I first saw Loretta at the dysphagia table in the hospital.
She was helping a stroke patient with his lunch. Dressed in white, she could have been any number of the nurses or aides who roamed the hallways and rooms of the acute care unit.
Eight stroke patients sat in a semi-circle, eating as best they could, and as I fed dad his food, I watched her from the corner of my eye.
She was different somehow. Older, yes, but also more caring than the many medical professionals in this unit who seemed callous performing their duties. She was present. She encouraged. She listened.
I was still learning who was who in the maze of dad’s care, while every day, mom and I and my brother would trek to the hospital.
There, we encouraged him out of the labyrinth of darkness into which he had entered after his stroke. Helped him move with the walker, encouraged him to speak words. And fed him. Stroke patients often have trouble swallowing — dysphagia.
So we sat with dad at breakfast, lunch and dinner at that table. Helping him eat. Spoonful by spoonful. Even though he would often use his knife with the pudding or his fork with the apple juice.
We had entered a strange world of shadows, one which had little light.
Until Loretta entered dad’s hospital room that next day.
She announced herself as the speech therapist, someone who would be helping dad regain vocabulary and communication. She sat next to him as he lay on the bed, was patient with him as he stared at her, trying to connect.
After he left the hospital, I would drive dad for his bi-weekly sessions with her, load him up in the wheelchair and push him through the hallways of the hospital to her office. There, in that cramped space for an hour I watched as she led dad, step by step, word by word.
He was a toddler, learning to maneuver vocabulary again.
She’d ask him questions. Ask the day, month, year. Engage him in conversation. And ask him to pray, understanding how much his life had been centered around God and faith, how rote prayers often return in speech.
A first-generation Mexican-American, dad spoke Spanish first. She said that often a first language kicks in for some people. I speak some, so I would talk to dad in Spanish.
Then Loretta began to learn more of dad’s story from me, that he had been a professional and inspirational speaker, how he had helped thousands with the speeches he gave around the world.
It seemed cruel that God would take away the one gift he valued.
After six months, dad ended speech therapy. But my friendship with Loretta was beginning.
Over the last four years, we have remained connected. Strange how a tragedy can lead you to new people and heart spaces if you’re open. We email when we can, have met for lunch and coffee when time allows. Share about our families. Pray for each other.
Today dad still has aphasia. The word “tortilla” seems to replace just about every other word and my heart smiles. But whereas he was silent before, he now forms sentences. Some days he is more lucid than others and for a few hours, I cherish the “old dad” remembering what he was like.
As I lay on the table, waiting for the surgeon, anxious and terrified, Loretta surprised me by coming into the room. She’s a busy woman, with many patients to see.
She hugged me, kissed me on the cheek. She placed her hands on me and prayed and offered words of wisdom. She encouraged me to better self-care. I listened. And the last few months I have indeed been moving into more self-nurturing. Daily meditation, small walks, reconnecting with friends.
But just as dad has been a toddler, learning new words, I am still a toddler learning to love myself more.
I am teaching myself, step by step, to nurture that little girl who is often afraid, who simply wants to be acknowledged and loved. I can offer her that. I am.
I attended a workshop a few years ago for people who were experiencing grief after the loss of a loved one. As everyone went around the room, sharing their stories that wrenched my heart, I heard each one say this, in varying ways:
“It didn’t feel OK. But I knew it was going to be OK. Even if it wasn’t.”
That’s what I believe now. It’s going to be OK, even if it isn’t.
And that, my friends, is grace.
As are the angels of light God sends.