What My Father's Stroke Taught Me

Life is hard, but you are stronger than all of it.
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Let me preface by saying that this is not a lesson in how life is short so you better soak it all in. If anything, my father’s stroke has taught me that life is fucking hard.

My father was born in 1948 and he’s had a hell of a life. He grew up in Elizabeth, NJ “where the nuns would smack ya”, has worked some crazy jobs (one of which was delivering corpses to a funeral home), and his parents passed away when he was only 19. He went to nursing school, has sold anesthesia and medical equipment, and had a long career helping countless home-care patients in upstate New York.

We haven’t always seen eye to eye, me and my pops. He watches Fox News. I work in abortion rights. He loves brisket. I am a vegan. Yet my father ends every phone conversation with me saying the exact same thing: “So proud of you Beary.” (Yes, my parents nicknamed me Bear or Beary. Apparently I growled when I had my bottle ― a growl I can only assume was out of sheer excitement.)

One of my favorite memories with my dad was Father’s Day, nearly three years ago, when I took him to get his first (and only) tattoo. Of his three daughters, let’s say that I am the tattoo enthusiast, and have always believed the only way my father could look more badass than he already does (a giant 6’5” man who presents as someone who wouldn’t want to mess with at a bar) is if he had some tattoos and a Harley. For years he thought about getting one, though always unsure what to get. Naturally I suggested we get matching tattoos, and we decided it only appropriate to get one of my other favorite memories: jamming to music in the basement together. We chose Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” - a song that taught me to air drum like a boss and one we still crank up and sing together in the car.

Over the past few years my father’s health has been at the forefront of my mind. From knee replacements to a large tumor on his liver, we have had some scares. The ones that shake you to the core and remind you that someday your parents won’t be a phone call away anymore. But nothing has scared me more than the call I received three days ago to inform me that my father had a stroke.

It’s going to be one of those memories that sticks with me, likely for the rest of my life. I can recall what I was wearing, where I was sitting at work, the particular mug my coffee was in, even the text I had just received that had me laughing hysterically. Then, POW. It was a frightening day, not knowing what came next. Was it a big one? Can he speak? Is this it?

We learned that while there may be a long road ahead, my dad was a considerably lucky man. He had a small stroke, one that occurred in the front portion of his brain meaning less damage to his motor skills. When I arrived the next day, there he was ― home and asleep on the couch. The effects of the stroke weren’t visible until my dad spoke or tried to walk. Using a walker, my strong badass father is now wobbly, exhausted from moving a short distance. He is beginning physical therapy to strengthen his hips and legs. He is frustrated by his mobility, energy, and endurance. Yet my dad, who has taken one hit after another in his 69 years, has likely taught me life’s most important lesson: Life is HARD, but you are stronger than all of it.

It’s a lesson he has been teaching me since I was a child. When I fell off my bike, he was there to wipe the blood of my knees and give me this look as if to say, “Yeah, so you gonna get back on?” When I was failing class in high school, he chose not to lecture or yell at me, simply saying, “Beary, you know you’re better than this.” When I had my first real heartbreak and had to move back in with my parents, he was there to make me Cream of Wheat and literally carry a TV into my room so I could watch Sex and the City and cry for two months straight. He may be a man of few words, but his actions have been the loudest lessons in my life.

You pick your head up, you dust yourself off, and you keep going.

Throughout my 34 years on this Earth I have watched my father pick himself up over and over. From the loss of his own family to job layoffs to health issues, he gets up every day determined to support his wife, children, and grandchildren. Even on the days when his arthritis appears so painful that I imagine I would be crying in a bathtub, my dad would be limping to ice skating practice or a graduation. No matter what he was going through, physically or emotionally, my father’s strength has had no bounds.

I am reminded of his strength every time I am faced with a challenge. Working in reproductive rights in today’s political climate has been profoundly stressful at times (or all the time). And the days I feel like crying or never leaving my bed, I think of my father’s courage ― his determination to live the hell out of his life, no matter what. I know I could give up. I could choose to not face the things that feel too challenging. But my dad taught me to keep going for the things you love.

As much as my Instagram account may try to convince me, life isn’t all beach parties and perfect pie recipes. It’s messy and a lot of the time, it hurts. But my father reminds me that after each setback comes a breakthrough. After each heartbreak comes love. After each failure comes a success.

We will face this setback like any that came before ― together, as a family. When my dad needs encouragement or help, I will be there. And when I need that push, he will be there ― perhaps not even realizing it ― to inspire me.

No matter what comes next, I know what I have been taught: you keep going.