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Always Reaching For The Right Word

03 November 2014 Written by  By John Jankowski
Published in November 2014 Articles

My life changed forever on June 1, 2004. I awakened at 2:30 in the morning with a clear sense that something was seriously wrong.

I was unable to speak clearly. I woke my wife, Nancy, who dialed 911. My recollections of the subsequent hours are foggy; I dimly remember waking up the next morning in the hospital with the frightening conviction that I was going to die. My first clear memory is of Nancy and our twin children, who were in high school at the time, standing by my bedside. They knew that I had suffered a major stroke though I didn’t realize it myself.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, and graduated from Archbishop Riordan High in 1975. Dad was a milkman; Mom a homemaker. I took business and commercial courses at San Francisco’s City College and, following graduation, got a good job in the banking industry. During my freshman year of college I was hanging out at a friend’s house. Some girls were there but I only had eyes for Nancy Geddes. It was love at first sight on my part. There must have been something of a similar response on her part, as well, because she didn’t run out of the room when, out of the blue, I told her, “I am going to marry you.” Three years later we were married. Following my stroke, Nancy became my caregiver.

As is typical of stroke victims, I had lost much of the control over the limbs on one side of my body; in my case, the right side. For six years I was unable to drive a car. I never gained complete use of my right hand and arm, plus I have a persistent tingling sensation between my right wrist to the elbow. I eventually learned to walk in a shuffling manner but my fine motor skills on that side of my body have been permanently impacted. It is still difficult to pick up anything with my right hand.

Fortunately, I was ambidextrous and always found it equally easy to write with my right or my left hand. However, the advantages of being able to manipulate a pencil were canceled out by the fact that my mind had lost its ability to form characters and words. I had a major case of aphasia, which means that the stroke had seriously impacted the parts of my brain that govern communication.

For years normal communication was impossible. Not being able to speak was a bitter pill for me. I could occasionally speak a word, but had to confine my communication to gestures. I felt isolated and for a long time depended upon Nancy to be my translator, communicating my thoughts, wishes, and intentions to a world that remained baffled by my spluttering attempts at oral communication.

My life began to improve when I discovered Oakland’s Aphasia Center and began taking two weekly sessions with language therapists, who were helping me to develop communication skills by finding channels from the verbal centers of my mind that would bypass my damaged nerves. The Aphasia Center is staffed by kind people who sincerely desire to help. I began making progress and began speaking sentences.

Six years ago Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer and five weeks later, only a few months before our 30th wedding anniversary, she passed away. My life that was hard to begin with became much more difficult for me. It was a tough time. However, it may be that Nancy’s absence and the realization that I couldn’t depend upon her any more forced me to become more serious about my therapy. Over the intervening years I have made some remarkable progress. I am able to use a pen but need someone, usually one of my children, to edit my writing. It is still difficult to form characters, words, and sentences, but I can carry on nearly normal conversations over the phone and in person. I find myself often groping for a particular word. However, a septuagenarian acquaintance recently told me that he had the same problem. As we grow older everyone finds it difficult to remember particular words so that, even though my case might be more severe than others, when I am trying to think of a word, many people know exactly what is happening in my brain.

The current goal of the Aphasia Center is to get me reading. Reading remains terribly difficult. After reading a few sentences my brain seems to just shut down. The task is made easier by a tape recorder that helps me process thoughts and ideas into words. I read out loud along with the tape.

My mind has always been alert, and I have remained physically active. Every day, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m., I walk around the perimeter of our Montrose Court subdivision. For decades I have been an avid horticultural hobbyist, specializing in roses. I find peace and a sense of contentment through caring for my 40 rosebushes that include a number of varieties, both perennials and annuals. I have always liked the feel of sunshine and fresh air. Even before my stroke my garden provided a welcome retreat from the hours I spent in the offices of the GMAC Finance Department. I have also resumed my golf game, which I had first played when I was 12 years old. Several years following the stroke, I got out on the links again. The first rounds were pretty rough. Even now Tiger Woods has nothing to worry about (or even the 12-year-old version of me, probably). But I am having fun, getting exercise outside in the sunshine. Once in a while I sink a good ’un.

I participate each year in the annual May Walk to raise Aphasia Awareness and solicit donations for the Aphasia Center. I have become one of the foundation’s major fundraisers. Since 2005, I’ve raised more than $26,000. In 2012 I raised $6,000 and last year more than $7,000. I solicit contributions door-to-door and from colleagues at GMAC who remember me from the days when I worked in company offices in San Francisco, Sunnyvale, San Diego, and Concord. I hit them all up for donations.

I am not at all shy about this because I am not asking for a handout, but am simply giving them an opportunity to help make the world a better place. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Let me know if you want to do something to make the world a better place.

Life is good. I still miss Nancy, of course, but am starting to imagine some female companionship might be in my future. I am not impatient. The decade has been a tough one, but I’ve come to accept my condition. Losing my speech was horrible, but we must meet the challenges that come into our lives — to process things and come to a new normal.

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