I came downstairs this morning to put a ham in the slow cooker.
My father-in-law sat at the breakfast bar, drinking milk out of a cereal bowl. Which was odd. He’s never alone. Not ever. Seeing him there is as disconcerting as it would have been to come downstairs and find an unattended toddler.
He did the thing he always does. Used a paper towel to polish his dirty bowl until it looked clean. Set it neatly with his spoon, patting the edges when they’re just so.
Then he left, back upstairs, to find his wife and I put his dirty dishes in the sink.
I mixed up a glaze (homemade apricot-rosemary jam and grainy mustard. Yum.) for the ham when my mother-in-law came into the kitchen.
“There you are,” I said. “Did you eat breakfast?”
She looked at me and said something that was in the tone of “Yes, I ate cereal” or something similar, but came out as a string of syllables that didn’t come together into English words.
I asked her to smile. The right side of her mouth lifted. The left didn’t.
And my heart skipped. My brain screamed: Stroke!
I sat her down and called 9–1–1. By the time the operator was on the phone, Carole’s speech was back. Within maybe 90 seconds, her smile was fine — maybe slightly droopy on her left side, but not as scary.
By the time the EMTs showed up at our house — within five minutes — they had to take my word for it. Something weird had happened.
Now we’re at the hospital. Her brain scan was fine. No bleeding, which is good news, but doesn’t mean she didn’t have a stroke. She’s had an MRI and we’re waiting.
Carole’s doctor came in two hours ago and said there’s a treatment — a medicine to get rid of blood clots. It has to be given within four hours of the first symptoms of a stroke. It can’t be given later. It can’t even be given if she has another stroke later.
If she even had a stroke. They don’t know. Maybe it was something similar, like a precursor stroke.
If she has the medicine it can keep her from having a major stroke. And it can cause severe side effects — including death or disability.
I asked the doctor what he’d do, if it was his mother. He said he wouldn’t give it to her, but he’d want it for himself.
What the hell does that even mean? Maybe that he’d want more heroic measures, because he’s young?
So we’re waiting. It turns out I have a knack for it — this sitting-with thing. Keeping company. Absorbing some of the worry.
The four hour window passed without anyone saying anything more about the medication, so I think that’s out of the equation at least.
Maybe he decided her symptoms are too mild to risk such heavy side effects.
Carole’s husband has Alzheimer’s. He’s confused and scared. Without his wife, it’s like the legs have been knocked out from under him. He’s unbalanced. He’s sitting here in the room and every time the nurse asks her a question he answers — for himself.
Usually his answer is unintelligible. As I’m writing this, he’s asked Carole if he can have her banana. Her ‘banana’ is a pair of yellow hospital socks.
And Carole is trying to explain to him that he can’t stay with her tonight.
He seems to understand — and then when things get quiet again he says looks at the empty second hospital bed and says well, I guess I’ll sleep in that bed tonight. Or, he asks his wife, Will we both fit in your bed?
There is an edge of fear in her voice as she worries about him waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing where she is.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.