“Her mother finally managed to have the stroke she had been readying herself for all her life,” Philip Roth writes in My Life as a Man, the novel he published in 1974, the year my parents first met. When I came across Roth’s phrase, I knew it perfectly summed up my mother’s life.
My mother had her first stroke when she was 36, younger than I am now as I’m writing this. It was a minor stroke, a warning of what was to come, and we all knew a much greater disaster would follow, we just didn’t know when. Compared with earthquakes, for strokes it’s the other way around—the aftershocks are the catastrophic part. In our case, the waiting and the grace lasted for twelve years. In the meantime my father retired, I finished high school, then university, then took my master’s degree and started my adult life. I sometimes think that my mother waited just the appropriate amount of time before changing my family’s history.
Patience is the measure of true love, especially when illness is involved. My father and I learned this in the very first days after transferring our lives to the hospital to be with my mother, who was left in a coma by the second stroke. The official diagnosis: acute ischemic stroke within the vertebrobasilar territory.
My mother came out of the coma after several long weeks (a couple of days before New Year’s Eve, which we celebrated drinking cans of beer hidden under the hospital bed) and only after two surgical procedures (the first of which was delayed several times by the lack of Rh-negative blood; the necessary bags of blood were supplied by a regional hospital and delivered by my uncle, my mother’s brother, in his car, in a handheld beer refrigerator), but she opened her eyes at the cost of shutting down her memory and her speech. Furthermore—though I should probably say furtherless—she lost sight in one eye, one arm was left completely paralyzed and one leg partly paralyzed: the entire right side of her body was gone. The stroke had claimed more than half of what used to be my mother.
For nearly six months, my father and I lived with her in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, moving from one place to another as soon as the maximum hospitalization time was reached. For a whole month we were accommodated by the intensive care unit where, almost every day, someone lost the battle against his or her own body. We placed our personal belongings in a cardboard box under my mother’s iron bed, and stayed at her bedside. In Romanian hospitals, when in such a critical condition, if you have no attendants, you are absolutely on your own and you wouldn’t want to be at the mercy of overworked nurses. In the neurosurgery unit, relatives are attending to what’s left of the lives of those attacked from within their own brain. And my mother needed us—or I had better use the passive and say that we were needed to supervise her coma, and then her recovery: to watch over her drips, to adjust her bandages, to feed her (with a straw shortened to a third of its length, because she was too weak to draw in through the whole thing), to clean and wash her (using tissues), to anoint her and especially to turn her over in bed, in various positions. The body of a paralyzed person is like a fruit starting to rot, once fallen on the ground: unless you move it constantly, things start to get ugly.
The hardest part, however, was that, once out of the coma, my mother no longer recognized us (at some point she called me by a strange girl’s name) and had no idea what we were all doing there. But even if she had recognized us, she couldn’t have spoken. And it is silence that patience finds hardest to withstand.
In those months spent in hospitals, then in rehabilitation centers—when I covered the day shift and my father the night shift—we had more than one patient to assist. With no nurses and no attendants around, out of sympathy and sudden bonding, we found ourselves in the position of attending to anyone who needed help. We fed, we washed and we turned around in their beds the paralyzed bodies of strangers, mostly old women who had been abandoned by their families. Our own closest relatives had enough of our drama and, after a while, they stopped calling. Fortunately, we ourselves benefited from the solicitude and kindness of other strangers who would bring us warm food or tacitly replace us when we fell asleep, exhausted, on a chair or leaning against a radiator. At some point a very nice woman was so impressed by my father’s devotion she developed a crush on him.
Assisting in my mother’s recovery was similar to raising a child. She lost almost ninety pounds in the months spent in hospitals. We bought her new clothes from the children’s section. And diapers. Before changing diapers for my own child, I changed diapers for my mother. Our parts were reversed: I mirrored the gestures she had once made with me. I had to teach her to hold her head up again, to chew solid food, to use her left hand (for brushing her teeth, for example), to make her first steps dragging her limp leg along. Before helping her utter her first words and before rebuilding her memory by recounting and explaining to her the family photos (she was herself a photo that had been washed out along with the shirt in the pocket of which it had been forgotten), we had to teach her gestures and sounds by which she could let us know if she was thirsty or needed to be taken to the toilet. We built pulleys around the house (hammering nails in the door casing and attaching straps) for her to be able to move around and for her to strengthen the muscles unaffected by paralysis. We also used cords, tied to her right leg, in order to pull her foot and help her take small steps. For a while she was our personal life-size mute puppet.
My life as a man began when my mother became merely an extra on our family set. Overnight, my father and I had to play parts we weren’t right for, parts we had never rehearsed. Little did we know about cooking, sewing and starching, about washing the curtains in the spring or salting vegetables in the autumn. Little did we know about caring for a home without the apprehension and the touch of a woman. Little did we know about a life without the wife and mother who had offered us everything on a plate. Little did we know about attending to her body, so different from ours. Little did we know what to do without the voice of a woman to tell us what to do. But if you were to ask us now, neither my father nor I would say that it was really difficult, caught as we were in the turmoil of all things that needed to be done. Anyway, we never complained; we never asked for help or for compassion, and when it came, it embarrassed us. The fact that any day one of the much-awaited miracles could happen—for her to start speaking or walking on her own—gave us courage and strengthened our patience for facing the scarce and the unknown.
Today, twelve years on, we are no longer waiting for a miracle. For the first four or five years after the accident, my father clung to his hope and took my mother to rehabilitation facilities and spa resorts around the country. He even took her, without my knowledge, to monasteries in the mountains, in caves and forests, lighting dozens of candles and paying monks to say special prayers from old holy books. But now, my father and I have resigned ourselves to being utterly helpless against my mother’s voiceless frustration and sadness. I can’t even remember her voice anymore, the recording of which, lasting as long as a laugh and a four-second witty line, remains on a videotape from a distant cousin’s wedding.
Mother, or rather what’s left of her, has become the older sister I never had. I don’t know what she means to my father now, but I know that his patience (or should I say his love) has been challenged much more than mine in these twelve years in which he has been the one to continually look after her, day after day, night after night. My father has also become an older brother, for that matter. Our family ended then, in the evening of November 22, and what we have now is something different, something spiritually superior, as I sometimes think; or just a huge injustice, as I think most of the time.
Patience describes not only the extent and the quality of my love for my mother or my relation to the ideas of fate or divinity, but also the way I confront the world and especially the cruel and sometimes useless medical system. For two years we had to take my mother every six months to be examined by an assessment board for the disabled. During a humiliating evaluation, we had to persuade the board members that my mother’s limbs were truly paralyzed and that she really couldn’t speak, she was not faking it. Finally, it took an intervention and a small bribe to get the permanent certificate according to which my mother fell into grade 1 disability, meaning severe locomotor disability and the due disability support pension for her and for my father, her legal attendant.
Our story has a happy end, though, and our life is only partly cloudy. We have become accustomed to living and enjoying what we have left. Fortunately, my mother is fairly autonomous now: she can get dressed and move on her own; she can feed herself without our help. She can walk, using crutches, in the garden or to the lake quite near the country house, she can thumb through family photo albums and cultural magazines (especially the ones where I’m contributing or I give interviews), she watches TV, she listens to the radio (French or Italian pop songs of the 1960s are her favorites), she can put things in order in the kitchen and in the bathroom. She has amazing single-handed abilities: with only two fingers she can tie a double shoelace knot in just 17 seconds. One day she even killed a small water snake by using her bare left hand—she happily brought it home, like a cat with a mouse!
But, most important, she has recovered her memory and her clarity of mind, even though she can’t express them by ordinary language. She can’t read or write either (mixed aphasia is the medical term for her condition) and her CT scan shows a huge eclipse in the left parietal lobe, where the damaged cerebral area was removed. We often joke about that together, saying that she used to talk too much anyway. The few words she can now utter, sometimes repetitively (echolalically) or in a special syntax, are, despite causing her enormous frustration, an endless source of outlandishness, wit and humor. Imagine someone with a complex interior life who can express herself only in semi-haiku with a limited vocabulary.
The stroke made my mother a poet. It was not I who wrote the daily notes that were to become the long fragmentary poem that is my first book, Vîntureasa de plastic, but she who suggested image after image, disclosed metaphor after metaphor, dictated word after word, drumming the rhythm of each line against the hospital bed. I became her voice in another dimension. I just transcribed; I was the carbon paper between her and the rest of the world. That was the reason I kept the manuscript in my desk drawer for six years and published it only when I knew for certain that I had written for my own sake, that I had not traded on my family’s tragedy just to make literature, that I hadn’t flaunted my pain and my despair for the sake of literary glory. Moreover, I needed time to put up with the indecency effect triggered by displaying myself through poetry.
She gave me an artistic voice. Sometimes I think my mother sacrificed her own brain for me to make a proper entrance in literature. And sometimes I think the opposite—that my entry to literature required my mother’s sacrifice. Anyway, I have no idea what kind of writer I would have become without my mother’s metamorphosis and I will never be able to genuinely enjoy the gift of poetry—which I have abandoned ever since, for that matter. With every positive review, with every literary award, with every public reading, with every translation of my poems, I became more certain that I had been given poetry only to renounce it. For how could I have kept writing poetry after that and about something else? If I truly am or if I ever was a poet, then I am the poet of only one book, just as I am the son of only one mother.
In all these years, I must admit, I lost my patience with my mother several times. I was tired and I rebuked her, I yelled at her, I once lost my temper and even bullied her. I apologized in tears and felt ashamed. I feel very ashamed even now, when thinking about it. Actually—what am I saying?—sometimes it was and still is quite hard. But neither my father nor I would ever admit to that. Compassion still embarrasses us; admiration of our devotion embarrasses us even more. Because we love her the way she is, and love is not pompous, it is not in inflated, it bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Endures all things.
–Translated from the Romanian by Alexandra Coliban
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.