Actually, my father seemed to be managing rather well in the aftermath of his wife’s stroke—better than I would have predicted. He was sleeping soundly at night and didn’t call me any more often than before. In fact, this crisis seemed to have worked even better than Paxil. He was more himself than I’d seen him be since he’d started carrying that oxygen tank around with him. I supposed that the situation had called up the best parts of him. He was sad, of course, but he was responding as he always did when an emergency arose: he was mobilizing.
Very different from the way I was feeling and nothing like the devastation I knew I’d experience if I were in my dad’s shoes and it was Chris brought down by a stroke. I hoped I’d be able to regroup, like my father was doing, but I had my doubts. I remembered how I felt the day of my mother’s stroke, walking out of the hospital at night after spending all those hours with my mother in the ER. It was night; the sky was a steely gray, pocked with clouds. It took me a few minutes to remember where I’d parked my car. I drove home feeling dulled and sad. Emptied, like you do after a bad case of food poisoning. The next day I’d been able to think a bit better. There were a lot of concrete details that needed attention, having to do with money and doctors and visiting hours. Working on them was a relief. But then, as my mother began to get better, slowly and incompletely, I sank down again, into what was becoming a chronic state of emotional anesthesia.
Every day in the ensuing weeks, I went to work (late, tired), concentrated on my clients’ worries (easier to think about than my own). I ran 4 or 5 miles (not well or fast) at lunchtime, and I visited my mother in the hospital, three or four times a week. I made sure the kids ate, slept and got to school on time. I couldn’t seem to locate the pieces that would allow me to eat, sleep and get places on time. My appetite vanished and my weight plummeted even lower than it had two years before when I’d spent all those weeks in the hospital with my own illness. The demands on me were unceasing and impossible to meet and yet I tried. I always tried. I was running not exactly on empty, but worse, on constantly high levels of adrenaline. I expected that at any moment I was going to be struck down by a terrible flare-up of my Stills Disease. That didn’t happen.
I wouldn’t realize until many years later that stress wasn’t a trigger for flare-ups of my Stills. The worst flare-ups had more to do with hormonal shifts: that first one, the one that landed me in the hospital for so many weeks, occurred eighteen months after Nic’s birth and the second bad one came six months after my hysterectomy. Both events causing tsunamis of hormonal change. Over the years since the last serious flare-up (1997), I’ve noticed that the milder flares, consisting of mostly fatigue and mind fog, seem to run on their own schedule—infrequent but powerful enough to require a couple days of bedrest—and never seem connected to stress. Or poor nutrition or weight loss.