7: A Strike at the Ballpark

7: A Strike at the Ballpark

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

A Strike at the Ballpark

The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.

~C.C. Scott

I entered the kitchen to find my mother looking quizzically at our Nespresso machine. “What is that, an onion?”

“No Mom, it’s a coffeemaker.”

“And what are those — little onions?” she said, pointing to the little pods that went in the machine.

My mother doesn’t like technology or coffee, so it wasn’t surprising that she didn’t “get” our coffee apparatus. I thought she was just fooling around when she started calling other things in our kitchen “onions.”

It was the Fourth of July and we were going to the Mets game for my mother’s eighty-first birthday. My mother and sister had met at our house so that we could all drive together to the game.

As we drove down the highway my mother continued to act a little weird. When my husband executed a rather smooth move to exit the highway and avoid a traffic jam, she was overly effusive about his driving skills. We got to the stadium twenty minutes later, and my mother was still chatting away, saying strange things.

I didn’t know much about strokes but it occurred to me that she might be having one. I asked for directions to the medical station and started to walk my mother there without telling her where we were going.

As we took the elevator, Mom was exclaiming that we needed to see the “emperor” — which I came to realize was her word for the new Citi Field stadium. Apparently she was making the jump from baseball “stadium” to “Coliseum” to Roman “emperor,” all words with common Latin and historical roots. She kept trying to veer off course to show us the emperor while I steered her toward the paramedics.

The paramedics did their normal stroke assessment, my mother duly identified the pen they held up as a “key,” and we were rushed off in an ambulance to the stroke unit at a hospital in Queens. My mother’s language skills were rapidly deteriorating by then.

We were fortunate that we caught my mother’s stroke within the window of time allowed to administer the drug TPA. This drug, in layman’s terms, stops the stroke in its tracks, like turning off a hard drive that is starting to erase itself. But TPA is a strong anti-clotting drug and it can kill the patient too. There were some tense moments when I had to make the decision, but I knew that my mother would rather risk death than let the stroke continue doing its damage. My mother received TPA at the first hospital, survived it, and we got back in an ambulance to go to a more sophisticated stroke unit at a hospital in Manhattan.

After a stroke the brain swells from the injury and the symptoms get worse and worse. My mother went from calling things “onions” to not even knowing her own name. But despite the fact that she didn’t know her name, she said that she didn’t want to cancel the sixtieth anniversary party that she and my father had scheduled for the following week. When I pointed out that she was missing a lot of words and she wouldn’t know anyone’s name, she said, “They’ll just think I’m a little peculiar… but then they’ve always thought I was a little peculiar.”

Even at the depths of her loss, Mom retained her self-deprecating sense of humor!

When she figured out her first name and her maiden name a couple of days later, but she couldn’t recall her married name, she waved it off, saying, “That doesn’t really matter,” which seemed a bit like a commentary on her well-worn marriage. Stroke damage is a paradox. When I matter-of-factly gave my mother a form to sign in the hospital, she did it perfectly, inscribing her first, middle, and last name. I showed it to her and suggested she sign her name and then read it back to herself when she couldn’t remember it.

After a few days my mother was sent home with a diagnosis of receptive and expressive aphasia. That meant she had trouble understanding spoken and written language and also finding the right words to express herself. I made a big poster with photos of family members and their names inscribed underneath. It hadn’t been helping my relationship with my brother and sister that Mom was calling them both by my name. Everyone in the family was “Amy” for the first few days.

We got my mother into a language therapy rehab program that she would attend several days a week. When they were testing her capabilities, and discovered that she couldn’t pronounce R’s, I intervened and explained that she was from Boston, where they “pahked cahs” instead of parking cars. God forbid they wasted precious insurance-paid visits on trying to reinstate an “R” sound that my mother never had!

My sister signed on to drive my mother to therapy and help her with her nightly homework. For the next few months, my mother diligently went to speech therapy and spent hours on her homework each night, relearning words, especially those tricky pronouns and units of time. She still has trouble with masculine and feminine pronouns, units of time, and understanding spoken letters and numbers but she regained almost all her other words or found substitutes.

Aphasia lasts forever, and even now, three years later, my mother cycles through a few pronouns before she lights on the right one, especially when she is tired. She still attends an aphasia support group. This is her new life, but she feels fortunate. She knows how lucky she was to have the stroke in front of us, so that we could get her medical help right away. If she had been home alone or asleep while having the stroke, there’s no telling how bad the damage would have been.

Right from the start, my mother bravely informed store clerks and other people she met that she had a “strike” and thus had trouble finding her words. She called it a strike instead of a stroke, which seemed appropriate, since it was like her brain was on strike when it came to language.

I’ve been so impressed with the way my mother has handled this dramatic change in her senior years. Her fortitude, her lack of embarrassment, and her can-do attitude have been inspiring. In fact, just two weeks after the stroke, my mother and sister were back at Citi Field for another Mets game. Mom was a little anxious about going to the same place where she had the stroke but she decided to face her fear head-on.

That first day back at the stadium, or “emperor,” my mother discovered the cure for her anxiety — the gigantic margaritas they sell at Citi Field. She bought one and sipped it for the entire game. And she has had a margarita at every Mets game since. Mom has found workarounds for the words that she has permanently lost and she has found a workaround for watching the Mets without having a stroke, or strike as it were, despite the Mets’ ups and downs!

~Amy Newmark

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