Learning How to Grow

After a stroke, Bryce Emley’s father suffers permanent physical and mental impairment, but the cruelest effect has been the damage to his manhood.

I was three years old when my father had a stroke, leaving the right half of his body paralyzed, impairing his speech, and, to some extent, the judgment and decision-making abilities associated with higher functioning for the rest of his life. The problem with all this wasn’t just the obvious; possibly the greater problem was the damage to his masculinity.

Months away from receiving his PhD, my father had worked his way up the school system to vice principal at a local elementary school and was poised to make principal. My mother was a speech teacher and did most of the work of raising my three siblings and me, but my father was the major breadwinner. He would distribute an allotment of money from his and my mom’s joint income to her for groceries and bills, but the majority of the budget was his to spend on hunting trips, golf clubs, guns, clothes, boats and all manner of manly excess. I don’t mean to say that he was a strictly selfish man; everything I know about him before the stroke is secondhand, but from what my siblings tell me, he mostly spent our money on himself.

Eighteen years later, my father was still in virtually the same condition the stroke left him in when I was three. My mother had come to control the finances (for the better), and my father was left to wonder how he could have gone from educated alpha male to living on an allowance from his disability check and making no greater decisions than how he wanted his steak cooked. Over the years I’ve watched him struggle to take back control from my mother of everything from the car he drives to home décor to even what my mom wears, all in vain.

When I would come home from college, my sister (who lived with her husband in my hometown) and mother would regale me with tales of his inexplicable aggression, his heated arguments with my mom and his senseless purchases. My father has always believed that God would heal him of his condition, so he would buy fishing poles and guns and parts for his boats which have been almost completely unused for the two decades since his stroke—essentially stuff that requires two hands to use without killing someone, user included. We would suggest to him that perhaps God had a better plan for him than physical healing, that maybe he needed disability for a change of heart, but his intense desire for regaining financial control and returning to his hobbies and career, coupled with his reduced higher functioning, blinded him to any possibilities besides the one he hoped for.

Around this time, my mother was unexpectedly diagnosed with lung cancer. She was perfectly healthy, didn’t smoke or drink, and exercised regularly, so this came as a surprise to everyone who knew her. As is often the case with lung cancer, my mother resorted to chemotherapy, followed by surgical removal of part of a lung.

When it was time for her procedure, she stayed for nearly a week at a clinic a few hours from where I lived. When my classes ended on that Friday, I drove up to see her, where my two older sisters, Brooke and Brynne, and my father already were.

I drove straight to the hotel where everyone but my mom was staying. My father was at the clinic when I arrived, and after hugging Brooke and calling to Brynne through the bathroom door, I dropped my things and talked to Brooke about how everything was going. Eventually I asked about how my father had been taking the whole situation, and with tears welling in her eyes she told me about how she felt my father was only sad because he was thinking about how my mom’s condition was affecting him. She told me that Brynne, who had driven my parents up, had told her that before they left for the clinic they stopped at a family friend’s house to pray. Apparently he had wanted the friend, Debbie, to pray for him as well, and as they talked about my mother he continually tried to tell Debbie about how God had told him he would be healed completely, a favorite story of his that included a dream sequence twelve years before in which he conversed with God.

Brooke told me that Dad had been problematic in the hospital room as well. He would hoard pillows and blankets, and when my mother, recovering from surgery from her bed with an IV tube trailing out of her, would ask for one he would get angry. She told me that at one point he was sitting in a chair between the hospital bed and the bathroom, and as Mom limped toward it he took so long in getting out of his chair that she couldn’t get past him in time.

We spent most of our stay in the hospital room, and arguments flared constantly between Dad and Brynne, who was notoriously short-tempered with him. The room was thick with tension for almost the entirety of my first day there, though I stayed out of the arguments, as I typically did.

That night I walked out to the hotel parking lot and called my girlfriend, Erin, to vent. I told her about what Brooke had told me, about how selfish my father was being and about how mad it made me. I said it was ridiculous that while my mother lay there with half of a lung cut out as we prayed that that would finally remove the cancer that seemed so unfairly contracted, my father was arguing with Brynne and getting in the way. I told her how he would even try to impress the doctors who would come in to talk about my mom’s condition, interrupting them as they updated her to tell them about the college he went to or ask about where they went to school.

After spouting for several minutes about my frustrations, I expected Erin to console me and agree with the absurdity of it all; instead, she asked me why I expected so much from a man I knew has a mental impairment. All my life my family and I had struggled to fit a man with frontal lobe damage and chronic frustration at a loss of everything he cared for into the role of a simple, rational human being. All along we tried to convince him that God was using the impairment to heal him while ignoring the possibility that it could also be healing us: healing our impatience, our lack of empathy, our lack of understanding and, above all, our inability to love someone it had become so easy to despise.

Our time at the clinic improved after that, and three years later, my mother is cancer-free. The frustrations of that weekend, I believe, represented an opportunity for me to grow and learn, just as every moment of frustration do. When none of the (gratuitous) sixteen applications I submitted to graduate writing programs yielded an acceptance last year, for example, my initial reaction upon the final rejection was more complicated than it would have been at a different part of my life. As my disappointment festered into anger, I caught myself, asked myself how that blind anger would help me get in somewhere next time. Instead of allowing that blow to my ego and bank account to stunt my career, I took it as a sixteen hundred-dollar message from college professors that I needed to improve myself. I haven’t reapplied yet, but I’ve since worked to enhance my skills and make a career of writing for a living, which was basically the point of enrolling in a graduate writing program to begin with.

Unfortunately, my father may never understand this concept.  He’s in virtually the same condition the stroke left him in almost twenty years ago, and it’s still rare that I make a visit home without hearing him tell me that God told him in a dream he’d be “a hundred percent” one day. His hair is beginning to gray, his gut is beginning to hang over his pants-waist and more and more minor health issues continue to pop up, meaning the likelihood of this being fulfilled is growing slimmer and slimmer with each dreamless night.

Tensions between him and my mom and sister are still tentative, as they likely will always be. When I talk to him I humor him by feigning belief in his claims for imminent healing, electing not to preach about a point we’ve failed to convince him of for years. He may never learn, but I have learned from his counterexample to welcome every hardship as an opportunity for growth.


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Image credit: amintirivizuale/Flickr

About Bryce Emley

Bryce is an editorial assistant for The Florida Review and Managing Editor of 12:51 in Orlando, FL, where he also substitute teaches and freelances. His writing can be found in The Pinch, Hawai’i Review, Yemassee, Measure, Ruminate, Pleiades, and other places.

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