Cupertino, California, USA
The author’s grandparents. Photo by Laura Hodapp.
It’s a gray-sky, late-October afternoon. I just got home from work when I feel my phone buzz in my pocket. The caller ID provides a brief preface: Mom.
“Hey Mom, what’s up?”
“Hey Hun, I wanted to call you right away… my mom had a stroke this morning.” Her words are punctuated by tears and small snatched breaths. I sit down on the edge of my bed, the words ruthlessly sinking in as my weight takes me into the mattress.
“Oh no… What happened?”
“Well, my dad went to a St. Vincent De Paul meeting this morning around 9 o’clock, and came home an hour-and-a-half later… He found her on the carpet in the bedroom, not really doing anything. He called 911 right away and she was brought to the Emergency Room where they are trying some medicines right now… Do you think she’s going to be ok?” An impossible question. Mom knows this, but she asks anyway. Perhaps her almost-doctor son can dispel the horror of that terrible word – stroke – and the leaden baggage it carries.
I get to my feet, surge downstairs, and throw on a pair of sneakers. Out on the sidewalk, I pace uphill with no aim other than to be moving. Anything to be doing, rather than sitting and stewing in my thoughts.
“I’m not sure, Mom.” I answer truthfully. Recalling neurology lectures and minimal clinical experience, I start intellectualizing what is happening. I do it for myself as much as for my mom. Like I said, anything to be doing. I tell her about medicines we give in stroke, that Grandma might need a procedure, that we won’t know about long-term outcomes for a while yet, but that it is good news that they are trying to intervene right now. It all comes out in a flurry, stymying my own emotions. What do we know? Very little. What can be done? Very little, at least from this sidewalk in Milwaukee.
“Mom, if any of your siblings want to talk about it…” Finally, my emotions overcome the silly, fumbling student doctor. Hot, salty tears well up in my eyes and break forth like a flash tempest. I gasp for air that I suddenly cannot breathe. My rational mind is no match for this torrent of emotion, a storm that twists my heart and my guts in a whipping spiral like a wet flag in a hurricane.
Mom hears my breath catch and softly chastises herself.
“I’m so sorry, Hun. I don’t mean to put this all on you.”
“No, Mom.” My resolve returns. “I want to help however I can. Why did I do all this schooling if not for this? I am happy to talk with anyone who needs to understand this a little better.” I wipe away my tears and steady myself with a deep breath.
“Thanks, Joe. That means a lot… This is all just so… Scary.” Mom’s voice is a thin thread now, stretched taut by the emotion of it all. “I am looking at flights right now to go to Arizona. My dad isn’t doing too well with all of this, either.”
“That’s a good idea. I love you, Mom. Keep me updated.”
“I will. Love you, Son. Thanks for everything.” The line goes dead with a click.
Tragedy is an incredibly powerful motivator; I have seen this time and again during my clinical training. And yet, as the news of Grandma’s stroke spreads, it still amazes me to see how rapidly my family mobilizes. My grandpa’s best friend and my aunt arrive in Arizona first, closely followed by Mom and an uncle, with my oldest sister on her way two days later. Even though I cannot be there, I take great comfort in seeing how thoroughly my family loves and supports Grandma.
And the love does not stop there — after I got off the phone with my mom the day of the stroke, my fiancée came out to me on the sidewalk and held me in her arms while I cried. My sister’s boyfriend held her, too, when she heard the terrible news. My brother and his golden retriever comforted Mom when she came home from work. My dad wept because he couldn’t bear to think of Grandma in pain.
Where there is sorrow and suffering, we also see the workings of deep infinite love.
Over the next three months, my grandparents experience regular visitors: three generations of family from all over the United States keep a stream of eager helping hands coming-and-going through their small, ranch-style home in Surprise, Arizona. My chance to go arrives in the middle of December, between residency interviews, and I leap at the opportunity to spend even a couple days with my grandparents.
By now, Grandma has made some remarkable improvements. Physically, you would never know she had a stroke. She has been getting back into yoga and goes on daily walks. She always does her makeup, the exact same way she did before the stroke. But none of that was ever her main problem. You see, the stroke occurred in the part of her brain that produces language; the part that allows her to talk, tell stories, make jokes, and express herself. It is a devastating change for a woman with a beautiful mind and a lot to share. Now, her words don’t come easily; sometimes not at all.
I can see her mind working; thoughts turning over in her head but rarely landing on the right word. Watching her work reminds me of the feeling of having a word on the tip of my tongue; it’s just that almost every word is on the tip of Grandma’s tongue. Try as hard as she might, she just can’t recall the names of things.
Over the next two days, we have many halting conversations between grocery shop runs, meals, walks, and TV shows. Those conversations are an artistic charade; part acting out, part reading emotions, part written down, and part verbal. Grandpa and I continue to encourage Grandma to speak as much as she can, and when the words do not come, we wait. For her part, Grandma is remarkably persistent, continuing to push herself, despite the obstacles.
It is my last afternoon with my grandparents. The next morning, I will be getting on an early flight, so I am trying to soak up every moment. I am sitting with Grandma in the living room and going through word exercises with her on a handheld tablet. Abruptly, she sets down the tablet and looks up at me. I can see her working to produce a word, her eyes scanning back and forth as she searches the recesses of her mind. Her tongue works wordlessly in her mouth, sampling and discarding different sounds before she makes them. She’s so close to that word, whatever it is, like seeing it through a veil or shadow that barely obscures it from thought.
“Is everything alright, Grandma?” I ask. She looks at me again, this time eyes glistening. Her frustration and pain are etched in the care-worn lines of her face. With a sob, she buries her face in my chest. I fling my arms around her reflexively, as if to snatch her back from the pit she was falling into. I hold her in silence for a minute, maybe more. I don’t keep track; it doesn’t matter. After some time, she lifts her head and utters a single word.
Her head returns to my chest as the tears spill freely. My own emotions well up, tightening throat and blurring vision. I can’t fathom the depths of her feelings, but it doesn’t matter; I see and hear and feel her suffering as closely as if it were my own.
“Yes,” I find myself saying. “This is impossibly hard. But you don’t have to carry it all by yourself… Your family is here because we love you and we want to help you carry this burden. It’s just too heavy to carry alone.”
Grandpa, hearing the tears, comes in from the other room and joins us on the couch. He puts an arm around Grandma, punctuating my words with a gentle nod. After a moment, he opens his mouth to speak.
“I thought I lost you there, Pat.” His voice croaks briefly. “I am just so glad I still have you here.”
Grandma nods her head and pulls both of us in close. A strange feeling of joy washes over me, merging with the immense sorrow we all share.
The following morning, as I catch my flight, that moment on the couch stays with me. I am struck by how paradoxically strange it is to experience such great suffering and such powerful joy in the exact same moment. Suffering and joy are not two distinct, dichotomous feelings at all. They are one-and-the-same: a profound experience of great love, an elemental expression of human connection. A life of suffering is also a life of joy. Even amidst my grief, that realization lifts me up.
JOSEPH HODAPP, MD, is a transitional resident at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, California. He will be pursuing his advanced training in anesthesiology at Stanford University next year. Joe’s interest in storytelling began as a fourth-grader in Cottenham, England, in a land of castles, knights, dragons, and dungeons. He believes in the importance of the arts as an outlet for human emotion, expression, and connection, and intends to continue writing throughout his career.