Blood is dripping from her mouth as she brushes her teeth. Her eyes have a dull intensity as she works the electric brush left to right, always left to right. The routine is unvarying as she proceeds to the next stage, up and down movement. The blood trickles down her chin and onto her tee shirt.
He sighs, a weariness hanging over him like a low, dark thunder head.
“Lydia,’ he says softly. “Done. You’re done.” Her eyes are tiny focused dots in the mirror.
He reaches to her arm, touching softly with a lovers touch. The flesh stiffens under his fingers as he gently eases the brush away from her face. He sets it on the bowl of the sink as he reaches for the paper towels. Never cloth, too much blood. He blots her, not rubbing, because the rubbing irritates her, so it feels like dabbing up a spill of precious liquid.
“Not done,” she mumbles.
“Remember, Lydia, we talked. When you see the red—the blood, it’s time to stop. Your teeth are clean then.”
She turns to him, her eyes scanning, momentary loss of recognition. She’s lost the image of his face somewhere in the thick sediment of her damaged neurons. For a moment he can see the searching, the processing and then a whisper of knowing. She nods.
He leads her to the bedroom his hands on her shoulders, guiding with small pressures. She has adapted to this new way of moving and follows the reins of his fingers.
Thirty five was too young to have a stroke. And in yoga class. The instructor said she was reaching skyward, her hands in a heavenly supplication when suddenly her body became liquid and splattered to the floor like spilled milk.
“Her eyes were blank. Staring at the ceiling. We knew something was seriously wrong though she was breathing. Paramedics were here in minutes.” The instructor sounded like she was apologizing for the aberrations of the universe.
Six months ago. An eternity. Aphasia, degenerative motor skills, trouble talking and OCD. He thought he could at least overcome the other things: the falling, the seizures, the crying. He could help with those but the irrationality of the OCD wore on him. It manifested in compulsive, non-stop teeth brushing and combing her hair until the brush was clogged with strands. She became upset when things were out of line on the kitchen counter, twisting her hands and pacing until she was able to line up containers, salt, pepper, oil and jars. She shuffled them around until tears came.
Three days each week for physical therapy, neurological tests, memory retention exercise. His routine was wrapped around those days not like wrapped in a warm blanket but more a tarp thrown over a broken tractor.
He pulled the tee shirt over her head as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you try. I try.” She choked on a sob. “Put me somewhere, a place where you don’t have to worry.” Before the stroke they laughed and giggled like teen lovers even after ten years together. Their arguments were few and unsubstantial, like snowflakes she would say, not a full blizzard and she would burst his angry bubble with her laughing eyes. During arguments when he felt maligned, he tried to hold on to the anger like a stubborn child. She shattered his hot bubble when she launched into stories about her family of witches. “My Bubba was a witch,” she joked. “She brought ancient magic from the old country. Croatia. Beware! I am an elemental. She taught me how to focus the evil eye.” She would squint, screw up her face and wink at him and until the anger puffed away.
Her skin sagged on her frame now like a deflated balloon, her once tight muscles atrophied and withered. She’d lost thirty pounds since the stroke. He had to feed her at first, carefully so she wouldn’t choke. Chewing should be involuntary, he thought as food dripped from her lips. He felt a tightness in his chest, a physical ache seeing her like this. Lydia had taken such good care of herself, yoga, running, sweaty workouts at the gym. Now, she moved from room to room in a slow zombie shuffle. It was all she could manage.
Friends came in the beginning, bringing food, sitting with Lydia, but she wasn’t the Lydia who had shopped with them, shared coffee and laughed. They tried, he gave them a grade for that, but the toll abraded the kindness like harsh sandpaper. The visits became less frequent, finally dropping to a faint trickle of emails and Facebook posts. Now it all fell on him, a muddy landslide of responsibilities. He was treading water at the bottom of a well with not even a faint glimmer of hope candled against the dark walls as her condition deteriorated. I didn’t sign on for this.
The results of physical and cognitive therapies had plateaued they told him. She had improved as much as possible given the extent of the damage. Time would not be a friend barring a miracle.
He prayed. Something he had not done since childhood and it failed to comfort him.
“You look exhausted,” he shrugged at the doctor’s comment.
“Yeah, well. . . “
Lydia was in another room with the physical therapist. He watched though the glass partition. She moves like she’s ninety.
“Have you thought about placing her somewhere?”
“Can’t afford it. We’ve maxed out the insurance, for those times when I absolutely have to leave her alone, I have to pay for a home health worker out of pocket. You guys have said, what? Given the pace of her failings, maybe another year. I’m trying to hold out. What choice do I have?”
“There might be something. We’ve been working on an experimental procedure. I have to point out, it is NOT approved for human trials. There may be legal ramifications.” He paused. “The animal studies have showed promise and the science is solid.”
“Why isn’t it approved then?”
“These things take time. It appears our research department is the only one working on this procedure and it is very controversial.”
“Not everyone believes the stem cells can be made to differentiate into neurons. Some think it may cause even more damage.”
“How does it work?”
“We’ll inject a special type of stem cell directly into her brain at damaged sites,” the doctor said. “If all goes well, these cells will differentiate into neurons and repair the areas she’s lost. When they grow back the broken functions will return.”
“What’s the risk?” he asked.
“We’re not sure they’ll grow into the proper cells. Uncontrolled growth leads to cancer but the tests on rats have been promising.”
“If it doesn’t work?”
The doctor shrugged. “It’s so new. We honestly don’t know. You have to understand that her condition is inevitably deteriorating. She’s not going to get better if we do nothing.”
“There’s been improvement. You indicated some of the functions were restored.” His voice was pleading.
The doctor shook his head. “It will reverse and will get bad really fast. I wish there was some other way. Think about it. Talk to Lydia on day when she’s in the moment.”
He explained it to her the best he could, repeating the complicated parts. He didn’t understand all the science of the procedure himself.
“I want you to get better,” he said. “If there’s any chance.”
Her head bobbed up and down, almost a nod. “Me too,” she sighed. “Don’t. . .like. . .be. . .ing. . .this way.”
Together, they agreed to allow the procedure.
Thursday was one of her better days, one that gave him hope, but she’d had them before only to waken the next morning with meanings lost in a jumble of wrong words and hands not able to hold a cup.
“If there is any chance for us to be normal again. I want to do it,” she said. “I want to be able to entrance you with my witchy powers again.” They both laughed. Strained to be optimistic. On the good days, things almost seemed like they were before the stroke, other than it was hard for her to walk or putter in the kitchen. Her humor still bubbled to the surface. He longed for those precious days where they made silly jokes and laughed. It was as if the gods cursed them for being too happy.
They shaved her head again. “You can have a blonde or redhead until my air grows back. I’ll get different wigs to seduce you with once the procedure is done.”
He hoped it would return to that but he was afraid. He’d lost her once and didn’t know if he could stand a second time.
When they wheeled her into recovery after the surgery, his knees gave way and he held on to the ledge of the window to keep from falling. She looked like a corpse.
“It went well,” the doctor said. “It should take about twelve hours for her to be responsive again.”
“How long before we know if it’s working? I guess we forgot to ask that.”
“Neurogenesis is an unknown. In theory some of the cells should migrate to the damaged areas and differentiate into the requisite neurons but this is so new. We just don’t know how long it will take. In some of our experiments it was hours. In others it was weeks and as we discussed, occasionally it didn’t happen at all. We’ll just have to monitor her closely. Watch and measure the changes.”
He went home and sat on the couch staring at nothing. Eventually he tumbled into an exhausted sleep.
When he brought her home four days later, nothing had changed except she couldn’t stand and wasn’t able stay awake for more than a few minutes at time.
Maybe he expected too much, he told himself after putting her to bed. He poured a bourbon and sat on the couch staring at the television with the sound muted. In the morning, a nearly empty bottle faced him from the table. It became a pattern. Somehow the alcohol induced oblivion assuaged his pain. It was not his nature to hide in a hole and after five days he stopped. Lydia could talk but could only raise her arm with effort. He managed to load her into the car and take her back to the hospital. When he lifted her into the car, she was so light, she felt hollow, like a Styrofoam bird.
“It isn’t working,” they said. “Call hospice.” The change of attitude slapped him.
The doctor’s head swiveled up and down the hall as he leaned in close enough to taste his aftershave. “We’ve lost funding. The department is being investigated. I’m sorry.”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted at the retreating figure.
He took her back home, put her in bed and fell asleep in the chair in the bedroom.
Together they had been their own unit, drunk on the feelings for each other. They made efforts not to exclude family or friends from their circle but were overwhelming content with each other’s company. He felt the loss of private intimacy along with its warmth and freshness. Since the stroke he felt a cavernous emptiness. Lydia seemed to sense the loss too but her energies were focused on relearning simple skills. He kissed her cheeks or forehead, gave her a squeeze but the physical part was laid waste like a dry desert. He missed her delicate hands touching him in prelude and during the coupling but felt submerged in guilt because he still wanted her.
His eyes were thick and burning when he wakened. The muscles of his back ached from the contorted position and rebelled as he pushed himself up. He went to her bed.
“Lydia, babe…” There was no response. He watched her chest rise and fall. Let her sleep. The rest would help the healing. She didn’t waken that day or the next. He called the clinic.
“You can bring her in but it is probable that she has slipped into a coma.”
“That can be good. Like she’s healing, right?” He could hear the deep sigh on the phone.
“Not likely. I’m sorry, we advised hospice.” He clicked the phone to off. He wanted to throw it against the wall but stoved his anger. He understood if he let go once, he’d be useless to her.
A whisper called to him like a faint rustling of leaves, almost words. Almost a voice. He climbed to the surface from sleep forcing himself awake. Sleep welcomed him in a strangely deep embrace most nights on the chair braced by random pillows.
“Lydia!” Panic punched him in the chest as he opened his eyes.
Her eyes were open. He sat up, his muscles resisting with stiffness from sleeping in the strained position.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she answered. “You looked so uncomfortable. Your head was lolling to the side. Your neck must be stiff.” Her words were clear, her voice stronger than it had been in a long while. He stepped across the room, leaned into the bed and kissed her forehead.
“I feel like I’ve been asleep for a month. And I’m hungry.” His eyes widened.
“Are you sure? Maybe some oatmeal?”
“Yeah, that would be good. And eggs.”
When he returned with the tray of food she had propped herself up with pillows. Her eyes were bright and her face held a tentative smile.
“I feel better,” she said. “Not great yet, but better.”
By the weekend she was walking, slow, tentative shuffling steps but on her own. He called the clinic again.
“It is better than we anticipated. You have reason to hope,” the team doctor said. “With caution. This is new. Give it two more weeks and we’ll do scans to see how much has changed.”
“I thought funding dried up?”
“No more research but we are tracking followups. In the future,” The words dropped off. He felt they had been used like the lab rats.
On the way home in the car, she said, “It’s going to rain tomorrow. Heavy downpour.”
“What? You’re watching the weather channel now?” he laughed.
Before she turned to stare out the window, her eyes were constricted dots.
The day started bright and sunny with a water blue sky painted with stray dobs of white cotton balls but by noon, sinister dark clouds rolled over the buildings and let loose a deluge of heavy rain. The streets ran with water like rapids for two hours before gradually tapering off.
“Boy, that was some rain. The weather guys said it blew in off the coast unexpectedly and you said it was going to rain. Where did you hear that?” He asked as she sipped a warm tea and nibbled a piece of toast with marmalade.
“I don’t know. Just felt it. Maybe my witch powers are coming back.” she smiled.
“I never saw any witch powers before. You said your grandmother was supposed to be a witch, back in the old country. I remember you talking about that.”
Another week and she was still weak but showered without help and fixed her own breakfast. She beamed across the table. “It’s just Raisin Bran, but I poured it out of the box without spilling any and the milk too. I made you a bowl too but without sugar. That’s how you liked it, right?” She paused. “I know it isn’t much but to me it is a huge deal. I felt trapped inside a body that wouldn’t work.”
“Do you think you could get by a day on your own. Or a half day. If I can go back to work even for a little while, they’ll reinstate benefits. The company has been good to us but they really need me to come back.”
He called her five times that first day from the office. He couldn’t concentrate from the worry. When he came through the door she was at the stove.
“I’m making mac and cheese,” she said. “From a box.” He wrapped his arms around her and breathed into her hair. It was like after a summer rain, clean and fresh. Before the stroke her hair had the scent of her shampoo. This was different—natural.
He worked the remaining days of the week. He heard music as came up the walkway. The living room furniture was back against the walls and Lydia twirled round in the center of the room. She was never a dancer. She had grace and style in her walk and movements but it didn’t translate to dance. She stopped mid spin and came to his arms.
“I just felt a sudden need to dance. To kind of let loose. Unfettered.” She grinned. “I did keep my clothes on though. You, know, had that kind of feeling like when you just want to run and dance naked.” He shook his head but reveled in the newness of her. Had it only been a week? It was as if a wind had blown through their lives, scooping up the residue of worn and wasted material into a funnel cloud and carrying it away past the horizon. Don’t let this go away again.
The kitten showed up on the front stoop one rainy evening. A faint pathetic mewing slipped around the door and caught their attention. A tiny shivering gray thing huddled against the mat. She had to bring it in, towel it dry and offer it a saucer of milk. It looked up to her with warm wet eyes.
He reminded her she was allergic to cats.
“I was,” she said. “It’s so cute. Admit it, you think so too. If I start to sneeze or get a rash we’ll take it to the shelter but we can’t leave it out on a night like this.” A slim white stripe of fur ran down the front of it’s face.
He left her alone each day and went to work and called her once each morning and again in the afternoon. A week at work and life was almost normal. Friday she greeted him at the door holding the kitten. She named it Gray and there were no signs of allergy.
“We should go out. Dinner. A movie. Something,” she scratched the cat’s head. It wiggled against her hands purring. “Gray says we should have some fun.”
The nearest parking space was three blocks from the theater. She said the walk invigorated her but the movie ran late and it was after eleven when they strolled along the deserted street toward the car.
“Wow, there were tons of cars here when we came in. Now look, our poor little thing is sitting alone under the light.” Then she stumbled, bumping into him.
“Whoa, you are right?” he asked, taking her arm.
“Yes, I think I just lost my balance or my heel caught on something in the sidewalk. But, you can keep your arm around me anyway,” she giggled.
He thumbed the key fob in his pocket as they got closer. The lights flashed and the latches clicked open and he felt her weight pulling him down. Lydia crumbled like a wilted flower as he desperately tried to hold her up. He heard himself calling her name. Her face was slack, not there, unconscious. He managed to get her into the passenger seat and the belt around her. He started the engine, his thoughts racing. Nearest hospital? Call 911?
They would ask if she was breathing. Did she have a pulse?
He head lolled toward him. He reached inside her coat. A pulse throbbed against his fingers. Her chest rose and fell as if she was asleep.
“Lydia,” he called. “Shit!” He keyed the word ‘hospital’ into the GPS. Saint Mark’s was ten minutes away.
He screeched under the overhang where the lights said, ‘EMERGENCY’. Inside the florescent lit room, he yelled, “My wife. Somebody help.” A woman in blue scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck came running toward him. He pointed toward the door. Words stuck deep inside him somewhere, refusing to vocalize. The woman called something into a radio on her belt and men were pushing a gurney toward the door.
They managed to get her out of the car and onto the gurney.
“Move your car away from the door,” one of the men said. “You can park over there.” He pointed into the darkness. When he gave the man a puzzled look he said, “So if an ambulance or another person can get in. Don’t want to block the entrance.”
He moved the car and hurried back into the waiting area.
“My wife,” he said to the woman at the desk.
“She’s in the ER but you can’t go in. You’ll be in the way. They’re working on her. Doing everything they can. I’m sure someone will be out shortly. I’ll need her name and medical history.
“Her name is Lydia and she had a stroke a few months ago.”
“Thirty-five.” the woman glanced up with raised eyebrows.
“Family history of stroke? Is she on birth control?”
“What? No, not now. They did a procedure—at the University Research Center. Something new. It restored functions, helped neurons regrow.”
“Do you know what it was called? The procedure?”
“No. It was experimental.” Again, the look.
“I’ll need as much information as possible. Do you have a contact name over there? Our people will need to get with them.”
He nodded and dug into his wallet and then his phone for the contacts.
“Go sit down before you fall,” the woman pointed toward the glassed waiting area. A sitcom acted without sound on the television mounted high up on the wall. A woman held a sleeping baby in another chair. The minutes ticked by like slow moving traffic, all red taillights. Every few minutes he would catch the woman’s eye and she would shake her head. It was well past an hour when a doctor approached him.
“We’ve stabilized her and moved her to Intensive Care. You can go up now.”
“Is she conscious? Is she going to be alright?”
The doctor’s face was solid, stoic. “I’ll take you up. We’ve been in touch with her neurologist.” The doctor guided him toward the elevator. “ICU is on seven.” he said.
“She’s had another stroke and I need to be honest with you. It doesn’t look good.”
“But she was recovering. She was almost back to normal. How can that be?”
His stomach felt hollow and the air he pulled into his lungs was like some useless inert gas.
“As near as we can tell, all the cells that regenerated failed again,” he paused. “Which resulted in exacerbated deterioration. I don’t think there’s anything we can do for her. I’m sorry.”
He felt himself slide against the back wall of the elevator but it was like watching outside his body. It was not his own.
He willed his legs to carry him into go into the room, stumbling like a broken automation. Her still figure lay propped up in the bed, her face slack. If he didn’t go in, things could still be normal. His hands were shaking as he stepped toward the bed, a forced smile on his face.
“Hey, babe, looks like we’re back at it again,” his throat tightened and he choked. He took her hand and slumped into the bed side chair. “It’s going to be all right,” he lied. “It’s going to be all right,” he said again. “And the weather guys say no rain for tomorrow.”