A little over five years ago my husband came home, grocery bags in hand, and found me lying motionless on the bedroom floor.
“Are you meditating?” he asked as he walked to the kitchen.
Twenty minutes earlier I had been dressing to meet a friend for dinner. As I pulled my jeans over my knees, I fell to the floor. I tried to reach for the edge of the bed to lift myself, but felt like I was lying underneath a 400-pound bag of sand.
My husband came back to the bedroom and looked down at me.
“What are you doing?” he asked. I couldn’t answer. My friend called. “Do you want to talk?” he asked. I shook my head no. He took the call, and they decided I needed to see a doctor.
My husband moved like wildfire and got me to the hospital in 30 minutes. During intake, I was unable to tell the doctor my name or address. A CT scan revealed I was having a stroke. Doctors administered a drug called TPA ― which they described as “using a nuclear bomb instead of a hammer” ― to break up the blood clot in my brain.
Though I couldn’t talk, I understood what everyone was saying. I wasn’t sure I wanted a nuclear bomb or a hammer in my head, but the drug worked. After four days and undergoing hundreds of tests, I was discharged from the hospital with most of my motor and cognitive capabilities intact.
The hundreds of test results revealed nothing. According to all the specialists, I was a completely healthy person who should never have had a stroke. Doctors call my type of stroke “cryptogenic,” or a stroke of unknown origin. But I call it my mystery stroke. Did you know that about 30% of all ischemic strokes (the most common kind of stroke during which a blood clot or something else blocks the blood vessels to the brain) are mystery strokes?
My neurologist suggested I slowly get back to normal life. She guessed it would take about two months, warned that I would be tired most of the time, and told me to call if anything changed for the worse. My only prescription was a baby aspirin I was supposed to take once daily.
In my first week at home I tried to prove that I was not only still here, but that I was still me. In between daily naps I tried to write and exercise. But everything took 10 times longer than it used to.
My husband, who was in the midst of rehearsals for a Broadway show, had to return to work one day after my stroke. He was working 12 hours a day, and most nights he crawled into bed after I was asleep.
This left me to lean on my divorced parents for support. Though they don’t talk much in general, they had an unspoken agreement about not speaking about trauma, so they checked in on my eating and sleeping habits and generally avoided discussing the stroke.
After three weeks of pretending to be my pre-stroke self between naps, my motor and cognitive capabilities returned to nearly 100%. I was having a mystery recovery, just like I had a mystery stroke.
When I reached out to my neurologist she told me, “If you are okay with us not knowing why this happened, then we are okay with us not knowing why this happened.” My husband, my parents and my neurologist all thought it was time for me to return to work. Was it the seductive power of threes ― quick mystery stroke, quick mystery recovery, quick return to work ― that made everyone feel like this was a good idea? Because, let’s be clear, nobody knew why I had a stroke or why I recovered weeks ahead of schedule ― or what might happen in the future.
Even if I now seemed perfectly “normal” to everyone else, I was still processing the fact that my body had betrayed me. When I walked, I wasn’t confident that one foot would land in front of the other. When I talked, I questioned my ability to form a complete thought. I wasn’t ready to return to normal life because internally I didn’t feel normal.
I needed the support of my loved ones. I was afraid that if I disappointed them by not fully performing my recovery, I would lose it. No one said this to me. No one told me to “people please” my way through the aftermath of my stroke or my recovery, but I was scared and wasn’t thinking clearly. So, I decided to do what I thought would make everyone else happy: I went back to work.
Just a few days later, during my morning commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a subway car where passengers were packed like sardines, we screeched to a stop in a pitch black tunnel. After a few minutes, my mind started racing. Everyone wants me to go back to work, but no one knows why I had a stroke in the first place. What if it happens again right now? The voice in my head asked. What if no one notices? What if the doors open and everyone tramples me? What if the train moves on and all the new passengers do the same? What if I end up permanently paralyzed, and I’m never able to speak again?
Tears began streaming from my eyes. My nose dripped like a running faucet. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop shaking. I wiped my face with my coat sleeve, folded my arms around my trembling body, and buried my head in my chest. I wanted to make myself small enough that I would not disturb the strangers on whom I was literally leaning.
And that’s when I saw her. I had been breathing on her since Brooklyn. She was shorter than me and was now looking up into my tear-filled eyes. Then, she fearlessly broke the bubble of anonymity that we had co-created with the averted gazes that most New Yorkers have perfected.
“Mami, are you ok?” she asked.
I looked at her and before I even knew what I was saying or why I was saying it to a stranger, I told her, “I had a stroke, and nobody knows why, and I think it might happen again right now, and then I’ll die.”
She nodded as if we had known one another for years. She reached into her purse and handed me a tissue. I was so moved by her generosity that I had to make an extra effort to stop myself from wailing at full volume. Instead, I smiled feebly as a gesture of thanks, and tried not to touch her with my filthy coat sleeve as I cleaned my face.
She offered me another tissue and then she positioned her forearm across her body and said, “Hold me.” I grabbed her wrist. She took a deep breath and nodded, encouraging me to do the same. Then a thoughtful half-smile worked its way through her lips because we were sharing a private joke ― that two strangers were going to meditate together on a crowded New York City subway train stuck in a dark tunnel.
Between breaths, I tried to further describe my situation in Spanish.
“Tengo un problema en mi cabeza,” I told her, which translates to “I have a problem in my head” and made me sound like I thought I was crazy. “Muchas gracias por tu brazo y tus ojos,” I said, “Thank you very much for your arm and your eyes,” and that made me sound like I was thanking a butcher.
“It’s ok, mami, I know a stroke,” she responded. “You just look at me and breathe.”
Another passenger called out, “Open a window! I’m suffocating!” Someone adjusted their backpack, which sent a ripple of movement through the entire car. News that there was an investigation into a pipe bomb near Times Square followed that ripple until everyone in the car knew why we were stuck between stations.
The two of us absorbed the update but continued to concentrate on our now-synchronized breathing. Sometimes we closed our eyes and listened to the inner resonance of our breath. Sometimes we locked eyes. Sometimes we nearly giggled like children playing a game of concentration.
About ten minutes later the train started moving. When the doors opened we were swept into the crowd, our contact abruptly broken by the flood of humanity of which we were a part. In New York City, one minute you are in love with a stranger and the next you are shuffling along in a herd of humans searching for your own feet. I accepted that I had lost her. Then I felt someone take my hand.
“I’m not leaving you,” she said.
She reminded me of my Colombian mother-in-law, who loves me despite my terrible Spanish and whose bright eyes are always seeking to read the deeper story beneath my words. We held hands as we waited for my connecting train, and I imagined her riding with me everyday until someone found the cause and cure for mystery strokes like mine. She must have known because when the train arrived she patted my hand gently as she let it go.
“Necesito trabajar,” she said.
“Muchas gracias. Te amo,” I answered.
“Igualmente, mami,” she told me as the train doors closed between us.
I did love her. She was the first person who let me cry about my stroke without trying to talk me out of my anxiety. Who was content to just stand beside me while I felt it. Perhaps because she had no fear of losing me, she was able to comfort me as I was losing myself. Perhaps because I meant nothing to her, she was able to treat me as though I meant everything. Whatever the reason, she recognized my vulnerability and joined me in it.
We, those who love me and myself, wanted to wish the stroke away and with it the vulnerable state that it left us in. I understand why we did this. We lost me for a moment, and it easily could have been a lifetime. We simply weren’t ready to feel the breadth and depth of that terror.
Instead, we engaged in a collective suppression of it. We didn’t know that no one can heal from a mysterious illness without processing the terror of the mystery itself.
A mystery illness will drop questions into your life that cannot be answered. “Is today the day I will die of a stroke?” I constantly asked myself. Because there was no comfort in learning that there was no cause for my stroke. It just meant that as healthy as I was and am, I still had one. Which means, I could have another one, right?
And, because I had been trying so hard to perform my full recovery for those who loved me, I hadn’t allowed myself to express the terror of that persistent question. Therefore, the gap between my inner and outer lives had become a canyon ― and that canyon was full of panic.
I didn’t know I would have to go into that canyon and get comfortable with the surreal echo of my own terror. I didn’t know how to live with the duality that another stroke was a possibility, if not a probability. I didn’t know that panic was not a functional coping mechanism. I didn’t know I would have to learn to breathe in acceptance and breathe out fear every single time that terrifying question arose.
I spent the rest of that day wondering how I could love someone whose name I never learned. I hoped she wasn’t offended. I hoped we agreed that we had been part of one of those missed connections for which New York City is famous. One where strangers embrace and release one another with equal passion because the intimacy and anonymity of our city demands it. One where the people involved find themselves writing a public post in an effort to reconnect. One like this, that honors her and all all she taught me on that fateful day:
Compañera de viaje el día de la bomba,
Every now and then, my tears flow and my body shakes in the same way it did when you asked me, “Mami, are you ok?” but I’ve been working on accepting the mystery of my condition. This letter is part of that work.
There is no test that will show when it is complete, because recovery is different from healing. Healing is about becoming whole. It happens on a moment to moment basis, it builds upon itself, and it can take years. No one heals by pleasing others ― only by listening to themself.
Inside every life, there will be unsolved mysteries. As I fill my inner canyon with breath, like you taught me, I am getting more comfortable living with mine.
Gracias, maestra. Te amo.
K.Page Stuart Valdes is an award-winning, New York-based filmmaker, writer, musician and educator. Her films and screenplays have been recognized by New York Women in Film and Television and the Academy Award Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship, among others, and can be seen on Amazon Prime. Her music and music theater pieces have been presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Obie award-winning Ice Factory Festival and HERE Arts Center. She is currently working on a feature film and a collection of essays entitled “Cryptogenic : Searching for Answers in America’s Broken Health Care System.” She holds a BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA from their Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program where she wrote both words and music.
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