On a Sunday morning exactly five months ago, as I played with my baby and helped my two older daughters to do their homework, still all in our pyjamas, and prior to the girl’s swimming lessons at lunchtime, my land line phone rang. My husband was out playing tennis with his friend Frank, and it was Frank on the phone. “Tara,” he said, “I’m here with Richard. An ambulance has just arrived, and it looks as if he’s had a stroke.”
At a moment like that, I think I should have another voice to speak with. How can the voice I nag the children with and say thank you in a shop when I get my change, be a suitable one to answer a friend who has the horrible job of telling me that, and to respond to the situation with enough gravitas and weight? A couple of hours later in the day, as I spoke to the surgeon who was going to operate to remove the clot from my husband’s brain, I felt similarly ill-equipped. In tones that were no different to those I use to respond to the person who delivers my grocery shopping to the door, I asked questions and fulfilled the conversational niceties of saying yes and uhuh to show that I was listening and still on the end of the line.
Most moments in day to day life are familiar, oft repeated and expected. Every so often, an event occurs that has such life and death significance, that we are shocked into responding to it either as though it was as mundane as a chat with a neighbour over the garden fence, or we might go into the throes of panic and hysteria. I think that this depends upon our personality or perhaps it depends upon who the story is about. I think that if you told me that something bad had happened to one of my children, I might throw up on the spot before falling into a ball to my knees with my head covered and my voice wailing with an anguished cry that would echo in my soul always.
I didn’t initially believe that my husband had suffered a stroke. He is tall and strong and invincible in my eyes. He has a strength of body and character that made him feel a bit immortal to me. I thought perhaps he had suffered from heat stroke on the tennis court that morning. When the surgeon later told me that he might die on the operating table, or might be permanently and severely disabled, I nodded down the phone line (always a great communication method) as I answered to show that I understood, though I didn’t comprehend at all. I did comprehend the operation, the need for it and the situation. I showed this to such a level in my conversation with the surgeon that he asked if I had a medical background. I understood but I didn’t associate those risks described with my husband. He was going to be fine. No matter that it was the worst kind of stroke you can have in a part of the brain that would lead to severe, crippling and life threatening results if things went badly. This was my strong husband. He can do handstands, cartwheels, the monkey bars, kung fu, fencing, five-a-side-football, running and the opening of really hard to open jars. My friends rallied to help. Dinners were made and delivered to my house and childcare, lifts and their supportive presence and strength were offered.
As I sat in the waiting room of the Neuro Intensive Care Ward with my friend Gina who had driven me to the hospital, I had ordinary conversations with her and a little with other waiting relatives. I’d been told that they couldn’t tell how my husband had responded to surgery until they woke him. Only then would they be able to tell if his movement, breathing, speech, sight and mental capacities had been affected. This was my only nervous moment that day; this was the only moment during which I briefly considered the possibility of a negative outcome. I clung to the ordinariness of the conversation with my friend. My ordinary voice, speaking about ordinary stuff, would keep me tethered to the ordinary world in which my husband remained the able-bodied, intensely intelligent, capable, kindred-soul and chosen and cherished partner that I was sharing my life with.
We had a miraculous series of events that day that lead to my husband having absolutely no problems left from the stroke at all; I don’t think he lost a single neuron. We also had the advantage via the stroke that he had a complete medical MOT and we found that he was fit and healthy in all regards but the heart arrhythmia that had cased the stroke. We hadn’t know about this blip in his heart rhythm that happens about 60% of the time for him. Now we do and he takes a couple of tablets everyday to reduce the possibilities of it happening again.
He was with a friend who recognized the stroke and called an ambulance immediately.
The ambulance arrived in five minutes and had him at the hospital within another five.
He was playing tennis in a park close to the hospital that has the specialist stroke provision in our part of London.
The surgeon who operated doesn’t usually work on Sundays but was there that day.
The surgeon is one of only a handful in the UK that can perform the experimental surgery that he so adeptly carried out that day. It was only his 25th operation of this type.
So I needed a different voice that day, to talk to friends, surgeons and intensive care ward nurses.
It’s just that James Earl Jones’ voice would have conveyed the gravity and the significance of the events so much more appropriately and strongly that day.