How a Mother’s Stroke Changed Her Daughter Forever

Author details her mom's health battle — and the family's decision on whether 'adversity smothers our purpose in life or ignites it'

To my mom, professor Debra Meyerson, PhD, author, mother, wife, daughter, friend, athlete, teacher — and stroke survivor: You’ve been my role model from day one. You taught me so much in my 15 years before your stroke — and even more in almost nine years since.

And watching what you’ve done to publish “Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves after Stroke” is a gift few children have the privilege to receive.

I learned so much just from watching you. I grew up believing that women can have demanding and fulfilling careers, as well as close and loving families. I grew up believing people, especially women, can do work that can make an impact on the world. I watched you succeed in the demanding world of academia, a world largely dominated by men. I watched you do research about gender bias that you were told might be too radical to be published, or might derail your young career if it were.

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And all that while I got to enjoy our walks to the bus stop while in grade school, only to learn later how much it pissed you off that other mothers would tell you how cool it was that Dad took that walk with me half the days of the week.

Eight-and-a-half years ago, as I was starting my sophomore year in high school, you had your stroke. You were only 53 and in all ways a model of health.

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You were paralyzed on your right side. You couldn’t make a sound or nod your head yes — no communication at all. I know now that after several months, when you were “out of the woods” medically, one of your biggest fears was not being there to support me through my high school years.

I hope and trust you now know how much you gave to me just by living the way you did after the devastation of your stroke.

You continue to be my role model — now more than ever.

“I told no one.” Two years after my mom’s stroke, in the fall of my senior year, I gave a talk to my school about how much I had learned from watching her through those early years of her recovery. I talked about how she had been my model of strength while I was growing up. About how she had always succeeded on her own terms, and did so without asking for help.

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I talked about how, when she was in the hospital struggling to live, and my family was reeling from the shock, I sought to do her proud and follow her lead. I could be strong and independent like her. In the immediate aftermath of the stroke, I told no one. I went to school, did my homework, went to soccer practice, and spent my free time in the hospital at her bedside.

As I said in my talk, “I was a big girl. Why should people know I was scared? I could handle it on my own.”

Then I talked about how, in her disabled condition, she once again taught me by example as she battled to recover.

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I watched my mom struggle as her definition of strength was tested. Previously a beacon of independence, my mom was forced to accept help. I could see how much she hated it, but she had no choice.

At first she needed help with everything. Then she could feed herself; get to the bathroom; take a shower. She returned home after two months in several hospitals. After six months, she was driving with adaptive equipment in the car, my dad had gone back to work, and her mom had returned home to LA.

As she improved, she “needed” less and less help. But as she improved, she also kept accepting help. It was different kinds of help for different reasons.

She accepted help from family who could help make her life work better and from friends who would do things for her so she could save her strength to work relentlessly on her therapy. She accepted help with putting on a swim cap when she realized she would be able to get back to swimming (also with help).

I watched her grow stronger because she accepted help. As I watched her get more comfortable doing so, I did, too. I spoke about how I increasingly opened up to my friends and accepted their help. I spoke about how wonderful it felt. I had learned from watching my mom that asking did not mean I was weak.

In an effort to reach the section of a high school audience I thought might be most resistant to a lecture on vulnerability, I ended my talk with the line: “As every athlete knows, no matter how much you can bench press, you always need a spotter.”

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My mom describes the therapy she did for three years after her stroke as “the hardest full-time job I’ve ever had.” Her stroke hadn’t stolen her work ethic, and she was determined to recover enough capability to return to the classroom.

After three years, she realized she couldn’t. She hadn’t regained enough of her communication capacity to meet the requirements of her job as a professor. Having exhausted the maximum allowed medical leave at Stanford, she had to give up her tenured position. It was a crushing blow to her.

Unlike the stroke itself, I watched my mom deal with this blow from a distance as I started college in Massachusetts. She struggled to accept that she might never regain all of her old abilities, never return to the career she worked so hard for, nor so many of the activities she used to enjoy.

“You are still a bulldozer, but I have watched with pride as you’ve learned throughout your difficult journey — and taught me along the way — that vulnerability is not a weakness but an asset.”

It was a very tough time for her, though she doesn’t think she was ever clinically depressed. Still somewhat in denial, my mom says she started to write her book as much as anything “to prove to the world she still could.” As she began to explore the topic of interest to her, the writing process quickly evolved into a journey to rediscover herself — to figure out who she could be in the face of her disabilities. And maybe even more — who she wanted to be.

“Often in great pain.” Mom, your stroke was a shock to our whole family. I was often in great pain watching you struggle, and I hate that it stole so much from you.

But I also love that you’re still the strong, resilient, compassionate, brilliant, and yes, sometimes stubbornly independent woman who raised me. And while the stroke may have slowed you down physically, I think it ultimately deepened your desire to make a difference in the world.

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You are still a bulldozer, but I’ve watched with pride as you’ve learned throughout your difficult journey — and taught me along the way — that vulnerability is not a weakness but an asset, that we can accomplish more when we are open to help, and that we get to decide whether adversity smothers our purpose or ignites it.

Thank you for sharing all of this with me simply by being who you are.

Sarah Zuckerman, a 2017 graduate of Amherst College, is a software engineer at PayJoy, Inc., in San Francisco. Her mother’s book, “Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves after Stroke,” is now available.

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