Friday, March 30, 2012

Negative Space

Graphic design uses a concept called "negative space." It's the empty space around whatever it is you want your audience to look at. Negative space helps define the subject. Properly used it's as important as what is there.

If the subject is "my life," then the stroke helped bring it into focus. What's important? As I regain energy, how do I want to use it?

Two years before the stroke, I left an all-consuming career to pursue a lifelong dream to write. I did write…some…but in the heady rush of freedom, I also let my life become busy with non-writing. I cleaned my house and tended my garden as if Sunset magazine would be doing a photo shoot. I tutored out of a compulsive need to contribute financially. I devoted myself to becoming the Best Auntie in the World.

Since the stroke I don't clean. I don't garden. I don't see my nieces and nephews as often. The stroke created negative space. In the quiet parcels of time between therapy and the few household chores I manage, I find myself drawn to my desk. It's relatively comfortable to sit here gazing at the computer. But there is only so much on-line Scrabble I can play and then I yearn for something more. I start to write.

The stroke is helping me to become "the me" I always wanted to be. As if by design.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mouthing Off

In the beginning I did mouth exercises to counter a drooping smile and slurred speech. Lying in my hospital bed that first week, I practiced my pucker with enthusiastic sucking noises. I filled my cheeks with air and pressed it out in tiny farting bursts. I pursed my lips "Oooohhhh" and stretched my lips "Eeeeeeee." I once practiced this last exercise with such vigor, a nurse checked to see if I was okay.

In rehab my speech therapist fed me crackers to see if I was "pocketing" food between my cheek and gums. I chewed the crackers and opened my mouth for inspection.

"Good," she said holding out another Saltine. "One more time."

"Bwwaack," I said. "Marcelle want a cracker."

I minimized chewing on my left side because my weakened tongue lacked the agility to scoop food out of the corners of my mouth. When chewing I often bit the inside of my lips and cheeks. I haven’t done that in awhile, I think. Then I bite my cheek again.

Swallowing poses hazards. The muscles on the left side of my neck are weak and sometimes food sticks in my throat. I never eat without a glass of water at hand.

Also food doesn't taste as good. For a long time I thought this might be my imagination, but last week the nerves along the left side of my tongue began to reawaken with an electric jolt. Then I realized that half my taste buds have been disconnected from my brain – so no wonder I'm not getting full flavor.

On the upside food doesn't taste as bad either. Guess that's why a few nights ago I was able to eat beets.

Friday, March 9, 2012


The right hemisphere of the human brain has one set of motor neurons to control all movement on the left side of the body. Because the stroke damaged that section of my brain, I now make bizarre involuntary movements – similar to a dog that shakes its leg during a belly scratch. I rub my left eye … my fingers straighten.

My hope for regaining control depends on forging new neural connections between my healthy brain tissue and nerves. I often feel electrical impulses shooting through areas of my left side. When I feel these twinges, I visualize my neural pathways branching out like a root system.

The stroke has had a similar effect on my relationships. Word of it traveled to my family and friends; it stretched into the past to people I hadn't heard from in years; it branched out to friends of friends and total strangers.

The blog has contributed to this phenomenon, connecting me with survivors across the continent and readers around the world. I used to think people who put their lives on the Internet were odd. Who would want to be so public? Now I can't imagine recovering without it. Suffering in isolation makes the suffering so much greater.

Like my motor neurons, these human connections move me. In the face of mortality, fears and pretenses melt away, making my interactions honest and intense. Even strangers have become more accessible – they initiate conversation, they offer help.

The stroke has shown me that the pathways between us exist. We just have to access them.