A Left Turn

by J. Jacqueline McLean

The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.
Robert Jordan

Eleven years later, it is still haunting. The nagging headache is how it started. I stopped kidding myself a year ago. My brain will never return to the zoom, zoom fourteen-year-old who delighted at, “Mom, the paper boy, no, girl, is here.”

My first job was delivering the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune newspapers in the South Shore neighborhood. At the precise moment the sun wakes up, ten or so carriers line up on the curb at 75th and Jeffery. The delivery driver drops off the rope-tied bundles of newspapers and hands each of us our individual block routes, and we’d stuff our paper bags until the load is not too heavy but heavy enough and then scatter in different directions. I throw my papers at a slight curve so they land at the tip of the doorstep, and pretending with every throw, I’m the first black Lois Lane. That weekly $20 paycheck is my only spending money. Mother and Daddy, I swear, didn’t think their children desired a nickel or dime to buy even a peppermint stick. The word allowance was never spoken in our house. We earned it, though, cleaning toilets, mopping, dishes, ironing, the laundromat; and the worst, those God-awful Saturdays when Daddy was in one of his moods. He’d come into our rooms, scream and shake us out of our beds at six in the morning. “Suzanne, Jackie, Tyrone, and Robert, y’all lazy kids, wake up and wash these walls.”

“Julius, let them kids sleep, it’s Saturday,” Mother hollered. Cruel and unusual kid punishment and I swore as a grownup to never, ever wash a wall. On what should have been fun Saturday mornings, we scrubbed tiny fingerprints and smudges of dirt off the walls of our bedrooms first, then the living and dining rooms, and the kitchen last. A Saturday morning hardship that consumed us for two hours.

As an adult, whenever I visit Daddy, my eyes gradually divert to the walls. They are not dirty, but filthy. On the tip of eighty, clean walls are apparently no longer important to him.

When Mother told Daddy I was “sick enough to die,” he wasn’t worried. His exact words: “Jackie, strong.” In a child’s eyes, washing walls and other chores is parental harshness. My middle-age point of view: all that growing-up fun we missed infuses strong character. Nothing came easy for the McLean children. We did as we were told and only complained amongst ourselves.

Thursday—July 10, 2008—174 days left in the year—a warm front moves across the Twin Cities, toting a tornado and lots of wind damage. What writers refer to as painting the scene. The plot twist soon followed. Out of nowhere my brain crosses the median and takes an abrupt left turn. Screech! Intense pain as if I was running into one wall after another. Yet I was lying still on a bed dotted orange from a half-spilled bottle of Motrin pills.

A week earlier, I was crammed inside a hot car with a TV news photographer working on an undercover story about drug sales on the streets nicknamed the “naughty" North Side of Minneapolis. The surveillance paid off with multiple targets buying and selling. In short, a good day in a good life for this investigative reporter.

THE NAGGING HEADACHE

Unrelenting headaches were semi-routine, but not like this, consistently banging every corner of my head with no mercy, regardless of how many Motrin pills I swallowed. All morning I agonized. Yet I was not alarmed. If only I could sleep the headache off. I had another story airing over the weekend and going to work remained on my radar. So, like my church-going mother, determined at all costs. If I was more like my father, I would have said the hell with work. I’m sick. How many times did I hear Daddy yelling at Mother, “Inez, call the job and tell them I’m not feeling well. Stomach all messed up. I won’t be in.”

“No, Julius, we need the money. Bring your trifling behind home from the President’s club before three in the morning next time.”

“Woman, just call the job.” Mother always did.

By midday, my roommate came home, pleading with me to go to the hospital, but I was faithfully stubborn and insisted “just another bad headache.” This time it backfired and nearly cost me my life. That reality clinches my insides. I almost died!! God, no, no! How could I be on the wrong side of the street?

The next morning when my friend and I called my health plan, I was alert as the nurse drilled me about the severity of the headache. Her advice was stern. "Call 911, right now.”

“Do not take her to the hospital in your car. Call 911 now!"

Even as I dressed, I was unaware my left side went numb and collapsed from my droopy face down to my mannequin stiff leg. It put a chokehold on me so tight I couldn't lift my left arm to put on my shirt.

When the ambulance arrived, I walked out of the house feeling healthy. Lying on the stretcher, a paramedic offered comfort. "We're going to take good care of you." I urged my friend to join me in my joy ride in the ambulance. I didn't perceive danger or trauma, only quietly curious and flying euphorically free back to the summer of 1967 when I rode the wooden roller coasters at Riverview Amusement Park and ate the last of the cotton candy the day before it shut down. A kid’s dream—Riverview Park on the night the lights went out forever.

My alertness ended in the ambulance. When my roommate got to the hospital, he was met by a chaplain, then taken inside a room where several doctors told him the unbelievable: "We don't think she's going to make it." He's told me the story a dozen times.

In the ER, my condition is obvious. A healthy fifty-three-year old woman, enjoying a successful twenty-plus-year TV career, is suffering an acute stroke. In medical terms, a "right middle cerebral artery infarct." The one-million-dollar question (the final tally of my hospital bill), unanswered 4,015 days later is, Why? A drug overdose was the only medical conclusion. "You got the wrong one," my friend told everyone who asked. "She seldom drinks a glass of wine."

"DO YOU WANT US TO DO EVERYTHING TO SAVE HER?”

To relieve the pressure off my brain, the neurology docs decided they should remove a section of my skull to create room for my swelling brain to expand.

“It is the only way we can save her, but it is risky and she may not survive,” the medical staff warned. “Do you want us to do everything to save her?” they asked my friend, who could no longer speak. He only nodded.

Nonstop, my family taunts me for having a peanut brain. How I wish. My dad’s favorite story is the day he told me to rush to the store during breakfast and get some jelly. We had grits, sausage, biscuits, but no jelly. I was nine. Summer 1963, wearing my oh-so-cute blue, short-pants outfit. I ran to the corner pharmacy and wasted forty-five minutes struggling to make a decision. On the shelves were jars of grape, strawberry jelly. I circled around the shelves and saw a jar of petroleum jelly, which threw me for a loop. I pleaded with the pharmacist for help. He didn’t know either. I walked up and down the aisles, baffled.

Daddy yelled immediately when I walked in the kitchen. “Jackie, what the hell took you so long? We through eating, girl.”

“Here’s the jelly, Daddy,” I said, handing him the brown paper bag. “I didn’t know what kind to get. You never said.”

“Girl, I got a mind to take off my belt right now. We eating breakfast and you bring back some damn petroleum jelly.” Daddy kept shaking his head: “Momma’s baby, Poppa’s maybe.”

Mother smiled, but Suzanne, Tyrone and Robert, laughed, laughed and laughed. I didn’t see anything funny.

NOTHING MATTERS ON THE LEFT

In the ER, I remained conscious, but unaware my left side shifted to a world of its own; no feelings whatsoever; in my mind it was not there anymore. No left arm or leg. Gone! As the morning drifted on, I slipped deeper into stroke land, a cul-de-sac in between tranquility and restlessness. A brain on pause is quiet.

When the hospital reached my mother in Chicago, she was only told I was gravely ill and in ICU. The stroke diagnosis hadn’t been determined yet. My friend hit her with the bombshell news. “They’re not sure if she’s going to make it.”

Mother called Robert. “I’m on my way to Minneapolis, right now. Jackie is very sick and in ICU.”

“Hold on, Mother. Let’s wait and see how she does and we’ll drive there this weekend.”

“No! She may not last the weekend.”

“Whoa! Mother, you talking about our Jackie?”

The family was shocked. How? Why? Jackie? Strokes are not in our DNA.

Mother, Suzanne, Tyrone, and Robert dropped everything, and got into two cars and drove the five-hundred-mile trip to Minneapolis. The word they got from doctors was still doom and gloom, even though they had ruled out brain surgery. The less invasive procedure: shave the top of my head and insert a tube on the left side to relieve the pressure. In neurology talk, I suffered "severe edema" and required a "ventriculostomy."

"NO, SHE WON’T DIE OR BE A VEGETABLE"

I was hooked up to several monitors with tubes inserted in my mouth and nose and a large protruding one lodged on the left side, draining the extra cerebrospinal fluid from my brain. A white blood-stained bandage was wrapped around my head, giving me a mummified look. My mother walked past me as the family was brought to my bedside.

“Mother, this is Jackie,” Robert said, reaching for her arm.

“You looked like you had been in a Nazi camp,” Suzanne told me later.

The doctors warned my family that if I lived I would not return to them the same way. I would either die or be a vegetable. Mother looked those doctors straight on. “No, she won’t die or be a vegetable.” She knew her father didn’t give up when death appeared imminent shortly after I was born prematurely. Mother reached in her soul and called out to PaPa, dead more than twenty years, and remembered how he jumped in his old, beat-up blue pickup, and drove three hours in the night from McComb, Mississippi, to New Orleans to get his second granddaughter an expensive five-dollar can of Similac to drink. With not a cent to his name, PaPa grabbed a chicken from the barn. A farmer’s stock was as good as cash. A poor man’s credit card.

My sixteen-year-old aunt told my grandparents to put me at the end of the bed, expressing her fear out loud: “This baby won’t see morning.” Crying incessantly, my brown-tone skin turned black and blue. Weighing three pounds, seven ounces, nothing stayed down. Not water, nor Mother’s breast milk. PaPa begged God to send death to the graveyard empty-handed. He anointed me with holy oil, shouting in his soothing preacher’s tone, “Heavenly Father, you brought her here three months early. Do not let Satan take away my Jacqueline.” Papa always called me Jacqueline with a southern French accent. I loved him extra special for that. Too often I introduce myself as Jacqueline and in the next sentence the person calls me Jackie. “What the butterfly!” (butterfly is my personal swear word).

THE POWER OF PRAYER

I've always believed in the power of prayer but never put it to the test. No, there was one other time. Sort of. As a young girl, we were at church on the West Side and the grownups were trying to cast a demon out of this woman. My sister, brothers, cousins and I were in the back, goofing off. An usher scolded us for not praying.

“When that demon comes out, he’s going to go in the body of everyone not praying, so y’all better get to it.” She put such a deep fright in my soul, I was first to get in the prayer circle. I pictured a white ghostly spirit with claws floating out of the woman’s body. We all repeated what the adults chanted. “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.” I also prayed privately with my eyes shut tight. Lord, please don’t let this woman’s demon come in me. My sixth-grade teacher was taking the class on a field trip the next day, and I didn’t have time for this.

Every day I asked the nurses: “Please, go get my mother, so she can pray for me." A strong church background, and mother and daughter of a preacher, I needed her favor with God. As she prayed, my siblings were on the phone to their "prayer warriors" and extended family. Close friends were called and more prayers summoned. Everyone was told to pray for me by first and last name —J. Jacqueline McLean —so God would know exactly who needed so much help. By day two, my family was prayer-fasting.

ICU is a strange place to be for an extended time. In the thirty days I lived there, death lingered around me while families cry uncontrollably. Accident victims come in with half their bodies missing. I wanted out. Subconsciously, I didn’t understand why I was in this alien habitat. Repeatedly, I tore off the monitoring stickers. The nurses put mittens on my hands, fearing I would yank the drainage tube out of my head. While I sat on life’s edge, my brain didn’t sense I was dying, yet it forced me to fight to survive. I could feel evil lurking over me. I whispered silently, Bless me, dear God. “It’s me. Me, oh Lord. Not my mother, not my father, but me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. After my month-long stay in ICU, surely, the worst was over. I had no idea what awaited me.

THE IMPACT

From intensive care, I moved to the hospital's rehab unit. I'm finally out of ICU, I'm fine, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The second day, an occupational therapist had to dress me. To my surprise, I couldn't fasten my bra and put my tee shirt on backwards. The therapist instructed me to place the front side of the shirt face down on the bed, then turn it on the back side, lift it up, find the hole, put my head in, then slide my arms into the sleeves. Later, I hassled with my panties, putting both legs in one opening and backwards. What the butterfly!

Showing classic symptoms associated with a right hemisphere stroke, my visual perception was impaired; time and space swirled around me. Getting dressed is no longer a mindless task. My left side, from my face to my feet, feel like the nerve endings were ripped out. Hardened clay. To button a blouse was amazingly difficult. The trauma of the stroke erased my fine motor skills, which had me praying, “Please, God, take me out of the tee shirt world." In my closet are dozens of French blouses from Paris with delicate buttons. A minor ordeal, but I didn’t want to let the old me go. Forget about post earrings. Too butterfly hard!

Left-field visual or left neglect is another common symptom. I’m constantly bumping into people and doorways on the left. My vision is fine, but my brain isn’t registering the information from my eyes quickly enough. Everything on the left is virtually ignored. When I eat, the food on my left side is untouched. It’s the same when I read words or numbers—121 appears as 21. This severe cognitive impairment continued months after I left the hospital.

Rehab is about visual perception exercises, maps, mazes, games. I dreaded the days when the physical therapists gave me a hospital map to go find a specific department. No questions allowed. The first time I fail miserably and I’m so confused, I ask a visitor for help. In my mind, I didn’t think I could do this, pre-stroke. Maps are not my friend.

BACK TO THE REAL WORLD... READY OR NOT

I returned to work looking as if I’d been at a spa retreat. Seventy pounds lighter, walking perfectly, and no speech problems, I defied every outward stroke myth. No one saw the loose cognitive wires dangling inside my brain. As my Creole friend says, I was “two sandwiches short of a picnic.”

I underwent six months of intense speech and occupational therapy before returning to work part-time. A half year was the maximum time allowed for long-term illness. The other option was disability, and an eighty-percent loss in pay and no health insurance. Four hours a day, five days a week, certainly I could handle this. The station bought a voice-dictating software program to help with typing, but it was more efficient and therapeutic to type with my left hand, regardless of how long it took or how claw-like it felt with each key stroke.

The news director didn’t know what to do with me and neither did I. The decision had already been made to place me in general assignment, which means daily reporting on deadline. I flat-out refuse, knowing there’s no way I could jump into that frying pan under my slow-moving speed. I was put back in the investigative unit and attended the morning news meeting to get reacquainted with the newsroom. I managed to do two solid investigative pieces, but my organizational skills, which made me a dynamic reporter, are buried deep where I can’t reach them. Physically present at work, but mentally overwhelmed, I sat idly at my desk, looking through emails, lacking the energy to pull a story together. My desk was just as I left it pre-stroke. My organized mess, but I didn’t remember the system.

Just getting to work was a chore. I was unable to drive because of all the brain scarring yet to heal. So, my Jaguar sat in the garage while I took two buses from the city to the suburbs. Figuring out the route and schedule times alone was exhausting therapy. If that wasn’t enough, it was a two-sock, long johns, mittens-stuffed with hand warmers, Minnesota cold season, and after I got off the first bus, I walked six blocks to catch the suburban bus.

In the hospital, I asked my mother what I could have possibly done so terrible for God to punish me so harshly. She assured me God saved me. Waiting for those buses in the pre-dawn frozen hours in February sure felt like punishment.

Victoriously, I reclaimed my career, only to be laid off four months later. While none of the managers visited or called when I was in the hospital, it took two of them to let me go. They offered Kleenex to dry my tears and asked me to leave immediately.

Jackie strong? You bet! I can thank Mother and Daddy for my backbone.

A year into recovery, I longed for reporting. Because of eight Emmys and a news reel that screamed zoom, zoom, a television station in Louisville hired me as an investigative reporter. I lasted one long, unforgiving month. My dazed and wandering look and confused thoughts were not good television. My heart wanted to be back on the air, but my brain was stroked out. I re- turned to Minneapolis and vowed to forget about news until I was no longer soul-sick.

The medical reports are tucked away on hospital discs and stored in the back of my desk. (July 10, 2008 notation: She is awake, alert, and following commands. We are watching her carefully. I talked at length with the patient's family this evening and explained the problem with the stroke and the consequences. We will continue to follow her closely.) Inexorably, missing from the lukewarm dialogue are any references to dying as though some words are too butterfly gripping to write down. A Left Turn is quieter and heartbreaking enough.

About the Author

J. Jacqueline McLean

A veteran TV journalist, I am the recipient of eight Emmys and the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting. Education: MFA, Writing, Hamline University; MA, Public Affairs Reporting, University of Illinois; BS, Journalism, Bradley University. My writings have appeared in Hawaii Review, River River, Wraparound South, York Literary Review, Rock, Paper, Scissors.