The fall semester of my 2L year at Michigan State University College of Law started with so much promise back in August. I assisted Kevin O’Keefe at ILTAcon at National Harbor then left the next day for East Lansing. I was excited to get back to campus to meet Carla Reyes, the new director of LegalRnD. I was even more excited to take the classes that I had chosen to advance my legal tech knowledge: Artificial Intelligence with Prof. Reyes and Entrepreneurial Lawyering with Dennis Kennedy. I was also excited about heading the student group Legal Launch Pad.
As classes began, I was thoroughly enjoying them. Federal Indian Law, Family Law, Trusts & Estates, and Professional Responsibility rounded out my full load of courses. Even though the workload seemed heavier than that of my 1L year, I was happy because it meant that grades would be based on more than just one exam at the end of the semester. Along with classes, I was also waiting to see my ideas about facing challenges in law school (ironic) as interpreted by fellow law student Andres Y. Gonzalez in the September issue of Law Student Today. Additionally, I had been given the opportunity to submit an article to the ABA publication Law Practice Today so I was eager to complete that assignment and see if it was chosen (it was). I was also looking forward to a quick trip back home at the end of October to represent ATJ Tech Fellows at the Equal Justice Works Conference.
But then on Saturday, September 29, 2018, my master plan was derailed with a phone call from my son. Within minutes of receiving that call, I had purchased a plane ticket, packed my backpack with books, and was headed to the airport. A few hours later, I was back home in Virginia and headed to an Intensive Care Unit. You see, my husband had suffered a stroke. After arriving at our local hospital by ambulance, he had been whisked by helicopter to a regional trauma center. By the time I arrived, doctors had performed a procedure to remove a blood clot from his brain. Two days later, doctors performed another major surgery. Over the next few days, each visit by a doctor to his room brought a seemingly never-ending stream of bad news.
Somehow, in the wee hours of those first mornings, I managed to complete the two papers that were due that week–in large part because I had not waited until the last minute to start them. (A good lesson in why students shouldn’t procrastinate). However, it was becoming clear that returning to school in time to avoid exceeding the absence limit was not going to happen. With great reluctance, I requested a leave of absence from school. I must say that the support that I received from the faculty and staff of the school confirmed that I made the correct choice when I decided to go to East Lansing the year before.
Despite all of the bad news in those early days, there were still bright spots in this period. Occasionally, my husband would show signs of lucidity and I could see that his personality remained intact. After my father’s stroke about 15 years ago, my dad couldn’t remember my name, so it was extremely precious to me that my husband recognized me and knew my name. As days passed, the weakness in my husband’s left side lessened. Most important of all, the MRIs showed that the stroke affected the creative side of the brain and not the engineering side that is needed for his work.
As the trauma of the past few weeks recedes, and we move to our new normal, I have two options. I can mourn the loss of our life before the stroke and the loss of this semester, or I can find ways to leverage this time to my advantage. Since the stroke, several people have commented on my positive attitude. I don’t see my attitude as being positive as much as I see it as being extremely thankful. Thankful that my husband of 28 years retained the personality and humor of the man I knew and loved before the stroke, thankful that the deficits caused by the stroke are lessening each day, thankful that my husband should recover and be able to return to the work he loves. Thankful that despite losing a large portion of his brain, my husband will eventually be able to return to most of the activities that he loves. Furthermore, I waited more than twenty years to go to law school so one semester isn’t going to change much.
I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. I do have periods where I am overwhelmed. I also readily admit that if my husband had been permanently disabled, it would be much harder to find bright spots. Perhaps it helps that this is not the first time that life has thrown us a curveball. I am not going to bore you with the details–suffice it to say that I haven’t always been able to find anything positive about the situation for a long time. And while I am at peace with my leave of absence, my husband has taken it hard and blames himself for delaying my schooling.
What can readers take from this?
- Never take your loved ones for granted.
- Don’t procrastinate (thank goodness I had already done the planning and research for my papers).
- Mourn the loss (believe me, I shed many tears in the wee hours of the night so that I could be strong when I needed to be).
- Fake it–sometimes faking it for a while can help (I certainly had to pretend that I was okay with taking leave from school until I was able to make peace with it).
- Accept help–don’t let pride keep you from allowing others to help. Allowing friends and family to run errands or bring meals gives them a way to feel less helpless. On the other hand, feel free to say no or set boundaries.
- Seek out counseling if needed. There may be a loss that you cannot bounce back from on your own–there is no shame in going to a counselor, support group, or trusted professional. Keep in mind that this need may not surface right away and can hit months after the trigger event.
- Take care of yourself! No one can go for long periods taking care of others if they aren’t also taking care of themselves. (See #5).
Life happens, how you respond to it can make the difference.