90 Day Wonder

When I dream about my father, he is usually teaching me something. His voice is firm, bellowing through the room like a sergeant with a new recruit. 

Sometimes his hand flies up to gesture and I flinch, duck my head, afraid that he might rap me for having my attention wander.

A few months after my birth in ‘44, my father was sent by the U.S. Navy to Officer’s Candidate School at Cornell University. He was among a very select group of men chosen to complete the equivalent of a college education in just three months. The Navy called them “ 90 Day Wonders.” In his mostly ordinary life, it became an extraordinary achievement and probably why he expected nothing less than academic excellence from his children. To my father, second best was a close cousin to failure.

While visiting my parents’ Florida home, I watch my father proudly show me racks of golf slacks hung meticulously and arranged by color in his closet. Then he lifts the bamboo shade and gestures towards the sun, gloats, as if he were responsible for it being there. It’s a great day for the driving range. And at last, he can hit that little white ball again. Today I, reluctantly, agree to let him give me a golf lesson. 

Just a year ago, the choice of what to wear seemed insignificant, almost banal, among decisions of what stocks to buy or sell, or where to travel during his comfortable state of semi-retirement. Then, like a flash tropical storm, his life changed dramatically. Two days after elective bypass surgery, at 72, he suffered a massive stroke. 

He had decided on the surgery after several consultations and opinions. The consensus being, it could add ten, maybe twenty years to his life. And the operation itself was a clinical success. He said he had felt minimal pain and discomfort. So on the second day, he became a little stubborn, insisted on a trip to the bathroom over the indignity of using a bed- pan. It may have been the mistake of his life. He became paralyzed on the right side, indicating a clot had lodged in the left portion of his brain—the part that controls patterns of speech, communication, and the memory bank of learning. All his words and thoughts lay trapped inside his brain. 

I flew to Florida immediately, not knowing what to expect, shocked at the sudden change in his condition. My mother begged me not to be emotional when I saw him. She instructed me to talk very slowly. Then she said, “ The man in that room is not your father.”

Those words echoed in my mind as I walked down the endless corridor to his room. He was propped in a huge vinyl chair with support bars. Twisted tubes connected him to a machine that made loud pumping sounds like an aquarium. His left arm was bent, the hand pressed against his cheek, holding up his head. He looked a hundred years old. I gulped hard, choking back tears while I stood frozen at his right side.

“ Hi Daddy,” I said, the words startled me; I hadn’t uttered them in years. He groaned and I bent over to kiss him chatting nervously, trying to avoid his sad liquid eyes. But they searched my face looking for answers to all the questions he could not ask. “Don’t worry,” I said, “everything will be all right.”

In the days that followed, doctors rotated in and out of his room looking for hints of improvement. They did not recognize the vibrant man that had marched into their office just weeks before methodically gathering information. Now they seemed to press too hard asking him for the names of his children and his wife. He looked at them with disgust—annoyed at this test. They dangled simple familiar objects in front of his face... a comb, a ball, a cup. When he shoved the rubber ball into his mouth, I threw myself over his chest, squeezed his cheeks until he released it. He could name nothing, but once in utter frustration, he screamed, “Get out of here, all of you!” Involuntary speech unleashed by pure anger.

The speech pathologist reported that further testing had revealed his impairment was severe. There was a chance he could endanger himself, misusing a razor, a fork, a knife. Recovery would be an uphill battle. It would depend on his willingness to relearn the simplest of concepts, and loads of sheer luck.

Within a few days, in the same hospital, he began his rehabilitation. Although he suffered bouts of depression, he waited anxiously for his daily speech and physical therapy. He sat staring at his watch—always ready for someone, anyone, to knock on his door. Could he really know the time, I wondered or was it just habit? Like a toddler, he struggled with a spoon trying to feed himself. And he was insistent on trying to walk, grunting if you dared stop him. He developed a new vocabulary of four letter words, commonplace we were warned, for stroke victims. The staff cheered him on as he marched tentatively down the long hospital halls in his first pair of high tops. He responded like Rocky with raised arms, and garbled words that sounded like, “I’ll do it. You’ll see.”

In less than three weeks, my father walked unassisted, and was discharged. He continued speech therapy at home on a computer. He sat for hours mesmerized by the images on the screen. The therapist used simple pre-school programs that would help him link new words with sounds. And most of them were truly new words. Dad was starting over. I told the therapist that he would work harder than anyone. I told her of his passion for knowledge... about the Navy and Cornell...how he was constantly sending us, his children, articles to read. They were words of advice or concern, substituting for words of love. She listened, but turned from me, and my pleading eyes. She already knew what I was afraid to hear—my father would no longer be the man I’d known, and she would not dare forecast his future. 

Dad’s emotions have taken the place of much of his language. And while watching him through this struggle, still, I am learning from him, this being the gentlest of his lessons. His little notebook lists addresses and our names, names he might never say. And he gives out business cards, describing his disability, to anyone who looks at him with trepidation.

Sometimes, when our family gathers around the dinner table, his head darts back and forth desperately taking in the nuances of our conversation. No matter what, he has made up his mind to be an active participant. He laughs when we laugh, leans in when we whisper. I watch him struggling to understand, and my heart pounds wishing everyone would please slow down. When they don’t, often his eyes meet mine. “Oh God,” I might hear him whisper. 

I’m startled, when my father walks out of his bedroom modeling lime green golf slacks. Smiling broadly, he says, “ Good, huh?”

What can I possibly say? “Yes, perfect!”

Note: Finalist in Cup of Comfort for Courage Anthology. Used by the Stroke Foundation of NYC in meetings with families of stroke victims.