We were eating cheap takeout Chinese food and watching a dvd when the vision in my left eye became occluded. At first I thought it was a floater. Then we thought it might be a detached retina. I convinced myself it would be better in the morning, but when I woke up on Boxing Day it had not improved. Finally, despite the sleet, I dragged myself to the emergency room for an adventure that took me all over Pittsfield, into my first MRI machine, and -- by nightfall -- into an inpatient stay at BMC...
My last stroke happened on Christmas Day of 2006. As of today, I have gone a year stroke-free.
We still don't know what caused the strokes, and it seems likely now that we never will. They are not only idiopathic (of unknown origin) but cryptogenic (though their origin seems like it ought to be discernible, it is not.) We know that hypertension is correlated, so I take a beta blocker and a calcium channel blocker daily to keep my blood pressure low. And we know that clots are correlated -- though my blood doesn't show a tendency to clot in lab studies, and I don't test positive for any genetic clotting factors -- so I take a mild blood thinner daily. We trust that these three small pills each morning will keep my body in working order.
Miraculously, there has been no lasting damage to my body. My language skills seem to be as good as they ever were (so if I have trouble with Hebrew and Aramaic, I can blame only my study habits), and I am no longer conscious of diminished vision in my left eye (though field-of-vision tests show there is still some impairment, it's imperceptible to me now.)
The strokes did some emotional and spiritual damage which I think we are still working to repair. They shook my sense
of my body's integrity, and they scared the people I love.
We spent many months of 2007 working with specialists here and in Boston, searching for the elusive syndrome
that would explain everything -- three strokes, two abscesses,
and a partridge in a pear tree! -- and although every negative
test result brought some relief, every new possible diagnosis left
us tense and shaken again. Though in theory we've accepted the reality that the strokes are cryptogenic, in practice it isn't always easy to live with not-knowing.
The strokes also brought some blessings. I have a new sense of my body as a complicated miracle, which I've tried to hold on to as the immediate sense-memory of the strokes and the testing has faded. Over the year I've received unbelievable outpourings of love and prayer -- from family, from friends, from colleagues, from teachers, from readers, from strangers --which I appreciate more than I can say. And the strokes brought me a lot of new poems, work I might never have created otherwise. (I've worked hard at finding the silver lining in this experience.)
I'd like to be able to say that the strokes taught me something about embodiment, about this existential and theological state of unknowing. Sometimes I feel like they did. Other times their lessons, or gifts, seem pretty distant. I suspect being a multiple stroke survivor will make me a more compassionate pastoral caregiver, though I like to think I was fairly compassionate to begin with.
In the end, the strokes can only be what I make them. I try to make them a reminder not to take my life or my body for granted, and a chance to marvel at how it's possible to feel connected with God even "min ha-meitzar," from narrow straits like these. One way or another, I'm pretty sure Christmas Day will never feel quite the same...and we'll be celebrating Boxing Day tonight with a couple of bottles of fancy microbrewed beers (a Unibroue Terrible, and a Lindemans pomme lambic) toasting my health.
I hope you'll raise your cup or mug or glass too to the miracle of embodiment, and the miracle of health, and the miracle that my loved ones and I -- and you, my blog-readers and friends -- have made it through the first year of this post-stroke journey together.