I got the call late at night May 19, 2018. . .Or maybe it was the next day, a Sunday?, after it happened. My sister called, ominously since we text but rarely have time with her kids, work and then my young child who I’m obsessed with after 13 hard-fought years to birth her. Regardless, the call didn’t shock me. He had a stroke, my father. Really it was the second one, after which he walked right out of the hospital in denial with some drugs he’d haphazardly take for the next year, two, I’m not sure. His last years are hazy, maybe purposely so. Maybe my brain only has snippets, out of order, to protect me from the wave of grief necessitated by a linear story-telling.
He was found by his girlfriend, a pain in itself rarely discussed, with my mom still married to him in a complex mesh that would maybe only be untied in his death. He’d collapsed. He complained of weakness, his mouth dropped. I’m not sure of the details and they don’t matter. But all that I know is he’s in the hospital, fighting to the point they’ve physically and chemically restrained him. Remarkably the last time I have a lucid conversation with him is in the day after his stroke, him telling me calmly with only a slight slur to his speech that he loved me and it wasn’t fun being in the hospital. I think I mentioned some cute thing my 2 year old daughter Willa Kate had just done, that my 17 year old step-son Britin was going to a summer camp of sorts at the United States Naval Academy later that summer. It was a normal calm conversation, perhaps a calm before the storm that would be the next 9 months, birthing his death after a series of difficult hopes, denial and ultimate acceptance, of the ultimate letting go.
I know my sister’s memory of those days in the wake of his stroke are more vivid and chaotic. I heard things only second-hand until I was to come down later that summer. She’s spend weeks struggling with the doctors as they heavily sedated him, maybes precipitating or perhaps masking a larger stroke that would render him speechless until it returned and twisted into delusions and eratic moments of clarity.
It was the speechlessness I first mourned. It was the time I cried most in the 9 months of, mourning we’d have before his ultimate death. Maybe we should have stopped there. Maybe every decision to keep him alive after that was fruitless, maybe when he couldn’t say no anymore we should have said no more.
But that’s skipping ahead, for now we were in battle mode, the Miles family rallying around in heightened get-it-done, we will over-come-mode. I remember my RA in college saying what a force the Miles family was, as we unpacked my stuff on the first day I moved into the dorm. She anticipated the force we’d be for months to come after my dad’s stroke, even though my sister and I had different surnames now and my mother and father hadn’t lived under the same roof for years. My mother was next of kin and ultimately responsible for the multitude of decisions that would be made. The girlfriend’s hold over him released perhaps by her 911 call.
I look back at the infancy of his last summer, ultimately leading to his last breath. I’m so naive, only to have hours upon hours of researching strokes and their effects. He had a right brained stroke, affecting his left side. But why was he so aggressive, why was he speechless and later can’t swallow; it’s all more than the initial CT scan suggests. But we know very little what went inside his head, after he violently refused an MRI, flailing even after police are called amid his hitting a doctor. What we will know is that his brain imaging shows the culmination of damage from mini-strokes, of sustained deprivation of oxygen, which would set the stage for his ultimate decline. The fault lines of his brain would ultimately shift the ground my family walked on.
Melissa Miles McCarter is currently working on a series of essays about coping with the last year of her father’s life and eventual death. More information about her writing can be found at melissamilesmccarter.com