10 January 1986 was a pretty typical winter’s day, as I recall. I was in seventh grade, and Jess was in fifth. The morning started earlier than usual for us, as Myra called us down from upstairs at 6:30am.
She and Dad were in the kitchen, drinking coffee and having toast. We joined them, half an hour early, eyebrows arched in question of the reason for our early wake-up call.
Mom had asked me, the night before, to “keep an eye on Dad.” She went to Bingo at the Legion hall, and was worried about Dewey, apparently, who was having some numbness in his right arm. “Okay…” I said, in the way any twelve year old would say when asked to look after her extremely strong father.
I watched him that night, and saw him fold his hands on our dining room table, and then take away his left hand, leaving his right static, unmoving. I saw him pace for the first time in my life. I was confused, but had no idea why he was nervous. I went to bed before Mom got home from Bingo.
At our 6:30 impromptu family meeting, Mom explained that Dad was having this weird numbness in his right arm, so they were going to drive in to St. Ansgar’s to see Doc Brown. Dr. Brown was our family doctor, located 6 miles away in Halstad, but two days a week he spent his mornings at St. Ansgar’s Hospital in Moorhead. My dad had called him at 6 that morning, and explained the numb arm he’d had for almost a week. “You’re young, Dewey,” the doctor had said. “It’s probably a pinched nerve. You farmers are always pinching nerves. But you better come in and let me check it out. Meet me at St. Ansgar’s at 7:30.”
So Jess and I would have to make our way to school on our own, and Uncle Harry and Aunt Junice would drive Mom and Dad to Moorhead.
Everyone was calm, though Dad was unusually quiet. When he got up to put his coffee cup in the sink, his right arm brushed against the jelly jar on the table, and he nearly knocked it over: it was clear that his arm was really, really numb.
Jess and I walked to the elementary school, three blocks from our house, where she stayed for fifth grade and I caught the bus to Halstad, where grades 7-12 were. After lunch, during Phy-Ed, Carol, our secretary, came to the door of the gym and called me over. “Your dad’s in ICU, and they’re taking good care of him,” she said. I returned to running laps, but I knew that no one went to ICU if they were not very, very sick. I tried to focus on the second half of what Carol said, the “they’re taking good care of him,” but I kept coming back to the “ICU” part. My blood ran cold.
When my bus arrived back in Hendrum, I went to Auntie Bev’s, as we’d planned, where Jess had already arrived. Around Bev’s dining room table, she explained that Dad had had a stroke, and that Mom would try to be home to put us to bed tonight, but nobody exactly knew what any of this meant. The grown-ups around us were terribly quiet, and Jess and I both knew this couldn’t be a good sign.
Mom came home before bedtime, somehow, and brought with her a lengthy pamphlet titled “Someone you love has had a Cerebrovascular Incident (CVI).” I remember Auntie Bev standing next to Mom in our little kitchen, while Jess and I sat at the table. Bev said “No matter what happens, this will make your family so much closer.” It was many years before I agreed with her, much less knew what she was talking about.
Dad never walked by himself again, and never spoke, really, beyond muddled “yeah” and “no.” My mother went from wife to caretaker in an instant, and Jess and I went from children to assistant caregivers at the ages of eleven and twelve.
Thirty years later, I can barely believe it’s been so long. Mom, Dad, and Auntie Bev are all dead now. Twelve year old me couldn’t even imagine living in a world without those three people. Frankly, 42 year old me can’t quite imagine it, either.
It seems odd to mark this anniversary now, with so many of the major players gone. But to Jess and me, it’s still an important day. A horrible, life-changing, childhood-ending day. I’m glad I still have her with me, at least.