For the past twenty-five years, whenever I have faced a difficult trial, or feel uneasiness in my faith, I return to the same “touchstone” memory. It was the day when a change of health taught me to cherish small moments, and write daily prayers of gratitude. It began with the day I focused on the present rather than fear the future.
On a cold January day with a brilliant blue sky I was roasting a turkey and frosting a cake for my husband’s birthday. The baby was napping and four-year-old Tommy was upstairs with his new friend, Glenn. Lego music of clinking, dumping, and swishing blended with giggles. I remember checking the clock when the garage door opened. I was not expecting to see my husband Jack until dinner.
“Why are you home so early?” I asked. Jack mumbled, grabbed some Tylenol, and climbed upstairs. I quickly basted the turkey and followed him. I had known Jack since we were fifteen. He had never complained of headaches nor left work early, and though he was always a man of few words, the mumbles were very unusual.
“Something is terribly wrong,” I thought as I crawled under the covers with Jack. Stroking his head I silently prayed for healing and understanding. I don’t remember feeling panic or fear – just a strong awareness that this was not a simple headache. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt it was significant.
Jack fell asleep and I went downstairs. I’d called little Glenn’s mom, a nurse, and she offered to take the two children. “It’s probably something ordinary – nothing to worry about,” she said, hustling the boys into her old wagon.
You don’t expect a stroke for someone only thirty-nine.
You can’t imagine a stroke on a thirty-ninth birthday.
That afternoon Nanny, Jack’s mother, stopped by. I was really glad to see her since this day was rapidly changing. When Jack awoke, I became alarmed. He tried to speak but nouns and verbs were jumbled, and syllables were out of order. And to add to the pressure, he was aware of his speech problems but refused an ambulance. So turkey and all the birthday fixings, along with the baby, were left in Nanny’s care and I drove Jack to the nearest hospital.
The ER doctor gently guided me through the process of admission. “You need a specialist, but I am not allowed to make a recommendation,” he said. “However, if you were to tell me that you heard Dr. J was a wonderful physician, well then, I would most certainly agree.” I picked up his clues and requested the outstanding specialist. After many tests Jack was attached to a heart monitor and admitted for observation. I drove home feeling very alone.
We thought there had been no warning for Jack’s stroke until we remembered a brief comment from a pediatrician that his heart valve might cause problems before age forty due to a childhood case of rheumatic fever. But, my husband was a runner in good physical shape. Just the previous Sunday, he had spent hours making and painting large “snow helmets” with the children to celebrate the Super Bowl. What we learned later was that the stroke occurred when a flick of scar tissue around the aortic valve traveled to the brain. Being strong and healthy made no difference in Jack’s case.
The children were sleeping and my mother-in-law was lying on the couch when I arrived home at midnight. After Nanny left, I went in to turn off the dining room light. I felt I had remained calm, confident, and strong throughout the day of driving, waiting, and testing, but the sight of birthday cake, children’s cards, and piles of sloppily wrapped gifts on a dining room table, all waiting to be celebrated with their father, collapsed me to tears.
In less than twelve hours my plans for a birthday celebration changed into plans for recovery and prayers for a longer life. Lighting a single candle on the chocolate cake, I sat down and prayed for thirty-nine more years of life and love.
Later as I crawled into bed, I grabbed my small book of prayers. The reading for the day was a letter written to a friend by St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622):
“Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear.
Rather, look to them with full hope, that, as they arise,
God, whose you are, will deliver you out of them.
He has kept you hitherto – hold fast to his dear hand,
and He will lead you safely through all things;
And, when you cannot stand, He will bear you in His arms.
Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow;
The same everlasting Father who cares for you today,
will take care of you tomorrow, and every day.
Either He will shield you from suffering,
or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace then,
and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.”
I returned to that passage each morning and evening for a year following the stroke. I practiced the advice by journaling my gratitude: “Neighbors shoveled snow… a friend brought milk… a co-worker cleaned my bathroom…” Nurses commented that I appeared to have great serenity during the stressful weeks of testing and difficult decisions. They wondered how I remained so calm. The way I saw it was that the grace of gratitude was beginning to show.
Jack’s aortic valve was finally replaced. To this day he continues running as a cardiac athlete. But the lessons from the “stroke-birthday” remain a touchstone for my life and faith. I write thoughts of gratitude at the end of each day. When a current situation seems difficult, or I begin to feel anxious about the “changes and chances” in life, I bring to mind that January day. I re-read the prayer of St. Francis de Sales. Then, I open my gratitude journal and begin to write.
Linda Berkery grew up in a funeral home (in Troy, NY) and married her high school sweetheart. She is a Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of the Assumption, in Latham. Linda is a spiritual director, mother of four grown children, with five grandchildren. She has published faith reflections in Liguorian, CATECHIST, and local newpapers. (Times Union, The Evangelist) This essay originally appeared in the book, “Let the Clock Run Wild: Wit and Wisdom from Boomers and Bobbysoxers (2014). Thanks again for sharing your work on this blog, Linda!