On August 25, 2022 I celebrated one year post-stroke. One year -12 months – 365 days – 8760 hours – 525,600 minutes –  31,536,000 seconds. But who’s counting? (Ok I’m not, since that’s an area where those one-year-old brain cells are happy to do simple adding, but any more than that, they cross their little arms and sulk. )

On that 2021 August 25 I woke up to find parts of me couldn’t move. I had had a stroke. So this year, when the calendar page turned to August 2022, my eyes scanned immediately to August 25. My heart rate went up. I saw myself back in the beautiful room at our hotel where we had begun our summer vacation two days earlier. But that day my right arm hung off the bed; couldn’t move, head felt fuzzy; my right leg was numb. How did this happen to me?

Life can and does turn on a dime. One little rotation of the wheel of fortune, and we’re no longer feeling so on top of life and impervious to change. ~ Sharon Salzberg

Short form: Sh** happens.   And then: Shift happens.

Today I feel and know gratitude that my stroke was a “mild” one. I retained the ability to speak, read, and write both by hand and on my laptop (very slowly). Bits and pieces of skills I had honed in my life – writing, laughing, listening to music, exercising, yoga, and meditating, enjoying laughing, and loving loving the idea of loving people. It was all still in there. And some days it kicked in automatically.  I made a promise to Ethel to exercise those skills – and my recovery began. 

We age not by years but by events and our emotional reactions to them.  Maxwell Maltz, New Psycho-Cybernetics 

Reading and listening to inspirational books , I discovered how they applied to me. They kept me calm and hopeful.

When we feel unhappiness or pain, it is not a sign that things have gone terribly wrong,  or that we have done something wrong by not being able to control the circumstances. Pain and pleasure are constantly coming and going, and yet we can be happy. When we allow for the mystery, sometimes we can discover that right in the heart of a very difficult time, right in the midst of a painful situation, there is freedom. In those moments when we realize how much we cannot control, we can learn to let go. ― Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Numerous times a day my new and healing brain cells rolled their baby eyes and shrugged. Huh? What is she trying to make us do? But I kept at it with therapy, love, and caring attention from you.

I have so much more empathy for folks who have even the slightest hearing loss, or balance issues. I walk around today with a growing awareness that someone’s disability may be invisible.

When I was in the Flagstaff Medical Center in 2021 the medical team suggested keeping a journal when I got home. For future doctors and for my own awareness. How fortunate that my words didn’t fail me completely. It takes energy to think and write about, but it’s worth it. Each segment of the day for a year I wrote what’s going on, how I’m feeling, along with marking the spreadsheet my Hank made for meds. 

Fabi Hirsch Kruse encouraged me with the reminder that stroke recovery continues way beyond one year. It is possible to have improvement for years after a stroke.

That’s a part of why I wrote a stroke recovery newsletter each month. To keep improving and reminding anyone that this is true. Never mind that insurance companies may say one year is probably the limit of recovery. Yes, one year shows huge amounts of recovery and growth but neuroplasticity is something I really believe in.

My family had first-hand experience with neuroplasticity with my mom’s stroke, witnessing her five-year appropriate level of recovery for her age (84-89). My sister’s work with her husband for eight years after his stroke was incredible. She kept creating more and more opportunities for physical, mental, and artistic stimulation for him. Even after doctors said no she would and find a doctor, program, an organization that offered what he needed.

Then there are the encouraging beautiful words from people that came to me. I have saved every email and note for the last year. I wish I could share all of them here – there may be a book on the horizon. I’m sharing some of them here:

  • Whatever I can do, I’ll be there. Bring you homemade food, read you stories, entertain you will my misadventures, Zoom or IRL. Anything. I know you have a fabulous support system and know that I’m there for you, whatever you need, silly or not.Take it slow, respect your process. ~ “Lucy,” Tucson AZ
  • know the Beloved in me is also in you. May that force clear any obstruction for healing and may YOU know that love is circling each brain cell and synapse for a complete recovery.  Love and lightness of being. ~ Beryl (Ambassador of Joy), Tucson AZ
  • Writing poetry has healing power. Select a personal experience that evokes joy, wonder, beauty, fulfillment or elation. Reflect upon it, chronologically, and put it into words. The words should fit together, like a neat and tidy package, but when spoken aloud, should sing, sound lyrical with or without being rhymed. ~ Joanne Sabates, NJ
  • …Like most of us who admire you, we’ve gained strength from your updates because it puts life with all its twisty turns in clear unvarnished perspective. At least it does for me, and while I would never wish you ill, your stroke has given me a gift – an awe for pastel clouds in the early evening,  gnarled tree limbs stretching heavenward, an old man waving as he sings a love song. Don’t misunderstand. I appreciate such wonders and often journal about them, but my gratitude and wonder flows beyond me to others I care and love now. ~ Barb Chapman, Tucson AZ
  • Thank you for sharing with others that recovery from a stroke continues for years. It is so important that we dispel the myth that stroke recovery ends only months after a stroke. Hope is a very important key to ensuring the best recovery possible. ~  Fabi Hirsch Kruse, Tucson AZ
  • I’m so happy to receive your letter, to know that you’re making progress, and that you’re being tender-hearted and nurturing to yourself. You are indeed very fortunate that it was mild, that you can recover further. We, too, are fortunate that you’ve chosen to be the light bearing way-shower of recovery. It helps and inspires many that might have given up, not just with stroke recovery, but in the face of other major life adversities. ~ Alexandra Musser ❣ White Mts. AZ
  • I appreciate your sharing because you are in control and others can benefit from seeing your progress. My favorite saying has been “Attitude is everything, so pick a good one!”~ LaVerne, Tucson AZ
  • I am reminded from your words and positivity to be grateful for all that shows up. Being strong and centered! I’m also practicing being in a place of love, for myself, those around me, and the world at large. It’s needed so much right now. ~ Maggie Dermond, VT
  • Don’t over exercise, is my only advice.  Take it from a former dancer. Condition SLOWER than your guilty mind wants you to.  Fewer reps. Space it out more than you think.  When in doubt, stop.  Go for a short or long walk instead. ~ Heidi Scheuber, NYC
  • As always, when I open Outlook in the morning and see something from you…I smile. Your 11th Month letter did not disappoint! I only take umbrage with your closing. Life isn’t just good, it’s AMAZING.      It’s amazing in that it starts out with doing something that’s so much fun 😊 And nine months later there’s a full person. We are supported until we can support ourselves. We find someone we can’t live without and (here’s the most unfathomable part) that person feels the same about us. We make friends and join a community of support beyond our family…and those people become our extended family. Along the way, all too often we break and there are remarkable people who put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The people in our lives shower us with the love and support that gives us a reason to heal. And we have the gift of communication to share that love and support. WOW!!! Now that’s truly amazing. ~ Ken Mortara, FL

From the immobilizing and numbing shock, pain, and fear of August 25, 2021, I turn my mind to this year’s August 25 and beyond with patience, trust, action, gratitude, and joy.

I read the encouraging, kind, and peace-giving words that have come my way in the last year. Words that lined the path for me. Reading them you may find they can line someone else’s path. Please share them.

Yes, it is amazing!

Thank you. 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and her writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. These days, she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, ASST, and anywhere there’s a mic or a Zoom room.