In One Stroke
In One Stroke
The drive into South Mission Beach from the Bruce Highway bristles with Cassowary cautions. A giant bikini is crucified to a power pole. On the silent, half-hour return from the Tully hospital, we seemed a long way from home.
We’d woken up grumpy. It was raining again, and while we could not begrudge the drought stricken state of Queensland, we’d towed our trailer from Melbourne to Cooktown looking for sun and over 3 months saw little of it. And the confined space of a camper trailer can be somewhat exaggerated by two children, full of beans.
Jeremy was culling our book basket. He’d read a couple of titles and sorted them in piles on the seat. Then he read, ‘mmph woorph wprh mmfph’. We looked up at him in silent query, and he read the next title the same way. We hesitantly giggled. ‘Silly Daddy’ I said. And then the third title came the same. He remembers, clear as day, reading The Emperor’s New Clothes, which he put down with a little puzzled shake of his head.
At the moment it dawned on us that something was not right he half turned to me, rolled his eyes back and sat hard on the floor. He tried to get up, half fell out the door and rested there, assuring me he was fine through the right side of his face, drooling from the left.
In the instant I was screaming for help I knew it was a stroke but what I knew about stroke was not enough. Two burly campers got him up onto our bed while the girls stood, the eldest behind the youngest, stricken silent, eyes widened. Somehow they were swept into a neighbouring van, to play snap and nibble apple.
Until the ambulance arrived from Tully I ran around like a startled emu, darting into Jeremy who yawned benignly, telling me he was fine, and asking me to cancel the ambulance. He was the ostrich. I got him to squeeze my hands but his left side was warm and unresponsive: it struck me it had the sweetness of a sleeping child. So I conceded through a constricted throat and swimming vision that he was fine, darted into the neighbours van to tell the girls their Dad was fine and was told by the happy campers gathered, that he was fine. Yes, Fine I kept saying in between, Where is the freaking ambulance!!!
Emergency is defined by fineness. We are luckiest it seems when we are unlucky.
I cleared away the book basket and a pile of tropical maps so the paramedics could manoeuvre him onto a stretcher. It is a big part of Jeremy’s job to give the assembled public the assurance of his own calm competency. This he offered to the riveted campers, smiling half-faced through his oxygen mask. It made me ache. The little pockmark in his cheek I see as a love heart each time I settle into his shoulder had opened into a butterfly and he was taking flight.
The paramedics managed to perforate the surreal miasma I’d landed in and give me directions to the hospital. ‘This could reverse itself in a day’, they told me. ‘Silly boys’, I thought, ‘they’d say anything to get me to drive straight’. I had only remnants of information about stroke to make sense of what was happening. I had nannied a stroke victim in Amstelveen 20 years before and I had walked her to the toilet and packed her into an Arabian night of pillows each evening where she lay in the stress position of her own paralysis.
This was the understanding I packed his makeshift hospital bag under. He was emphatically gone and all around me were his articles of faith, the ordinary daily things that reify the belief that we will go on living, and wear that shirt and put away that toothbrush, and fold up that paper.
There is nothing so grave as these idiosyncratic articles and their silent testimony to the universe of a living soul – where and why he bought that ludicrous shirt, why he drinks from a mug a student gave him. The shrieking history of his personal items had me by the throat. He was not there. These things were what I now pieced together and their abandonment at that moment evoked in me a desperate love that I’d not felt since the moment of my daughters’ birth.
So we chased the ambulance, but it was out of sight. The eldest had regressed and was comforting herself with ludicrous silliness; the youngest was silently appraising the realm of mythological Cassowaries. I was snuffling and hiccuping back tears until finally I told them they needn’t be brave since I couldn’t manage it. Racing through my mind were the logistics of our world come tumbling down.
How to get him home. How to get the van home. The stairs at home. His job. My book. None of it mattered. All I wanted was for him to be there, half or whole, in any shape or form. For 15 years he had just been there. I would like to say that I treasured each moment, but that would rather understate what a cranky maenad I am. It dawned on me that the thing that made me most cranky was that he couldn’t be there enough. Just one more minute would suffice now, and he could fill it with as much laptop solitaire as he wanted.
We arrived at the Tully base hospital before him and it was then that I called his mother, my mother, his brothers, my sisters, his work mate and anyone who could share in the understanding of what it meant for Jeremy for fall down. Rocks may be buffeted by the vicissitudes of cranky lovers, demanding jobs and very loud children, but over time they show a little wear, that’s all.
So I should have counted on him sitting up with on the casualty bed, his knees up at a jaunty angle and his arms sloping easily behind his head. I half did. I’d brought along a tome of the military history of colonial New York, and fittingly enough Jared Diamond’s Collapse. He wanted them now. The doctor flexed his feet, pushed against his arms and I watched open mouthed as the side of him that best describes him, his left, was put through its paces.
The miracle moment came when he buttoned up his own shirt. I thought my panicked perception had gone awry, and I actually felt my eyes widen when the doctor told me that Jeremy would most likely completely recover in 24 hours. He had suffered a TIA, a trans ischemia attack often colloquially referred to as a ‘mini-stroke’.
A TIA doesn’t call for an emu, it barely warrants an ostrich. But it was of little consequence now to have over-reacted. I didn’t know that 30% of strokes are fatal, 30% leave lasting and debilitating effects and 30% will be recovered from in a day.
Jeremy’s was a stroke of luck. It was also a portent of a major event potentially in the next 24 hours or over the coming weeks. Unless the cause was properly identified and managed, his new clothes were a cloak of vulnerability.
I have a dear, darling friend, now in Sydney, who has an other-worldly capacity to network. She is a film producer so by now it is second nature, but what she pulled off for me in Mission Beach defied even my expectations. An old uni acquaintance I knew through her had married and was in Mission Beach. Her husband was a retired neuro-surgeon. The girls and I left Jeremy to the gunfire of Harlem Heights and ate pasta with them that night. Not only was Gianni able to perfectly explain what was likely to have happened, but his new profession was psychiatry so he could offer all the insights of shock, recovery, what the girls should and shouldn’t know, the ongoing risks and the true evils of trans-fats. We had been sent angels, one a statuesque Germanic beauty, the other a roguishly delightful Italian and between them they staved off a sobbing fit until the next night.
Jeremy did the milk-run of Queensland hospitals between Tully and Cairns the next day for a cat scan. He arrived back at the hospital dog-tired. Not one to care about appearances he had given instructions on a complicated VCAT case through one side of his mouth to his colleague a few hours after the TIA. He sounded a lush and didn’t give a rats and this and every other little thing he did was cause for unqualified adoration. The disjunction between what he said and the fact that he sounded like most of the roos in his top paddock had been brutally culled was uncanny. I placed him under surveillance, looking for any signs of damage. It didn’t add up that he could appear so altered and still be my love, and the girls’ Dad. They too, were watching like hawks. To make completely sure the youngest conducted her own tests and got him to hop around the ward on one leg. But all we could find was that he was even more Zen, even more sweet, and perhaps from the shock, more ardent.
We waited in the van, getting on with loads of washing, home schooling, tent rolling. It seemed an honour to wash out the soft dried circle of tea in the bottom of his newly quaint mug and to put it away knowing he would get it out again and make himself a cup and I would complain about him not making me one and he would point to the one he’d made me earlier sitting cold by the sink.
I got through the teeth, wees, jarmies, stories and songs. The girls were on best behaviour. We were all terribly careful, though I slipped up when the youngest asked if I could hold my nose and blow through my tear ducts. I suggested it wasn’t a good idea as it put pressure on the brain. After all the brain talk, this was not wise. ‘You’re making me sad,’ she whimpered and wailed out in my arms her own carefully managed trauma. When finally I could draw my little curtains and fall back under a pillow I sobbed a torrent that made the 5.9 metre memorial gumboot in remembrance of Tully’s 1959 rainfall look like Paddington Bear’s Wellington. It was foolish I knew for Jeremy had had a lucky stroke but still it came on the way an extreme weather event reckons with an uncertain future.
The nurse reported that he had made a full recovery in the morning, but he had to wait to see the doctor before we could come and get him. She’d call. More washing, schooling, triumphant running up the beach. I’d used myself up by the time we mounted the hospital ramp. I now knew he was, in fact, Fine, and that ramp was a harder climb than the 1010 steps to Fans Horizon in the Warrumbungle. I know because we climbed them a few days later.
Crisis throws everything into relief. God only knows how the hundreds of stroke victims each day and their families cope. I’m still not exactly sure what the girls went through. But for us, it was three short hours of dire panic, riding on the edge of existence, only to be hauled back over the precipice by a rather blithe British doctor, who told us to ‘carry on as you were’.
Not as easy as it sounds. Sleep switches off around 3am and often I dream of Jeremy dissembling before my eyes, disintegrating like memories. The results of a battery of tests came in, all the wheels and cogs of his body divulging the correct data and telling us his ‘mini-stroke’ was a one-off. As things went back to normal and my infuriation at his solitaire habit almost returned to prior levels we settled back into the cement of simple presence.
It may be the extravagant picnics, or those monumental moments of birth and marriage that we photograph. But I can now imagine how in years to come, it is the green mug with the harlequin pattern that I will search for in those images. They are the things that acutely bear witness to the moments we pay little attention to, that celebrate nothing in particular. They mark the quiet ticking over and the truth of our togetherness. They were poised on the edge of memory. They have been reinstated as the quiet guardians of blissful banality.