Stephanie Buck

Somewhere Strike One

On the fourth day, the doctor asks my husband to name what’s on his dinner tray. He points to a cup of peaches. “What are these?”

Cameron tightens his lips around the word. “P—p—paradise.” His eyes sink to his lap.

“It’s okay,” says the doctor, a trim older man with white hair. “You’re tired. Try again.”

Cameron shrugs his chin and blinks at the plastic cup of orange chunks. “Pee-ghesh.”

“Great,” says the doctor. “The occupational therapist said you have been swallowing just fine, so I’ll leave you to it.” Then to me, “Don’t forget to check his left cheek for pieces of food he can’t feel.” Stroke patients have a tendency to squirrel food away in their non-dominant cheek and forget about it, which increases the risk of choking.

On his way out, he leaves the door open to the nurse’s station. I can’t help but see it as a test.

All the doors in the ICU are wide and made of glass, so even when they’re closed the nurses can make sure patients aren’t aspirating on their peaches.

Then it’s just us. Our first time in his hospital room alone with a dinner tray of peaches, mushy green beans, and chicken enchiladas that can only be described as blended. A plate of paradise.

I decide my best course of action is to just do it. Just spoon-feed my forty-three-year-old husband. 

“Okay, let’s dig in,” I say, trying to sound casual, as if we’re unwrapping the tinfoil around a couple of Chipotle burritos.

The syrup in the fruit cup is gooey, and I remember the doctor saying all liquids will need to be thickened until they’re sure Cameron can swallow properly. Two tiny peach chunks slip onto the plastic spoon and I wish for something, anything that would make feeding my grown husband more romantic than this. Real silverware, at least? Dim lighting? A vintage pinot noir?

Instead, he opens his mouth and the left corner droops. His lips are chapped. I slide the spoon and tilt it down. The slimy peaches slip onto his tongue. He chews silently. A thin line of drool and peach juice dribbles into his beard. As nonchalantly as possible, I grab the nearest washcloth and dab his chin, then busy myself filling another spoon. 

As he chews, I make the mistake of looking into his eyes. There are no tears but he stares into the wall ahead, the way I stare into the ceiling at my OBGYN appointments, wishing it would all be over now. Especially, most especially, because this was preventable. This was all so goddamn preventable, you fucking asshole.

* * * 


Four days earlier, I awoke to a wordless voice calling for help. And he was there: naked at the foot of the bed and so, so disappointed.

“I think I’m having a stroke,” he said. Only it sounded like, “I ghinck I havun a shroke.” 

It wasn’t his words that sprung me out of bed. It was his eyes, lidded over in total defeat. Or it was his mouth, drooping so listlessly, paralyzed sadness. Maybe it was his pallor, the red that had been boiling through his cheeks for weeks suddenly shock-white. Probably also it was his left shoulder, slanting downward, now just a joint holding a heavy, dangling arm. 

Adrenaline surges me into action. I put my hands on him. I urge him to sit. Hospital. My brain is operating in single words now. “Can you get your underwear on?” 

“Ma urm does’n work.” My arm doesn’t work.

“Okay, do you think you can walk to the car?” I ask, stupidly. This man can’t walk.

“Maybe,” he says, trying so hard to make up for who he has suddenly become, how much he suddenly needs. 

Still in my own underwear, I grab one of his dirty t-shirts and try to lift his arm into it. Jesus, human arms are heavy, I think, wasting precious seconds. This won’t work. My hands are shaking, the cold bare floor needles my feet. Phone. 911.

I place the call in our kitchen. To spare my completely vulnerable husband from the reality of the situation. The way I would a toddler. Our toddler, B. Three years old and still asleep, somehow, still dreaming about Thomas the Train and Cars 1 through 4, unaware that his father is dying in the next room. 

My wooden fingers jab at the keypad. 9-1-1. A woman answers in hyperspeed. 

“I think my husband is having a stroke,” I say, panic stumbling out.

“Ma’am, what is your address?” 

I tell her. My mind is sharp, clearer than it has ever been. 

“Responders are on their way. Please unlock the front door.”

I do. Unlock and open the front door. Winter air knifes at my bare legs. I rocket back to our bedroom to check on Cameron.

“Is your husband there with you?” the dispatcher asks.

“Yes, I’m standing next to him.”

“Is he lying down?”

“Yes. He’s on the bed.”

Somehow Cameron had managed to pull his underwear on.

“I need you to ask him to do three things, okay?”


“Can he lift both arms?”

“Lift your arms, baby,” I plead.

Only one arm raises, a half-salute.

“Only one arm. He ca— he can’t move his left one.”

“Okay, ask him to smile. Is his smile even?” she instructs.

“Smile, baby,” I say.

He tries.

“One side’s not raising,” I say.

“Okay, one more thing: Ask your husband to say the following sentence: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

I share the instructions with Cameron.

“Dah quick bron foss dumpt oer dah lay dock,” he mumbles and shakes his head. His eyes aren’t scared, just so, so sad.

“Thank you,” says the dispatcher. “The responders are two blocks away.” 

I hang up, yank on pants, and dial my stepdad at the same time. He is the closest and most likely person to answer at seven o’clock in the morning. 


“We have an emergency. I think Cameron is having a stroke. The EMTs are on their way. I need you guys to come over here and watch B,” I say, marveling at my clarity and efficiency. 

By the time he and my mom arrive, Cameron is surrounded by four huge men. Our bedroom is full of shoulders and muscles and boots, none of them my husband’s. His pale body droops into the comforter. 

Then the baby wakes, singing and chatting in his bedroom. “Go in there and keep the door closed,” I instruct my parents. My mom has a wild, determined look I’m sure mirrors my own face. 

In a few seconds, Cameron is inside the ambulance and I’m trying to smile good morning and goodbye to our toddler before realizing my hands are shaking so hard I can’t drive to the emergency room to be with his father, not without my mom, who palms my car key and clutches my knee in the passenger seat as I crack out sharp sobs. It’s too soon. It’s way too soon.

But it is also way too late. Somewhere, someone had pitched the first strike.


* * *


Cameron finishes his dinner of peaches but only manages a single bite of macerated enchiladas. Who can blame him? He is exhausted. 

I squirt a travel tube of toothpaste onto a narrow-bristled hospital toothbrush and sit on the side of his bed. I’ve been brushing his teeth for four days, although truthfully I can’t remember whether I did the first day. Probably not. He could barely keep his eyes open that day, much less hold his mouth ajar. Every day after, he’s been awake for a few minutes longer, long enough to blink a few times when his mother tiptoes in to hold his hand and weep, long enough to roll his eyes when his twin brother asks, “So how the fuck you feeling?,” long enough to learn it’s Valentine’s Day then turn to me and deadpan, “Congratulations.”

He’s still in there. He is himself, I think. My patient valentine.

I tuck him under a thin knit blanket, but he kicks out his right foot. His socks are bright red with sticky rubber soles, hospital policy for fall risks. From my backpack, I pull out one of our son’s blankies, as if Cameron were a dog who might be comforted by its scent or something boneheaded like that. I start to return it to the backpack but Cameron motions for me to drape it over his chest. 

The gesture reminds me of B’s bedtime routine. And for just a moment, with my typically masculine, outgoing husband nestled in a hospital bed, silent under a baby blanket printed to look like a tortilla, everything on this planet is so utterly ludicrous that I feel like laughing. 

As he sleeps, I hear the chatty beeping of the ICU. The nurses cajole each other. Their merriment comforts me. I find myself wanting them to enjoy their work day. I want the people who are keeping my husband alive to be happy, even as the back of my own neck tightens like a stone. 

One man a couple rooms over screams, “Help! I can’t breathe!” 

A nurse checks on him, administers something to calm him. 

A woman moans across the way. More shoes squeak. 

I marvel at all the sensible footwear: an army of Hokas and Danskos and Oovos with the type of cushioning that squishes satisfactorily under the weight of the wearer. 

It is six p.m. and dark outside, but the staff won’t kick me out until nine. Maybe even longer; yesterday’s nurse let me stay as late as I wanted. A small part of me feels smug: I must be an “easy visitor,” saying all the pleases and thank yous and generally trying to meet all of Cameron’s needs before bothering the nurses with small tasks like adjusting pillows or rinsing out his urinal container. 

By then, I was happy to do it. It had taken him days to remember how to pee. His brain forgot that, too. At some point, an ultrasound confirmed that, yes, his bladder was distended (a.k.a. full of piss) and he needed a foley catheter (yeowww). I stepped out of the room as my favorite nurse slid the curtain closed and snapped purple surgical gloves onto her hands for shoving catheters into penises. 

I winced, remembering my own foley bulb, the balloon they shoved up my vagina then installed and inflated to dilate my cervix, a more “natural” way to induce labor, after which I cried from pain and they sent me home until my contractions were less than four minutes apart. 

But I never heard Cameron cry out. In fact, when I returned he looked relieved at having emptied his pee via glorified drinking straw.

The ICU quiets down for a few minutes and I pop out my Invisalign to eat a snack. Invisalign: what a stupid thing to have to care about when your husband is recovering from a serious stroke. What a comical burden to have to wrench your teeth into new positions for twenty-two hours a day while emptying dark yellow piss into a hospital toilet and taping up get well cards and hugging family members as they sob into your shoulder. 

Now that I’m alone and he’s asleep, I allow myself to cry too. It’s dark and the nurses are busy and there’s nothing else for me to do. I put my face into my hands and dig my elbows into my knees. It feels good. My muscles relax as the snot runs out my nose. I scoop away the salty mess on my cheeks. 

I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” whispers our nurse. She is young and kind and has the cutest sneakers of the shift.


* * *


At some point around day five, it all becomes tedious. I should be grateful for it, but the boredom arrives as my adrenaline evaporates, and I have no patience for it: The small metal balls on the curtain pulls are gauche. My library books are almost due. At some point, even Cameron gets so bored he remembers he has a dentist appointment that day, a flash of memory I’m shocked he’s able to recall, before realizing as I dial the number for our dentist that this, too, is boring as hell. 

Once he dozes off again, I scroll Instagram, but it’s all the same shit, all the same influencers hawking the same product. I practically hurl my phone onto the tray table and cross my arms in protest. But then it vibrates and I pick it up instinctively. The caller ID reads “Potential Spam” and I nearly scream, Don’t they know? Don’t they know now is not the time?! My husband’s brain has blood in it! 

At this point anyone who cared about me would tell me to go outside and get some fresh air, but I’m too tired and too afraid to leave his side for long. Instead I pull up the photo album on my phone, hoping for the familiar hit of dopamine that comes from looking at photos of our son doing virtually anything. What I find are several photos I don’t even remember taking. Like day three, when Cameron staggered to a chair for the first time. Or day two, when I apparently photographed an enormous floor decal at the ICU entrance that reads, Quiet Please: Healing in Process. Or the photo of the whiteboard in his room, where each new nurse writes his or her name at the start of their shift, along with the patient’s meds and the goals for the day. They’ve written my name under “Main contact,” and that’s when I notice his sister’s handwriting: “Wifey,” in parentheses. 

Cameron’s twin brother had been the first person I called, from the car on the way to the hospital. “I have some news,” I had stammered. “We are on our way to the emergency room because we think Cameron had a stroke. I’m calling you first because you need to know and because I need you to be the person to tell your family.”

Silence on his end. Trying to hold it together on his end. This end, too. 

He clears his throat. “What hospital?” His voice is deep and serious. 

I tell him where and that we are right behind the ambulance, and that he should come too. 

“Okay, I’ll be there.”

When they finally let me in the emergency department, Cameron has his own room, which in emergency infrastructure parlance means shit is serious: There’s a closing door instead of a curtain? You’re not on a stretcher in the hallway? You’re about to die. 

His blood pressure is one-hundred-and-fucking-eighty over some smaller number I never pay attention to. That’s down from TWO HUNDRED when he was admitted. His eyes are open. I immediately start petting his hair like an idiot, an act I never do in normal times, and it feels awkward and wrong for the emergency room, where a doctor and a nurse are still hooking him up to tubes and instruments, so then I start patting his shoulder, which feels even dumber. I lean down and whisper, “I love you, everything will be okay, are you in pain, don’t worry about anything, I’m right here.”

His brother arrives a few minutes later. He is still quiet but also pale. His eyes train on Cameron, his twin, a part of his own self in a hospital bed in critical condition. He asks me a couple questions and I guess I am able to answer them, and then we are just waiting until the doctor has a moment to fill us in. She rattles off the medicine they gave him to stop the hemorrhaging and bring his blood pressure down. They had already done one MRI and confirmed it was a stroke, but the neurologist is busy, so she can’t confirm where it is bleeding or whether it will stop. 

Suddenly Cameron’s rosy cheeks turn white and his blood pressure drops to the nineties. He goes unconscious. My heartbeat surges again, my own blood pressure rising as if to supplement my husband’s. 

“Okay, that medicine worked a little too well,” the doctor says (nervously?) and busies herself at the rolling computer station that tells IVs and drips what to do and to whom. “I’m going to give him something else to bring it back up.” 

I hold Cameron’s hand anxiously, searching his face for signs of return. His brother leans forward. A patient in the hallway suffering from a delusional episode chants about the government coming after him. Another nurse hurries in. 

My body accesses a deeper, more primal level of fear. One which I have only experienced a handful of times in my life. It is the terror of childbirth; it is a frat guy’s hand forced down the front of my jeans; it is open-heart surgery on a three-month-old infant; it is being chased; it is responsibility; it is chaos; it is death, in the room.

In under two minutes, it’s over. His eyes flutter open. He is deemed stable enough for another MRI. As they wheel Cameron out of the room, I wonder if he is coming back, if I will get to see him again. Because I know nothing. So I collapse into his brother’s arms and cry. He pats my hair as if I were a child and whispers, “It’s okay, everything will be okay.”


Now, days later in the ICU, I’m somehow bored? What a joke. 

I close the photo album and pull up my camera app. I snap another picture: my melted, pale husband asleep on top of a trio of thin hospital pillows. Even at rest his brain is reconfiguring itself, repairing fizzled neurons so he can, one day, make our son breakfast again or write me a love letter or massage my shoulders, all of which I’ve made him promise to do the second he is able. 


* * *


A few days later, the night nurses take pity on me and let me stay the night. Cameron has “graduated” to a less intense intensive care unit, where the nurse-to-patient ratio resembles more of a zone defense than man-to-man. This room is wider and the bathroom has a closing door. The part of me that lights up when the hotel offers me a free upgrade flickers for a few moments before I realize this new space doesn’t have an outdoor window.

I wheel in something plastic that looks like a chair but unfolds into something that looks like a bed and feels like lying on the hood of a car, without the romance. I loosen a stack of starchy white sheets and wedge them into the chair cushions, hoping they have been sterilized recently but too tired to do it myself. Before I can finish, Cameron asks me to move a cord that had gotten looped around his ankle. (There is no cord there.) I get back to my sheets. He asks for deodorant. (I apply some for him.) I get back to my sheets. He asks me a question. (I can’t understand him. I turn around, ask him to repeat. I answer him.) I get back to my sheets. 

Finally, the lights are off, the mystery cord strangling Cameron’s foot has been “removed,” all the teeth in the room have been brushed except my own, and I settle into the least comfortable bed in the world that is at this moment the most comfortable bed in the world. And, hearing Cameron begin to lightly snore, I close my eyes.

I think about how annoying he was a few minutes before: making requests, interrupting me, needing, needing, needing. A wave of guilt rushes through me. Of course he needs me. I have no right to be angry. Yet alongside fear, grief, and exhaustion simmers a saucepan of sheer rage. A four-burner stove.

I’m afraid of all the feelings I’ve felt today—the sheer variety and strength of each one. I marvel that I don’t have the will or energy, for the first time in a long time, to manage or change any of these emotions. At least not until this moment, steeped in guilt for snapping at my husband with the bleeding brain, and who is now too asleep to apologize to.

He is, all of a sudden, like a child. I know he won’t blame me for thinking that. The parallels between him and our three-year-old son are, incredibly, many. I imagine what Cameron was like as a child. Some of it I know because he’s told me: A scrawny kid who shared a bunk bed with his twin brother, who would pry open the window for their older brother after he’d gotten kicked out of the house for another delinquency. A kid who never complained when the electricity got turned off but who groaned when their mom forced the kids to whip buttercream frosting (“the hardest frosting to make”), but who quickly shut up after she threatened them with a chancla. A boy who rode the roller coaster on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk then ate a warm sandwich on the beach, threw up, and can’t stomach mayonnaise to this day. A kid who sold single red roses in plastic tubes to people pulling into the gas station. A teen boy who had lots of girl friends (friends who were girls) because he gave good advice and they knew they could trust him. A young man who didn’t finish growing or lose his virginity until college, and never finished college because he moved home to be with his mother when she got sick. A man who lost forty pounds going vegan with his mother because her cancer was aggressive. A man who stayed in town after she recovered, who managed a restaurant and gave drunk people rides home and paid for his ex-girlfriend’s dog’s vet bills and walked into my house party one day with our mutual friend. 

A man, not a child, who is here now.


* * *


I wake the next morning when the nurses come in to check his blood pressure, move his legs around, and deliver breakfast. By now we’ve learned we can place food orders the night before, but what arrives still looks like different shades of oatmeal. 

I have to go home.

Apparently I’ve said this out loud because Cameron says, “Okay,” and his eyes are closing again. 

The commuters are barely awake so the roads are wide and blue. As I drive under a stoplight, I wonder if it had actually turned green or if I just wasn’t paying attention. I pass our son’s daycare, the playground still frosty. Our house is just around the corner.

Once inside, I collapse on the couch and realize our dog has thrown up on one of the cushions and it’s been sitting there drying for the last four days when we asked my parents to watch her. I strip the cushions—all of them, why not—and throw them in the wash. While I’m at it, I tear off the duvet cover where Cameron sat naked and waiting for an army of paramedics. None of it is welcome here anymore.

As the washer churns, I go back and stare at the empty bed. I realize that, besides some potentially curious neighbors, no one really knows where I am right now. I exist in a brief vacuum of pure freedom—husband resting, son probably munching waffles with his grandparents, dog recovering from probably eating too much grass. Everyone is taken care of. But as I strip off my overnight-plastic-hospital-chair sweatpants and drop my sweatshirt to the floor, I see myself in the mirror: bony and pale, bloodless, a little less of a body than last week. I consider walking out the front door naked—all shoulder blades and saggy breasts and razor burn—for a February morning stroll around the block, just so someone notices me and rushes outside with a blanket, squeezes my shoulders, leads me to their overstuffed couch, turns on the TV, and offers me something warm and steamy, without me having to say a single word.


* * *


After a week, they release Cameron from one hospital to the next. 

“It’s over an hour away,” I tell the patient liaison over the phone. “You don’t have anything closer?”

“No, there is no rehab hospital in your network in the Sacramento area.”

“I find that hard to believe. Sacramento is a city full of hospitals. We have a toddler at home. It’s not exactly easy for us to drive three hours round trip.”

“I’m sorry. Kaiser doesn’t refer outside its network,” she says. “This is the closest option available.”

Healthcare in America. I curse it, and then remember how lucky I am to have a public sector job with decent benefits and disability insurance that allows me to be off work to make the three-hour round trip in the first place.

So, I slide into our Subaru Outback and follow the ambulance south to Modesto, California. The hospital receptionist barely looks up from her screen, says I have to remain in the lobby for an hour while the nurses await Cameron’s COVID test results. I spend the time slouched in a chair responding to approximately three million text messages asking how he is doing, how I’m holding up, what they can do to help, what is our address, when can he return to work, etc. And suddenly I am exhausted, wishing I could outsource this task of updating our loved ones, thanking them for their overwhelming support: childcare and cards and flowers and tupperwares filled with borscht and thai noodle salad. Despite my gratitude, I vow never to ask someone how I can help again. I promise that I just will help, in whatever immediate or non-creative way I can think of. I think about how within twenty-four hours of informing my best friend about Cameron’s stroke, a package arrived on our doorstep with a heavy black teapot inside, and a note that read, “I needed to send you something comforting and all I could think of was tea. I’m so sorry. I’m here.” I didn’t need a teapot; I only needed that gesture of messy, imperfect immediacy. 

They finally let me in his room. It’s clean and big and new enough construction that the smell of urine hasn’t yet permeated the halls. I busy myself tidying up: folding his sweatpants and t-shirts, charging his phone, lining up his toiletries, filling the hospital’s mauve plastic water jug, placing a wallet-sized photo of our son on the tray table.  

Cameron settles into the task of adjusting to the new hospital bed. Turns out they’re not all the same: This bedframe is bright white and smooth, not the bumpy, early millennium yellow-beige of the previous bed. I guess that’s something. But then Cameron winces at the odd angle of the mattress. I start punching buttons and the foot of the bed begins to deflate and re-inflate at an alarming rate for any level of convalescence, forcing him to sit higher on the mattress to avoid sliding into the bucking bed pit.

“God damn it,” I say, mashing more buttons. 

A nurse comes in with a paper cup full of pills. One look at the mattress and she backs out the door and peers down the hall. 

“Mari! Do we have any more old beds?”

“Lemme check,” someone I assume is Mari calls back.

The nurse rolls her eyes. “We just got these new beds. They don’t work.”

Cameron has already moved on. “I haven’t pooped in three days. Can I have something?” 

“Sure, honey. Do you remember what they gave you at the hospital? Nevermind. I’ll check your chart.”

Within a half-hour, a new bed has been wheeled in, new sheets stretched on, and husband tucked in (a suppository tucked in him). Outside the wind has picked up. A real-life tumbleweed somersaults over the wood-chipped landscaping. I fold a pillow in half and lean myself onto the bumpy, yellow handle of another old hospital bed.


I wake to grunting. Not sexy grunting. Constipated grunting. It seems the suppository is working, but, and there is no polite way to say this, Cameron’s poop is too impacted to move out. Like a rock lodged above his anus. A butthole boulder.

Of course that’s the moment his older brother walks in. Poor Chris. He was expecting to see progress: to slap his baby brother on the back and applaud him for being able to stand on his own. Instead, he’s sitting across from an anxious, wincing male organism who hasn’t been constipated a day in his life before today, whose colon is demanding to give birth to a massive turd. Like many modern humans, Chris is so uncomfortable he reverts to small talk.

Whether Cameron is too polite to kick his brother out, doesn’t really matter. I do it for him. Then I usher the nurse back inside to upgrade the situation to enema. (A suppository gets the muscles moving; an enema lubes the tube, so to speak.) Then, as she spreads a disposable absorbency pad on the bed and begins reviewing the next steps of the procedure—”lay on your back, lift your leg on my shoulder”—I know it’s also my cue to leave. 

For the next forty-five minutes I bounce between comforting my nervous brother-in-law and creeping back into Cameron’s bathroom and letting him lean against me as he pushes out his guts, hairy butt, sweaty brow, head in hands, and all. I am Steve Martin running between his wife’s and his daughter’s hospital rooms in Father of the Bride 2, only the lighting isn’t baby pink and everything smells like farts.

“Is anything coming out?” I ask, choosing gentle, non-specific language. 

“A few bits,” he grimaces.

I can practically hear Chris pacing the hall.

“Okay, take your time. Don’t push too hard,” I warn, recalling my own two months of postpartum hemorrhoids.

Finally, finally, finally, he is ready to wipe. Ready to, ahem, flush this whole experience down the drain forever. 

“Will you stay until after I shower?” he asks.

I check my phone. It is already twenty minutes past visiting time, and these nurses aren’t the benevolent rule-breakers of the last hospital. “Sure,” I say.

Another half-hour later, Cameron back in bed, exhausted but relieved, kissed-goodbye, I am sitting across from his brother in a Mexican restaurant. All I want is to order my veggie burrito and turn off my brain, stare into the distance, chew with my mouth open, and shake my head at the sequence of events I just witnessed, nay, participated in

Instead, I order my veggie burrito, Chris orders a shrimp something, and it’s my turn to make awkward small talk as tears drip down his cheeks and into his lap. 


* * *


A few days later, I’m in the back seat of my stepdad’s Toyota Sequoia. I was too nervous to drive, so he and my mom navigate while I rip apart my cuticles and play the Frozen soundtrack on repeat for our boy. Our son who hasn’t seen his daddy in two weeks. 

After we park, I nearly sprint inside the hospital. Maybe if we do this as fast as possible, I can stave off an anxiety attack. I wheel Cameron back out to the lobby and we have a few seconds before our son arrives, enough that I can see Cameron is pale and fidgeting. I squeeze his shoulder. And then B appears at the double doors. 

Immediately Cameron is weeping, tears seeping into the top of his surgical mask. He covers his face. B tiptoes forward to the wheelchair. I lift him onto his daddy’s lap and he leans in quietly, gently. Through his mask, Cameron kisses our boy’s hair. He tries to talk to B through the tears and the brain-bleed that clouds his speech. I can’t make out his words but everything is clear. 

Children aren’t allowed inside the hospital (flu season, COVID) so we bear the icy breeze in the courtyard. B presents his daddy with a drawing. He sticks band-aids on his “hurt” arm. He perches on daddy’s lap as I zoom them around the pavement like a race car. B squeals. 

I park the wheelchair and then our son is off to pick flowers and stack them into a “volcano.” He plows a toy train through some pebbles. Cameron mostly just watches as the rest of us chat around him. Occasionally B returns to his daddy’s side. 

“What’s this?” he asks Cameron.

“A crutch to help me walk.”

“Where did you fall?” 

“The bathroom at our house.”

“Oh, okay.” Satisfied, he returns to his flower petals.

I spread containers of chips and dried fruit on a patio table. I grab fistfuls of food. It feels like I’m eating around the clock, but today’s pair of jeans still sags on my butt. The stress of the past weeks has emaciated me, pulled me in on myself and clawed out my physical strength. I run inside to fetch two blankets: one for Cameron, another to share with my mom.

Too soon it’s nearly the baby’s naptime. He hugs his daddy—this time not so gently, which I take as a good sign—and as he sprints away, he calls back, “Feel better, Daddy! Adios!” 

I get Cameron settled inside with his own tray of cream of mushroom chicken. He isn’t hungry. 

“How did you feel about the visit?” I ask.

“I was scared,” he says, clutching back a sob. “I almost lost everyone.”

I squeeze his hand, the left one. It’s thin and cool.

“I am so lucky, though. I am so lucky to have you. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t say anything. I just cry.

“I want to go home, but I won’t be able to do anything. I can’t mow the lawn,” he says.

This makes me chuckle. How can someone who just had a stroke be worried about overgrown grass at a time like this? 

“I want you to focus on the things you want to do, not the things you have to do,” I say. 

He nods and squeezes my hand the best he can. 

“I know I’m not supposed to worry, but how are you?” he asks.

“Thank you for asking,” I say, and mean it. “I’m tired, but I’m not worried anymore.”

“You are doing so much. Thank you,” he says. His words are mumbled, an effort. They are brief, and they are everything.

“I took vows. I think this is what they meant. I am here to take care of you.” 

He nods, and his lopsided mouth squeezes tightly as tears form in his eyes. He looks down at our clasped hands.

When his physical therapist arrives to escort Cameron to his next class, Cameron stands, grabs his crutch, walks right past his wheelchair, and shuffles fifty yards all the way to the gym for his session. I am there behind him, filming giddily with my iPhone, shocked and joyful and heartbroken.

That lawnmower better watch out.


* * *


A month later, it’s me who can’t stop crying. I’ve just put our son to bed, a formerly shared task I’ve been completing alone since the stroke: bath, potty, jimmy jams, toothbrush, floss, two books, two songs, water, sleep.

After B is down, I collapse on the couch and hug my knees. Cameron is in the reading chair scrolling his phone. He has visited death’s door, has smelled the sauteed onions on the other side, and now he’s back to scrolling for hours a day. Something in me cracks open. 

“Okay, so I have to say something. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say some of this, and I’m not trying to rush you, but I knew it would be harder when you got home. And it is. Because no one is dropping off meals for us anymore, and you can’t cook yet, and I hate to cook. The house is a mess. I’m still doing all the paperwork for all this—disability insurance, health forms, your HR stuff. And I just need some help—I don’t know if it’s from you, or from everyone else. And I don’t want to have to tell people what I need help with. I just want them to help me do it. I just want someone to tuck me in bed and cook for me, maybe just for one day. And I’m not asking you to do that—I’m not expecting that—but I guess I just need you to see me. I need you to acknowledge all that I’m doing for us. I need you to thank me when I set dinner down in front of you. I need it to be every time. I don’t know—maybe we need to see a counselor or something. Because right now I feel like I’m just your nurse or your taxi ride to physical therapy. In the hospital, you said ‘thank you’ to me every day, but now that things have settled down, I’m still doing the work but no one sees me. They only ask how you are doing. I know that’s not fair, but I need to hear that you understand how hard this is for me.”

By now snot has soaked the cuffs of my sleeves. We’re both facing the TV, though it’s off. We’ve never been able to fight while looking at each other. 

He is silent for a minute. Then, “I don’t have much to say. I mean, I don’t know if I can find the words—”

And then I feel like the world’s biggest asshole because I just dumped a bucket of word vomit onto a man who is relearning how to speak. 

“I’m sorry—” I start.

“No. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything to say. Some of the things you said scare me a little. But you’re right. You are doing so much for me, for our family. I wish I could do more.”

“I know you do, and I really want you to know I’m not rushing you. I just need to hear ‘thank you.’ Like, always. It’s the same old stuff: this has been what we always fight about. I need the words of validation, or whatever love language bullshit that is.”

“I know,” he says.

After a few minutes of silence, I pick up the dog and head to bed. I’ve always been the one who needs more sleep.


* * *


Amid all of this, I have managed to start a new job. My boss is amazingly compassionate; on a couple afternoons where I probably look extra haggard, he tells me to head home early if I don’t have anything urgent to work on. He has a daughter about my age, and his eyes are full of their own stories of sadness.

I find that my usual impulse to impress people has been mercifully blunted—whether by grief or my nightly dose of Zoloft, I’m not sure. I don’t have it in me to be bubbly. I say as much to my boss: “I’m not that person.” And he says, “I hired you because you’re you. Make this job what you want. I trust you.” 

When I get home, I write his words in my journal, at the bottom of a list of other affirmations I reread when I’m feeling exceptionally anxious. 

Finally, enough days pass that I’m no longer panicking at the office. I don’t feel buried by my own expectations. I’ve been introduced to the few dozen people I needed to meet. I know where the printer is. I’ve made a friend. In fact, the job has become “just a job” quicker than any other job has before. I enjoy it and have even located some meaning in it, which I realize makes me lucky, but the series of experiences that have led me to this moment make it so I can finally, comfortably live in what matters the most: our son, my free time, my hobbies, my writing.

There are days I still wonder why I do it for Cameron. It wasn’t even three weeks after his stroke that he first rolled his eyes at me again. The moment he did, I thought of how I held a urinal under his penis in the hospital bed, how I washed his feet, how I clipped his toenails, how I laundered his shit-streaked pajama pants, then how I went home the same day and did nearly all the same things for our three-year-old, until I passed out alone in bed.

The moment had come—the third most thing I feared—after the idea of his death, after the thought of not being able to raise our son alone. My last big heartbreak would be if everything went back to normal. 

Along with the eye rolls, I am already seeing proof that it is. The village that pillowed around us as Cameron lay in the hospital—the one that had sent cards, encouraging texts, Doordash gift codes, meals, babysat, offered rides, spare bedrooms, plane rides—has receded. It had to happen at some point. They need rest, too. And only a handful, those people I see or text every single day, are the ones who continue to ask both questions: How is Cameron? How are you? I find that I always answer Cameron’s first. I don’t know why I do that. I don’t always like that I do that.

Today is the day I stop doing that, or the first day I really want to. We are sitting at the kitchen table. I am on Cameron’s laptop, registering his account on our health insurance portal (because he hadn’t done it in the years before his stroke). Once I’m logged in, the portal pimples with red notifications: appointment reminders, new messages, prescription refill notices. I take a deep breath. 

It’s okay. This is not a big deal, I tell myself.

The first couple pages of his inbox are all related to stroke followup: physical therapy referrals, lab results, etc. I scroll through them all, back to February, January, December, where I see an unread message titled “Your upcoming appointment.” I open it. 

Cameron has an appointment on 12/20/2022 at 11:30 AM

Check in now for this appointment from your list of upcoming appointments online or in our app.





BP CHECK STN. Blood pressure check station. He had an appointment to get his blood pressure checked, in December, nearly two months before his stroke. Back when he was complaining about massive headaches. 

“What is this?” I flip the laptop around to him. 

He scrunches his nose, squinting. I know it’s going to take him a long time to sift through the layers of information here. 

I interrupt his reading. “Does this say you were scheduled to have a blood pressure check in December? Did you ever go to this?”

“I—no. I never knew about this. Huh?”

“What do you mean you never knew about it? It’s right here!” I stab the screen. 

“I mean, they told me they would call to schedule the appointment—”

“WHAT?” My voice hits a new decibel.

“Remember when I had that eye infection? I think I told you…they took my blood pressure when I was in there getting my eye checked, and it was high. So they told me they would call to schedule an appointment with my doctor. And they never did.”

Blood pulses in my ears. I can barely keep it together. 

“This. Is. The. Appointment.” I say slowly, my eyes burning into his.

“And I—I never knew about it. They never called—”

“Do you mean to tell me that not only did your doctor never call or follow up after you missed this appointment but that you didn’t either? And then two months later, you had a stroke (due to high blood pressure) that almost killed you? Is that what I’m hearing?!” 

Cameron looks down. He’s sheepish, slumped, frail. Like the last moment he was able to hold himself up before he sank down on our bed, naked and ashamed. 


But I don’t say any of this. Instead I focus on the pity, the defeat. Seeing him slump, seeing his left foot shuffle, hearing his words start to slur at the end of the day—these are the only things that make me sorry. Right now the only way I know how to tamp the rage is to make my husband a patient—no longer a lover, no longer a father, no longer an equal partner. Not for now.

Over the next months, that’s how I get by. I channel my anger into clinical and household tasks. I chase the satisfaction of checking items off a list. My life becomes a game of Tetris; our household is a bureaucracy and I am its project manager.  

Everything is too much and also too boring. It’s not hopeless, no shades of black but instead the most muted gray. I treat each day like another rubber stamp in a ledger ten-thousand pages long—a dogged routine. 

Some parts are nice. Since he’s off work, Cameron can sit down and eat breakfast with us. We slowly walk our son to school, and one day when he asks his dad to carry him, Cameron actually can. A few days later, he can chop strawberries for lunch. Then he’s gardening: scooping handfuls of heavy dirt after an unusually wet winter. Before I know it, the yard looks better than it ever has: purple and orange flowers bloom under the shimmering shade of our fledgling sycamore. 

And many blessed things are, finally, mercifully, back to normal: 

The walls of our house still snap when it’s cold.

The neighbors’ gardeners still come on Mondays.

The ceiling fan in the kitchen still squeaks.

I’m composting. 

I’m searching for lost toys.

We sleep.

We walk the dog around the block.

We join some gatherings, we decline even more.

Other things are new and acceptable: 

My first gray hair, jutting out from the precise middle of my hairline.

How he yawns now, with his whole body, his left arm involuntarily raising in the air no matter how hard he tries. 

The way he’s now the first one to go get our boy out of bed in the morning. The way he closes our bedroom door behind him in case I need to doze a little longer.

The stupid healthy new diet. 

The new way he holds my hand.

The impressive new pubic hair I’ve grown due to lack of fucks, literal and figurative.

The wad of Kleenex my hairstylist brought over, the way she touched my shoulder. 

The smirk I suppressed when a well-meaning neighbor asked to pray over him because I knew how much Cameron hated it.

How his family looks at him now, their realization at how much they would have missed him.

How much I would have missed him, how much we’ve survived since.

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Stephanie Buck is a writer living in Sacramento, California. She has reported on technology, culture, and history for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue, TIME, and more, and has directed editorial strategy for international digital media. She graduated with an M.A. in magazine writing from NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Now she produces patient and physician stories for a major academic health care system, while finishing her first YA novel. Stephanie loves to explore with her son, dance with abandon, and watch horror movies.