Because I was not aware of my memory/perception problems, I spent the first stretch of recovery in almost total confusion. I could function intellectually only minute by minute. If a conversation lasted longer than that, I had forgotten the subject. My roommate and the nurses introduced themselves hourly. And because my right side was completely without feeling, I forgot about it, too. My memory of life before the stroke was absolutely unaffected, but my memory of those first several weeks at RVH was, and still is, a montage of unrelated events.
In later months, when I was once again sentient, I began to seek answers from everyone about those first weeks of recovery. It was a confusing and somewhat disconcerting process because everyone (my husband, my children, my parents) all remembered things differently... very differently, in some cases. I soon stopped asking.
I wish I had been able, or someone had thought, to keep a diary of that time.
During one of my first nights in my hospital
room, I wet my bed. A nurse, checking on me, grumbled and
glared as she changed the bed, changed my gown, and put a
diaper on me.
Now, I recognize her reasoning: I had needlessly
and unpleasantly taken up 10 minutes of her time. Then, I
was ashamed and resentful in equal parts.
I give to that nurse, however, some small credit: her attitude
and actions, whether callous, practical or both,, did more
to cement my determination to recover than did any other single
episode following the stroke. Non-recovery meant a continuation
of such indignities. But not for me.
My sister, brother-in-law and new niece visited me.
When I had the bleed, I had long hair, perhaps half-way down my back. I had been sporting a French braid, and someone, at some point, had washed and dried my hair without unfastening the braid. I suppose having the braid in kept my hair out of everyone's way. However, that matted clump of fibers formerly known as hair became my main concern. I wasn't a vain person, but... everything else was inconceivable, so I focussed on something I could easily fret about.
I sat in the hospital hallway in a sedan chair. (The very name invokes images of anywhere but a hospital, anyone but a stroke patient... Deborah Kerr, immaculate in linen and pearls, reclining on a terrace above the Mediterranean.) Mum and my sister tentatively combed my hair. They were worried they were pulling too hard. I remember thinking with inner amusement that my sister needn't worry; she was working on my right.
Later, they brought my niece to see me, or be seen by me. They tucked her into the crook of my "good" left arm (inner laughter: with my double vision, they were the proud parents of adorable twins), and so began the juggling of options that still, almost two years later, goes on daily. I couldn't have held her safely in my right arm, but with my left arm holding her, I could not reach over with my dead right hand to touch her. Unimportant; all-important. [In 2008, I still juggle
such options, though to a lesser degree.]
Interestingly enough, although I remember their visit, and my parents' daily visits, I don't remember many of my husband's and children's visits. I've puzzled over this selective forgetfulness, and asked various doctors about it. The only reasonable answer we can come up with is that my husband and children represented responsibilities and pressures I knew I was utterly unable to shoulder at the time (and, perhaps, feared I would never be able to shoulder), and so I fled from them emotionally and intellectually.
My mother is an early riser, and so would be there first thing every morning. She would sit and chat while I ate breakfast and got washed and dressed. I would see her all a-twitch, wanting so badly to help me. I would give her "the eye" (the same one she and dad raised us with) and she would settle back in her chair. Bathing, dressing, eating... all were awkward and hilarious and exhausting. I don't know who suffered more, me or her.
She would massage my hand and foot each day. The Body Shop's peppermint foot massage cream was wonderful; it smelled grand and warmed under her hands. I couldn't feel it, but it was great for her arthritis. Because I had no feeling in my right limbs, they would dangle at will. That massaging helped immensely in keeping the circulation in my extremities up to snuff.
My memory, or lack of, continued to plague me. I have since learned that most of my memories of those first weeks are accurate. I've also learned that I've forgotten far more than I've remembered.
My brain was still reeling from the damage. When my mind couldn't remember things, didn't know the answers to questions, it would simply weave some fantasy or another to fill in the gaps. I don't remember any of the fantasies I wove, but it stands to reason my mind would choose to forget I told my husband one night that the nurses had taken indisputably bed-ridden me to Queen's Park to watch a tennis tournament, or that I'd had chili and burritos for dinner.
I asked him to bring my electronic organizer because I needed a telephone number. He did, but I couldn't remember where in the sequence of numbers needed to access it I was, or what number I wanted, or why.
Mum soon learned not to ask me what I'd done, who came to visit, what the doctor said. As far as I was concerned... nothing, no one, nothing. Doctors, technicians, speech therapists were all news to me. We'd spend increasing amounts of time each visit, I'm told, reviewing what we'd talked about previously. It was always news to me, and exhausting to a mind not even capable of remembering I had a right side, too.
The episode that disturbs me to this day about that 'out of sight, out of mind' period involved my father. He, too, had been visiting daily. One day, I said to someone (Mum? My husband?) that it seemed Dad hadn't been in that day; I was told he had had a small stroke several days before. He was fine; he had not been hospitalized; he would have no serious or lasting problems. But he decided not to tell me because it would upset me. [I guess there's a history of stroke in my family after all. I just jumped the gun by several weeks.]
I was upset almost as much by the fact that it had taken me several days to notice his absence. Thankfully, both he and my mum understood this lapse; although I didn't know it at the time, I would be brought to grief many times in later months by that sort of memory/awareness lapse. Later during my hospitalization, Dad did resume visiting
me. He was fine.
On the other hand, having no short-term memory had
its advantages. Any number of times each day, I'm told, I was delighted
by flower arrangements I'd forgotten I'd received. I admired my
new bathrobe twice daily for weeks; I'd forgotten I had it. And
I know I must have been frightened and frustrated and sad regularly
(especially frustrated), but I've forgotten most of those times.
Getting out of bed and into a wheelchair was the first of many returning freedoms that made the painfully slow process of recovery bearable. At first, of course, I needed help getting in and out of it, and was allowed to use it only with the help of a 'responsible' person. My instinctive reaction to that decree was indignation and revolt, but I was soon laughing at me, with one-sided strength and no memory, rolling in circles trying to go... where?
When my husband came to visit, he would wheel me out to the rooftop patio. What a treat that was! I was, literally and figuratively, missing summer, and those moments in the sun were very precious. On our way outside one day, we had successfully negotiated the doorway, but no amount of pulling would move me further. After confusion on my part and frustration on his, we discovered my right arm firmly caught by the almost closed door. We both laughed: He because it was ridiculous and because, I suspect, he was made uncomfortably aware that I might need more careful watching; and I because it was ridiculous and it didn't hurt.
Eventually, I noticed many stroke patients wore a sling most of the time, or had what resembled short sections of eavestroughing mounted on the arms of their wheelchairs, wherein they could rest their numb arms. Both seemed very good ideas to me because my arm, flopping at will, got into trouble regularly. In later months, when a small degree of feeling returned to my arm and shoulder, they were sore, but I was too busy to worry about it. I would come to wish I had worried.
During the first of our sunroof outings, I asked my husband for a cigarette. I don't know why I asked; I think I was missing the ritual more than the nicotine. He refused, of course, and I don't remember asking again.
One of the reasons I was content to not smoke made eating an interesting undertaking after the bleed. I had none of what I've come to refer to as "taste memory". When I say "roast beef" or "ice cream", you can taste it, can't you? Your brain remembers the taste and, especially when you're hungry, transfers it to your empty mouth.
My brain didn't remember. Looking at chicken, peas, pie (foods I liked before the stroke, and... it's hospital food, remember – Coquilles St. Jacques was not an issue) elicited the same response in my mouth as did the once-dreaded liver, sprouts or creamed corn – nothing.
Foods I hadn't previously liked became (and remain) favourites, and former favourites have been forgotten. I remember reading somewhere of an experiment wherein children were given a wide range of edibles from which to freely choose. Most initially chose the sweets, the ice cream, etc., but soon switched to nutritious foods. Our bodies know what they need.
Having been somewhat overweight for most of my adult life thanks to a sweet tooth unfettered by will power, it was an unexpected pleasure to eat healthily and not miss the bad stuff.
I needed a bath. That twice-daily bowl of tepid water just wasn't doing the trick. After days of negotiations resulting in an only somewhat satisfying shower supervised by my mother, I was plopped into a wheeled plastic potty chair one morning and rolled down the hall to a room furnished in Early Brewery.
The chair seat was separated from the frame and I was hoisted into a chest-high vat sprouting tubes and pipes and wiring... a stainless steel slice of Heaven. The bathing process lurched along, stymied at every turn by every turn, by double vision, by a porpoise-bred bar of soap, by paralysis caused at least as much by laughter as by stroke. And... a razor! I could shave my legs!
When I was finished, no witch lifted from Salem's dunking pond could have felt more triumphant, dripped with more satisfaction than I did.
Back in my room, Mum was waiting. While I was telling her where I'd been, what I'd accomplished, she grew pale and then pink and moist-eyed. Was she proud? Of course. Was she over-emotional? Aren't all we mothers? Did she manage to not burst into gales of laughter at the as yet unnoticed by me myriad of tiny cuts leaking blood down my legs? Not a chance.