Why you should care

Because most of us love a good comeback story. 

The writer is the author of six books and the host of an OZY webisode, In the Barbershop. You’ll find the first installment of the series here.

The nurses began to speak. “Mr. Hamilton,” they said, “you’ve had a stroke. How long ago did this happen to you?”

I was sitting on a bed, in a small room. With my left arm I pointed at the clock on the wall. Unable to make the words to tell them when this had happened to me — how I’d felt the life drain out of one side of my body that morning, in my sun-seeped bedroom — every inch of me seemed to shatter. The ward was full of stroke victims. They made sounds that only stroke victims could make: inarticulate moans, animalistic, ghostly. The sounds came to me before I even saw the others, some in wheelchairs, some dragging their legs behind them.

Would I be able to speak again? Would I be able to work again? Most important — I’d seen how my pen had shot off the patient registration form — would I ever be able to write my name again? Had I sung my last song, danced my last dance with joy? I lay contemplating this in silence, all alone with a person I called me. A few tubes were in my arms. My family was in Texas, 1,400 miles away from this, my reality. Tears supplemented my fears. I was cold, a piece of dust in the wind, at the bottom now, far from the place called yesterday.

The visitors began to come. On their faces I could see the aftermath of their weeping, and then new tears beginning to follow the paths of the old ones. If they cried seeing me, a strong man, their tears would seed my own. I wanted to say, “No more!” but, of course, I could not. So I took my hand and swiped it across my neck, like I was cutting it, begging them to stop. Later, a friend in the room would tell visitors that if they felt like they were going to cry, they’d have to leave. My heart couldn’t take it. If this stroke were wrought to humble me, then it had far exceeded its premise.

Alone again, I looked at my right hand. My index finger and the base of my thumb burned. I would have to reach down deep inside myself and do what I had done so many times before: fight. You cannot win if you do not fight. You will lose if you are unable to swing.

So what did I do? I got out of the bed, the tubes still inside my arms, still connected to a pole. With that burning hand, I grabbed the cool metal of the bed guard and began to squat. Tears came to my eyes, but I felt myself regaining God’s promise to me. He said in His word: If I am for you, I am more than the whole world against you. So I continued to squat, up and down, up and down, until my good leg was as weak as my bad leg. Then I turned up the radio so that I couldn’t hear the moaning sounds of the others and lay in that dark place until it lightened up for me.

The doctors couldn’t believe that I had driven to the hospital that morning. They said I could have died doing so. And maybe it wasn’t a rational decision: At that time, I felt the stroke ripping away at my reasoning. But in that moment, I needed to find a reason to live, and so I moved toward help on my own rather than calling for help and waiting. And I lived. I lived so that I could fight. I lived so that I could tell my story. I lived so that I could shine the light down on the darkness. And I did. The doctors told me that I wouldn’t be able to return to work for four to five months. I reduced that time to a week and a half.

For the next six months, my speech was broken, and I spoke in odd-sounding syllables. To this day, I take medication that reminds me of the day of the stroke. And there is still a portion of my face that remembers that day too — I worry that one corner of my mouth does not respond as it’s supposed to. The ends of my right index finger and thumb still feel burnt. They are reminders of the day when I came so close to the end, and of something more: I’m not just a fighter. I’m a survivor.

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