Laurie Cunningham - The Cheerleader/Teacher/Parent Role of Caregiving
Laurie Cunningham, retired counselor and educator, is married to a wonderful man who had a stroke shortly after his long-awaited retirement. Their journey has been documented in cartoons, which can be found on Instagram (@cartooncoping) and her blog site at https://cartooncoping.wixsite.com/cartooncoping. This post was originally shared on Laurie’s blog. She writes in honor of National Family Caregiver’s Month.
My husband and I were a match of opposites. I was born in New York, he was born in Georgia. We were Yankee vs. Rebel, minus the battles. He was an optimist, patient as a southerner, and I was, well, a New Yorker. I believed in taking the bull by the horns. Quick results were at the top of my list.
We were a perfect match. If I got frustrated that something wasn't happening fast enough, my husband, a former coach, would just smile gently and say, "Practice, practice, practice" in his calming Georgia dialect.
On his 50th birthday, he said cheerfully, "Now I'm halfway to my goal."
My response: "Death?"
When the stroke struck, it pummeled him and our relationship. He couldn't sit up, couldn't swallow, and he was on a feeding tube for nearly six weeks. He could barely get the words from his brain to his mouth, and when they finally did come out, I couldn't understand him.
Still, he had one remaining personality trait. Patience. It carried him through six weeks of hospitalization, over a year of outpatient physical therapy, and ongoing workouts with a personal trainer
(I should have created this next cartoon with a drawing of me, not him.)
His patience was the trait I had fallen in love with 30 years earlier. His patience mellowed me out and edged me toward optimism. His belief that any skill could be improved with practice, practice, practice had given me a new way to believe that as long as you worked hard at something you could be hopeful that, in time, change would occur.
My husband and I were divided by the different things we were dealing with. His stroke made him tired, and everything took energy he didn't have. Our communication—those fun and funny chats we used to have—had died. I no longer had someone I could comfortably confide in about what I was feeling because it would just make him feel sad and responsible. He was dealing with so much more, and I was in search of a new way of connecting.
Under stress, people's personality traits become exaggerated. During the first year after his stroke, his patience went into overdrive. To me he seemed too patient. When he wasn't at his four hours a week of rehab, he was in front of the TV, sitting. I, on the other hand, longed for some results after they stopped coming (at 3 months post-stroke). My New York impatience took over.
Initially, I was a cheerleader. Sometimes I was a teacher, sharing tips I'd read about or learned online. I was also his advocate, steering him toward special rehab programs and devices. The dynamic I least liked between us was that at times I sounded like a bossy parent to a child bent on watching TV rather than doing his homework.
I tried to shed those roles by creating reminders for myself. And for him.
Then I found a book called "When Your Spouse Has a Stroke (Caring for your Partner, Yourself & Your Relationship" by Sara Palmer , Ph.D. and Jeffrey Palmer, M.D.). It's about healing relationships after one partner suffers a stroke What kept coming up were comments from stroke patients crediting their spouses for giving them the push they needed. So, I was doing the right thing?
What I learned was that it was okay to push, but to wean a stroke survivor from dependence gradually. As it turned out, my efforts weren't wasted. Looking back over the past two years, it's clear that our old relationship has returned bit by bit. The fun, laughter, and even traveling are back. And, as any wife knows, the best gift a man can give his lover is not a diamond ring. It's cleaning his own bathroom. (Added bonus: doing it without being asked.)
The results I was looking for in my husband were not physical. I'd just wanted to see that he spent more than four hours a week making efforts toward recovery or, at the very least, adapting to his limitations. And, as I was continually on the move myself doing our laundry, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, and preparing my three (green) meals a day plus his five (slightly less green) meals and snacks, it sure did feel better to see him attempting to even out the playing field.
We show our love through giving, through action. Like the old adage, "Actions speak louder than words," it meant so much more for me to see him taking on responsibilities to ease my burdens. Sure, words like "I love you" mean a lot, but nothing makes them more meaningful than backing them up with action.
What the book reminded me of is that a stroke requires continual adaptations as the patient begins to regain some of his abilities. What I realized on my own, though, is that sometimes those abilities don't appear until the stroke survivor is handed a task.
That's when I remember what my coach husband used to say to me. So now, when I ask him to help out with something new that he's not sure he can do, I just remind him that he'll learn it like he learned all those other skills.
" Practice, practice, practice," I say.
And then, together...we smile.