Personal Definitions of the Word Stroke

by | Jul 25, 2019 | Creative Nonfiction

Personal Definitions of the Word StrokeLike me, stroke is of Germanic origin. Like my given name, it contains five letters that end in “e.” Like me, like us all, it contains multitudes, contradictions, complexity, its meaning contingent on context, on befores and afters.

  1. the act of striking, blow

I am seven and it’s the summer between second and third grade. I’ve been getting in trouble a lot lately. For lying. Had my mouth washed out with soap. Dad pumped it out of the dispenser onto a toothbrush and brushed my teeth for me, his thick hand on top of my head. I try not to gag or cry but I can’t not do these things, which makes him angrier.

Cut to my bedroom. The walls painted lavender with a strip of wallpaper across the middle, a teddy bear-printed cummerbund. The door covered front and back in my drawings, soccer ribbons, posters, and report cards. Under the window is my mom’s red oak Hope Chest from when she was a girl. Three porcelain dolls, one for each of my sisters and me from our dad’s mom, sit on top of it, smiling frozen smiles. Babysitter’s Club books stacked on the window ledge, their edges yellowed from the Denver sun. Above the headboard, an altar of sorts in porcelain: ballet slippers, a plate depicting a girl who looked like me putting on dance shoes, more bears, a Precious Moments ballerina. White, salmon pink, and Kelly green squares checker boarding the full-sized bedspread.

The bed’s wooden foot frame digs into my bare hips. I try to twist and turn, to arch back, but Dad holds me in place with one hand as he folds his belt in half with the other. After the first spank my body contracts, tightens, electrocuted by leather. I say I’m sorry. I’ll be good. I’ll never lie again. A second spank, a third. The belt makes a whooshing sound before it smacks the skin. I’m crying so hard, I can barely see. I look over to my mom in the hallway. She’s got my younger sisters, five and two, tucked under her arms, safe, all of them crying. I reach out to her. “Mommy, please.” She makes a kind of forward motion but the door slams shut. The belt continues. I wet myself.

I have to sit on my side hip for a couple weeks. Family members pull down my shorts at a family gathering to inspect my livid buttocks, sucking air through their teeth before asking me if I’ll lie again. No, I say, never.

  1. A single completed movement, as in swimming or rowing

Growing up, we often vacationed in Glenwood Springs. We spent most days at the gigantic hot springs pool and, after dinner, most nights in the motel’s chlorine pool because there is no such thing as too much pool time when you are a kid. For a man built like an offensive lineman, my dad excelled in the water. He’d have us grip his thick neck with our skinny girl arms and dive underwater, gliding the 50-yard width of the pool with the long, easy strokes of a frog and us on his back. He was our personal, private ferry. I loved the wake we trailed behind us, the way I felt floating above my dad’s strong back, the deliciousness of that first breath after cresting. All of it magic.

  1. A sudden occurrence or result

My dad was the first person I unfriended on Facebook. He had wished one of my cousins happy birthday two days after my middle sister’s birthday which he did not publicly or privately acknowledge. The post infuriated me. Why did our cousin, who he wasn’t even very close with, deserve such public admiration and love and my sister did not? Estrangement in the twenty-first century: click; gone.

  1. A sudden loss of brain function caused by a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel to the brain

In the pre-dawn morning of New Year’s Day 2017, my dad suffered a right-hemisphere stroke that knocked out a third of that side’s brain tissue. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body in addition to emotion, creativity, abstract meaning, intuition, imagination, spatial relationships, organizing information, determining context. Without these functions, one not only loses the ability for “big picture” thinking but also the awareness to recognize these deficits. Additionally, a person with right-hemisphere brain injury will neglect the body’s entire left side: ear, cheek, teeth, shoulder, arm, hand, torso, hip, leg, and foot. It’s not the paralysis that renders them meaningless but rather the brain’s lack of recognition.

  1. A light caressing movement

Due to a combination of medications and partial paralysis, my dad’s left hand and foot swelled with edema. The railroad tie indentations of his watch left his puffy, shiny skin red. I would take his single bloated hand between my two and massage the fluid back into his arm, kneading the length of each finger, each bone with my thumbs. When my hands would start to cramp, I eased up and added more lotion. I traced his decades-old weight lifting calluses now softened with my finger nail. I grazed his palm’s life line with my finger. He would look over, sigh, and say, “It feels so nice.” Does it, I thought, can you feel my squeeze? Can you feel anything at all?

  1. An inspired or effective idea or act

Within two weeks of his stroke, I asked my dad if he’d let me and my sisters be his power of attorney. He agreed, rather easily it seemed, a little too easily my gut warned considering all that needed to be done: notify the bank, junk two cars, return another to the dealership, see if he could get into a rehab program, find a long-term care facility, apply for disability, pay the $2,000 lien against his three storage units full of weight equipment, deal with said equipment, sort through his finances, file ten years’ worth of taxes somehow, figure out what to do about his $115,000 debt to the IRS. This is what we knew about; we feared what we didn’t know.

The night we all signed the power of attorney form, the lawyer confirmed we understood our legal duty to act in our dad’s best interest, that he could revoke it should he disagree with our decisions. “What if everyone else in the world agrees we’re acting in his best interest but our dad disagrees?” I asked the lawyer. “Then he could revoke it. At any time.”

Was it inspired that we signed it anyway, knowing the impossibility of success, the inevitability of revocation? Was it effective that we got rid of the cars, paid off the lien and his credit card, started the Social Security application, extracted him from the initial dump of a nursing facility the hospital placed him in, got a rehab facility to write off six weeks of treatment so our final bill was 50-some dollars, found a spot for him at a five-star rated long-term nursing home, that we sold $6,000 worth of weight equipment in less than a month? We did what we could for as long as we could. A mere three months before it fell apart.

  1. A movement of a piston from one end of the limit of its motion to another

I love the smell of fresh cut grass for the memories. My sisters and I chasing each other about the yard in the white heat of noon. Our mom hanging sheets on the line, the crisp cool fabric flapping in the wind. Our dad pushing the heavy two-stroke mower across the grass, leaving criss-cross-applesauce lines in his trail. His shoes dyed green by the end of it, his ankles flecked in bits of blade, a salt ring of sweat round the brim of his baseball cap. “Get Dad an ice water,” he’d say and one of us would race to the kitchen, fill an old spaghetti jar full of cubes, and watch them crack and splinter under the faucet, the glass already sweating.

  1. A single mark made by a writing instrument, such as a pen

I strike key after key; words and sentences and paragraphs take their varied shapes and expose those parts of me I keep hidden to everyone, even myself. This remnant a kind of indictment, one that aims to bear witness, to discover, to reckon with the truth. It may never be adequate, but it’s all I’ve got.

Photo used under CC.

About The Author


A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA from Regis University. Her writing has appeared in Into the Void, Treehouse, Quaint Magazine, Scintilla, and Daily Serving. She serves on the board for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, the largest literary center in the Rocky Mountain region.