As this singular event fades further into my past, I don't dwell on it as much as I once did. I don't flinch when the Heart and Stroke Foundation's this-is-what-a-stroke-looks-and-sounds-like ads play on TV, or when I hear about someone else having gone through something similar. I don't dream about getting stuck deep in the MRI machine, or what it felt like to be locked inside my head with no ability to speak, or how heavy and useless I felt when I couldn't move my right side. For the record, it feels like a beached whale.
I'm one of the lucky ones. Thanks to a wife who immediately recognized what was happening, a friend who just happens to be one of the best neurologists anywhere, and friends who kept our family supported and moving forward throughout my hospitalization and recovery, I managed to make it back to the life I had previously. My brain is as crazy as it was before that day, and I long ago returned to raising hell at the keyboard and in the studio.
At the same time, I'd be lying if I said this experience hasn't redefined who I am and how I live. I still live in fear of it happening again, where something as mundane as a bit of fatigue after an especially brutal ride on the bike makes me stop and wonder if I'm falling down the rabbit hole again. It doesn't dominate my life, but it's always there, lurking in the background like the sound of the wind through the trees. But I can live with that, because that I can more or less control. It's the other stuff that bugs me, how it's affected everyone around me. I still see how it's changed how they - especially members of my family - perceive me.
I'm always being asked if I'm ok. Stares often linger a little longer on me, because a headache is no longer just a headache, and fatigue is no longer a routine artifact of a long day. Even if I answer that I'm feeling fine, I can tell when folks don't believe me. My everyday behaviours seem to weigh more in the minds of everyone around me, and that makes me a little sad. Because I never want to bring worry to others. It colors you permanently. You become the guy who had a stroke. Sick. Fragile. Or potentially so.
But I can't change what happened, only what I choose to do about it. So I ride the bike even when I'm not feeling up to it. I eat what my wife tells me to eat and I try to get more sleep. Because despite the fact that it was a freak accident in the middle of a bike ride that started all of this, every study of post-stroke recovery correlates an active, healthy lifestyle with reduced risk of recurrence. So that's what I do.
I've radically changed how I both perceive and use time. In short, I appreciate, to the depths of my soul, how precious it is. So I'm pretty picky about how I spend it, and who I spend it with. I no longer suffer fools lightly: I might simply walk away in the middle of a conversation if I think it's wasting my time. I avoid contact with people who suck the oxygen out of a room, because even returning a call takes time away from something or someone more worthy. It isn't arrogance. It's simply time management, and I'm making the best use of what I've been given.
I loved my family before, of course. But I love them more now. Because I can still close my eyes and literally feel what it felt like to think of them in the past-tense. Seemingly simple things like sitting on the deck with a tall glass of iced tea, the dog at my feet and a good conversation bouncing between me, my wife and kids become anything but simple. These moments, which once upon a time I would have allowed to pass into history with barely a second thought, are now worth so much more.
I can't slow down time any more now than I could earlier in my life. But I can sure do a better job turning those moments over and over in my mind, both as they occur and after they're done. And I can also do a better job making sure there's always another glass of iced tea to be made, and conversation to be had. No guarantees, of course, that I'll actually get all that iced tea, dog-patting and conversation, because the universe doesn't work that way. But as long as I keep getting lucky enough to be gifted with more moments, I promise to work harder than I did before to appreciate them.
Not all bad
All of which is a twisted way of saying that having a stroke at a ridiculously young age because of a similarly ridiculous chain of events wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to me. Do I wish it had never happened? Of course. But you can't rewrite history - with wishes or with anything else. Life is going to happen to us, and it's likely going to have more than it's fair share of nasty stuff along the way. We all get slimed along the way, and we'll all end up with varying degrees of scars. My scars don't hold a candle to those suffered by others. My choice - and it can be yours, too - is to learn from it and try to apply those lessons forward. No complaining: Just make stuff happen.
I've had three years of learning, and along the way I'd like to think I've become something of a better person. I sweat the small stuff better. I enjoy people (the right ones, anyway) more, and I try to make more moments happen with them. And if this entire experience has taught me how to lead a better life and hopefully help those around me lead better lives, as well, then maybe this radical tangential turn wasn't such a bad thing, after all.
Your turn: What's the one thing you'll do, today, to improve the world for yourself and/or for others?
* If you're just joining us, here's what happened:
- First, I had a stroke
- Then, everyone kind of freaked out
- Then, talked about it on the radio
- And I talked about it on national TV (video here)
- Oh, and I learned more stuff along the way