When a Smashed Bottle is Cause for Gratitude: 17 years After Stroke

Yesterday, as Jack & I were finishing a late brunch, I glanced at the paper. January 30. My stroke anniversary date — seventeen years since my life was upended by stroke and antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), the nasty autoimmune disease that turns my blood to sludge.

Back then, it felt like my life was over. I never would have guessed I had even seven years left, much less seventeen. I fought brain fog, fatigue, a shredded memory, attention deficit, garbled speech. Because my right hand has almost no feeling, I couldn’t type or tie my shoes, or turn a key in the lock. I lived on a tightrope, dependent on high doses of blood thinner to prevent another stroke but with the constant threat of bleeding.

I grieved not just the loss of capability, but the loss of myself. After a year, I could no longer remember who I’d been before.

But slowly, with time and therapy—and much hard work—I regained some of the capabilities I lost. I cultivated some new qualities, chief among them greater patience with myself. With Jack’s help, and the optimism learned from my father, I found the grit to travel off the beaten path. I found the courage to feel lucky, to tamp down the fear that life-threatening accidents lurked around every corner.

Yesterday, when I realized what day it was, I sat at the breakfast table and gave thanks for the marvels of those seventeen years. Walking the floor with four new grandchildren. Standing soaked in the mist and awe of Brazil’s Iguaçu Falls. Basking in the silence of a dervish’s dance. Celebrating twenty-five years and more than fifty countries visited with with Jack. Finding time and voice to write.

I took a breath and a long, calm moment to feel grateful on that, the anniversary of one of the worst days of my life.

Back to reality, I cleaned off the breakfast table. Jack had cooked, so it was my turn to do dishes. I carried the condiments to the kitchen counter next to the refrigerator. Reaching into the refrigerator with an almost-full bottle of salsa, I looked away for just a moment, forgetting to use my eyes to see what my hand cannot feel. That’s when the bottle slithered from my grasp and exploded on the tile kitchen floor.

The sudden thunk, the splat, the flying tomato gore, chunks and shards of glass sailing all the way into the dining room.

Micro pieces of glass as fine as sand were everywhere, even stuck to the bottom of my shoes. There followed the conundrum of “how to clean up glass while on blood thinners.” The answer, of course: very slowly and carefully—with lots of paper towels and help from Jack and his powerful shop vac.

With the mess finally cleaned up, I headed to my office to work. My cell phone rang, a doctor’s office. I noticed the time: 2:10 pm.

A woman’s voice: “I had you down for an appointment at two o’clock.”

Me: “Oh, I think there’s a mistake. I am sure I made that appointment for Wednesday.”

Her: “Yes. Today is Wednesday.”

I looked up, for a moment as lost in brain fog as I’ve ever been.

Even after seventeen years, some things can’t be fixed.

All I can do is chose to live in gratitude for what remains. And I do.