spirit rose and lingered in those blessed minutes, in that time just before I made the turn toward winter, and the days went on.
Rumpus original art by Karen Cygnarowicz.