18 June 2013

Post-childbirth stroke didn't stop mother from raising her boys

Story Appeared on Detroit Free Press

• Editor's note: We asked Free Press readers to share their reflections on motherhood. They responded in a big way. Jim Boyle, a Detroit-based marketing executive, told a powerful story of triumph about his mother, Liz Boyle.

I was born in Detroit at 8:58 a.m. Aug. 22, 1969. Sometime around 9:58 a.m., my mother, Liz Boyle, suffered a major stroke.

She was 27. Her last rites were administered, but she’s really not that easy to erase, either from this world or, as people often tell me, your thoughts in general. From that day forward this was our bond, her and I. This moment of my birth. A bond not unlike other mothers and sons, but not exactly the same either.

My mom is paralyzed on the right side of her body. She lost the use of her strong, right-hand side. She had to learn to walk and talk all over again. The day after my birth, my dad, Rory Boyle, turned 30. His wife was in a coma, and he had four boys, age 6 and younger. My mom and I were separated at birth, at least for a few months, with her in the hospital and me with my Uncle Mike and Aunt Connie.

While my mother was recovering, one knuckle-headed doctor suggested to my parents that my mom be institutionalized. Permanently. She stammered, spit, kicked and hit in response. “I don’t think she agrees with you,” my dad chuckled to the doctor. From that moment, my mom insisted in very clear terms –– even though she couldn't talk at the time –– on three things: she would be with her husband, she would raise her boys and she would drive (my particular favorite).

From what I remember in my early years, she really did achieve the level of normalcy she desired, at least in my mind. When I was 3, my parents moved to the quiet town of Port Austin, on Lake Huron, where they still live today, for a slower life that provided a little more independence.

In between heavy speech therapy and becoming a rock star in the physical therapy community, with a noticeable schedule of workouts that she continues to this day, my mother shuttled my brothers and I to basketball, football, track and more. My older brothers have stories of early seizures that have long since stopped, and I remember the day she traded in the heavy metal brace and went on a shoe-shopping spree to rival Imelda Marcos.

Over the years, stories of “Liz’s episode” were told, but they became sort of folklore. Even though she walked differently and talked slowly, and my friends asked about her every once in a while, she was just Mom. Ridiculously funny, socially gifted (regardless of any speech issues), fearless and big-hearted — the center of a family. She helped zip up my coat, but she did it with one hand. She folded my clothes using her teeth. She drove a crazy car with an extra gas pedal for her left foot (my brother Brian once mistook it for the brake, but that’s another story). Her one-armed bear hugs couldn't have been any bigger if she had three arms.

I remember one time in particular when the full weight of her greatness hit me. When I was about 16, my mom’s brother, Joe, sought my brother Ray and I out at a wedding. He deeply adored my mother and, for that, we adored him.

That night he hunted us down with purpose. We stood there, him between us. He was animated at first, and then settled into a stare-ahead posture that was a weird mix of discomfort and certainty. And then began the story of a dinner party. It was at my parents’ house with he and Aunt Shirley, his wife, and my Aunt Lou (my mom’s sister) and Uncle Ray. My mom was in the infancy of her recovery, shuffling very slowly with a heavy brace and still teaching her mouth to catch up with the wonderful thoughts in her brain.

It was apparent, my uncle explained, that she was determined to be the hostess, doing what hostesses do –– greeting, setting the table, cooking, retrieving, and so on, but moving painfully slow. Others, of course, started tripping over themselves to help her out. I imagine taking dishes out of her one good hand, stepping quickly around her to gather stuff — all before she could communicate her own intent.

“Your dad, he stops right there in the middle of the room and tells everyone to sit down,” my uncle told us. “While your mom just keeps going, slowly. It’s excruciating to watch your sister this way.

“I ignored him and kept helping. Everyone did. And then ... he just grabbed my arm, looked me in the face like he was about to hit me and says, ‘Joe you can sit down, or you can leave,’ ” Uncle Joe told my brother and I.

“So I sit down. Mary Lou sits down. We all sit. Even your dad sits at times. I’m clutching the table like I’m gonna turn it over. No one says anything. It felt like forever. Your mom just goes to work. Your dad chipping in, but no one else. Your Aunt Lou is crying. I wanted to kill your dad as we all watched my sister, your mom, plod on.”

Uncle Joe is just staring straight ahead, like we weren’t even there and I could tell he was about to cry. Right there in the middle of a wedding reception, describing a moment in time 15 or 16 years after it happened.

Then he kinda snaps back and says, “those are some amazing people you have as parents” and ambles away. Now it’s important to note that those of us in the know intuitively understand that the decision to proceed with dinner in that fashion was in no way a singular decision. My father is not a cruel man by any means, and my mother is no shrinking violet. This was, and always will be, a partnership forged in what I consider to be one of the greatest love stories ever. Together, this is how they got better.

Either way, I’ll never forget that story. The courage it must have taken both my parents to defy every instinct they and everyone around them had. The love it must have taken, and the immeasurable trust –– bigger than their own families –– required between both of them on that day, and in a million little moments since, as they raised four little people to be pretty OK big people.

The courage of my mom, in particular, has grown in my mind as I’ve aged to understand its depth. Slowed but determined, of sound mind, but not always able tell everyone else that she knew in her heart that everything would be OK. That things would be “normal.”

At 43, I now know that my mom is some sort of superhero. Like most moms, but not exactly the same either. In many ways, I’m sure that’s what makes many moms, moms –– that unheralded quality.

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