The day I first returned home from my stay at the hospital is one of those days that I will always remember in vivid detail. It was a nice clear summer day and Christine had already spent half of it with me suffering the process of being signed out. I had survived the heart attack, angioplasty and two critical days that followed in the Intensive Care Unit. One day of observation and I was free to go home. My anxieties were high as I was “on my own” without the luxury of a doctor or nurse at a mere push of a button. The list of things I couldn’t do anymore (some temporarily, some for life), the things that had been added to my normal routine, all the prescriptions and paperwork compounded with the constant warnings from the cardiologists left me feeling overwhelmed and scared.
The hospital is in the busy commercial sector of our town and we live in a peaceful rural area surrounded by dairy and grain farms. There is an overpass that we cross almost daily, it has always been this point that I see as the transition from the town to the country. As we crested the rise and the view of the farms and the wide expanse of fields came into view I started to cry. It was one of the first reminders of how very close I had come to never being home again.
I was thinking of this as I was helping my neighbor negotiate his wifes wheelchair into their home this week. We have a close/neighborly relationship with them and we were hit hard when we learned that Suzanne (not her real name) was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall. For those that do not know, my wife is a survivor and we are understandably very sensitive to their situation. Naturally we grew even closer to her and Gilles (also not his real name) and they questioned Christine and I often during Suzanne’s chemotherapy treatments.
Suzanne had just finished her chemotherapy and was preparing to start her radiation therapy when she had a stroke. All the evidence tells us it happened early in the morning shortly after Gilles had gone to work and it was him that found her when he returned home around 6pm. I am harrowed by the thought that I was going about my business right next door as Suzanne was laying paralyzed and helpless on her bedroom floor. The demons in my head erected a monument to their soulless gods that day and were paid off with a new way to torment me. My mind goes right to the heart attack and the feeling of helplessness and fear that I now know so well.
The news of her stroke caused one of the most vivid flashbacks I have ever had. Honestly, I couldn’t focus on anything and a black cloud of hopelessness and despair that was all-consuming was engulfing me. None of the tools my therapy has equipped me with would help. I was a crying emotional wreck.
“Smoke a pipe”, it was my wife’s voice that was guiding me. Almost as if she was speaking to me from somewhere distant. I know she was with me through the whole episode trying to calm me down, but for the life of me I can’t remember many of the details. “Where’s your weed?”Christine’s voice again, soon I was filling my pipe and starting to medicate. A few minutes later I was calming down and my mind was starting to focus. Once again the sad facts of Suzanne’s ordeal washed over me but this time I was able to process the emotions. You see the marijuana doesn’t “numb” my anxieties or fears. They don’t temporarily go away because I am high (though I can tell you it would be a welcome break). It permits me to conjure up the tools I acquired through many hours of therapy and apply them to the situation at hand. Mindfulness is the strongest weapon I have to fight the demons but it is fickle and I need to be able to focus to wield it. When the focus is there I can clearly see why the situation is triggering my demons. I can understand that my fear is one that is founded because of my own history but that at the moment I am safe from harm. I can allow myself to feel sad for two people whose lives drastically changed in the blink of an eye.
I can allow myself the freedom to live in the moment.
I’m back to the moment when I’m helping Gilles maneuver Suzanne’s chair up some temporary ramps and in through the front door of their home. The only modification made to the house at this point is the old bed sheet that has been laid out on the floor so that the chair doesn’t mar it. It is winter here after all and the wheels are dirty and wet from the snow. Gilles is explaining to me that she’s only out of the rehabilitation centre for the day and it is at this point that I realize the obvious. It is her first time back home. It’s a sacred moment. Suzanne was facing away from me as I said ” This is your first time back and I understand that it’s an emotional moment, I’ll leave the two of you alone.” She nodded her head and rolled her tear filled eyes.
Suzanne and Gilles are now facing new challenges. The right side of her body is paralyzed and she is blind in her right eye. She has lost the ability to speak with the exception of a handful of words that she strings together. She has quickly become proficient in the use of body language and paired with a string of repetitive words she finds ways to communicate. She can laugh (a little) and she can cry (often). Her hair is starting to grow back from the chemotherapy. She was a brunette before the cancer and now it is of the most beautiful white.
I am looking forward to the day she returns to her home permanently; good neighbors that we have grown to love are hard to come by these days.