Welcome to Cape Courage: oral histories of women from Cape Cod who have struggled to overcome challenges. The location is not important; women from all over the world face the same obstacles: childhood sexual abuse, learning disabilities, physical handicaps, economic problems, sexual challenges, rape, domestic abuse, addiction, disease, loss of a child or sister, difficult relationships, and mothering obstacles. What is important is the strength, bravery, and resilience of these women.
As someone who has worked with women in a non-profit (WECAN) and a local community college for 14 years, I have listened to their stories. I have walked along side many women who have overcome obstacles and have been in awe of their spirit. I have collected the oral histories of 15 women between the ages of 26 and 71 years old. They have chosen which story to tell. I requested that they describe anyone or anything that was helpful and what they learned. I have used pen names.
I will share a new story in this column every month or so. I hope you share my wonder and are inspired when hearing the stories of these wonderful women. I have organized their stories along a reverse lifespan: arranging their stories by the age at which they faced their difficulties. As a developmental psychologist who focused on women’s adult development, this fit my viewpoint and hopefully will assist you in empathizing and connecting with these wonder women from Cape Cod. I welcome comments and questions.
In the sidebar you will find story-relevant local resources and helpful information if who want to learn more about what you read here. Now I will let them speak for themselves. Here is Sara’s story of how she dealt with life after having a stroke.
Cape Courage: Sara’s Story
Sara, in her own words:
I was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I was unconscious for four days. When I came to, the doctors must have told me quite a lot about me having a stroke because I didn’t question that I couldn’t move. Subconsciously I probably knew. But I don’t remember any other thing that went on. I had no pain. I knew then, okay, I’m on the road. I can get better. I can do it. I got no pain.
I was there two days.
After recovering, I went to Sandwich Spaulding Rehab which is a wonderful place to go.
But I looked at people around me – especially the males; it seemed like the old fashioned ego thing that men are born with. They’re the bread-winners. Women stay home with the kids.
When men have a stroke or any kind of ailment that keeps them from working – keeps them from what they feel is taking care of their family – they take it a lot harder than most women. And I noticed that the men down there were taking it very hard.
There was this young man, 44 years old. A landscaper. He’d had a stroke and he was completely paralyzed on his right side – the same type of stroke that I had. I started teasing him because he would sit there and do nothing. “It’s like a waste of time. Come on, it’s ticking away: tick, tick, tick (laughing).”
I told him one day, “We don’t have a replay of this; you get one chance. You better take it because this is it.” And you know he looked at me funny. Then he tried to eat. Then he would laugh and then he tried the physical therapy.
We became very good friends. His wife and I, my husband and him – we still have that friendship.
I figured people shouldn’t give up. They should never give up because if it wasn’t meant for them to get better – because I feel like this myself – if it wasn’t meant for them to get better or to learn to live with whatever they have, they would have died. Because God would have taken them.
But because you don’t die there is a whole world out there. I know my age – don’t you think I don’t? I know it, but that isn’t going to stop me. Look, Whistler’s Mother didn’t start painting until she was 80 so I said as long as you have the will to go on and keep trying you’re going to do it.
And then when I came home from Spaulding my…(crying). It’s been a year and a half and it still…You have to understand – my grandsons are as important to me as my own children were. I mean, we used to do everything together. We had the pool – we went swimming in the pool. And it’s funny how God works in strange ways.
Three weeks before I had the stroke the boys and I went on a vacation for a week (laughing): Niagara Falls. And we had such a good time. We stayed in a motel. Anything that the kids wanted, they got.
So when I came home from Spaulding and I got in the house, I saw the shoes I used to wear (crying) all the time – like when we would go swimming or to the beach or clamming. And it reminded me of that time, of what I couldn’t do, and I got very depressed and up until that time I wasn’t depressed.
But now my life goes on. My husband would go to work and my daughter has two kids and I would never ask anybody to give anything up for me. I had the women come and pick up the house for me but they didn’t do it the right way (laughing). For three weeks I had in-house therapy and speech therapy.
The reason my voice is as bad as it is now is because I pulled the feeding tube out of my throat and it damaged my vocal cords. And this is May, so in June I go and have that looked at.
I get over feeling sorry for myself…which I think is pretty normal… Everybody else – my family, oh my god! Every time they looked at me, they looked at me like I was dead. They were over-sensitive. My daughter did tears. My husband, I think, came very close to a break down because I always took care of everything. I took care of the bills, I took care of everything. I’ve always been strong in my life – not that I’m a bully – but it just came naturally and I did it.
And then when I came home and my family saw I couldn’t do all these things, they all went into shock – except my grandson, Billy. He’d say “Babcia.” I’m Polish so he calls me Babcia. He says, “I’ll read to you.” He can’t read very well (laughing). So he would sit down and he would read. So he gave me all this courage.
My daughter’s walking around with her hands around me every time I went to move. Finally I got sick of it. I just had enough of it. I’m stubborn. And I said to my husband, my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, I said, “Let me tell you something .” (laughing). I said, “Don’t tell me I’m not going to get up and try to walk, don’t tell me that.”
“Well, the doctor said the hardwood floors – you’re going to fall.” And I said, “I don’t care what the doctor said. It’s me and if I feel I can do it, I’ll do it.” “Well, what are you going to do if you fall?”
“You know I’ve come to the conclusion that when you have a stroke completely on one side – where you can’t walk, you can’t use your arm, and you can’t talk well – you’re just like a newborn baby. And when newborn babies fall, what do they do?”
My daughter just looked at me…
“They just pick themselves up and try again. What you’ve got to understand: I’m going through that and that’s the way life is. I want you to say, look, go ahead do whatever you want (laughing).” And I did.
Eventually I started cooking. Well that was a fiasco because my hand wouldn’t work. I kept trying to make toast and my left hand just didn’t understand. I took the knife in my right hand and held it closed with my left and went over the toast. I Yeah! I buttered the toast (laughing)! It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’m okay. I can make it now.
And it just built up and built up and then my family and people around me – they forgot I had the stroke because I kept trying.
I would go down the stairs. My daughter would say, “Take the phone with you if you’re going down. We are going to buy you one of those life – alert-things.”
I said, “Not with me. I can’t remember it. Anyhow, I’ll probably lose it – just like I can’t find my phone, or god forbid, my car keys.” I always lose those. I lose my phone. I said I can’t do that. So I go down stairs, do the wash. My husband would bring the baskets down, do the wash my way because my husband is an angel but he doesn’t do the wash the right way.
I said to my daughter, “I am going to school.”
She says to me, “Well mom” (laughing)… I mean, she has gone to Harvard so she says “Well, you know mom, you’re older now and it might be very hard for you to remember.”
I said, “Well, I guess I will have to go and find out.” And I did. I went down and I registered and I went to Mass Rehab and they paid for my registration because I’d lost a job where I was bringing home very good money.
I think we lost about $43,000 for the year. And that also put a lot of pressure on my husband. No wonder he was ready to break down. But he wouldn’t tell me he was worried. I knew he was and here’s me: “It will all work out – just one day at a time.”
I would do the budget over and over and over and I said, “Well, if this is what we got to do, this is what we got to do.” You’ve always got to pay your bills and that’s it. “We’ve got to eat bread and water” (laugh). I will not lose anything I have because I can’t work. I said, “I can’t expect you to do any more than you are. It will work out.”
I had my stroke August 25th, my grandson’s birthday, and here it is 18 months, 19 months later and we survived.
Jacquie: Right, you’re walking and you’re talking and your right hand works.
Sara: We survived. I keep going back because different things pop in….when I was down in Spaulding I used to close my eyes and I would imagine in my head. I would see me doing different things, like walking and using my hands, and you know, it works.
It works and these are some of the things I want people to know: that there are all these different little helpers and they are things that doctors don’t know.
Dr. Long, my neurosurgeon, is going to help me to speak. He said “I would like you to think about talking at medical conventions and letting the medical field hear and try to understand what a patient goes through.”
I said, “Sure, I’ll talk to them. I don’t have any problem talking to people because that’s what I told my son and my daughter and my husband before I went to college. I talk a lot.
My husband says no (laughing). I said god gave me that voice for a reason and I have got to find a way to use it. So I am going to speak anytime I can speak – to be able to tell someone to try. It would be wonderful for me. I can never promise them that anybody is going to be cured…but try.
Because a patient is the only one who can overcome certain things.
The doctors can give you medicine so that your heart is okay and give you medicine because they want your blood pressure to stay down, but they can’t give you medicine to walk. They can’t give you that.
So I went to college and when it came time for our first exam I just looked at my professor, Professor Wolfson. I’m looking and I’m thinking ‘I wonder if my mind is going to do this. I wonder if I’m going to remember what I have learned. I wonder cognitively if the stroke has affected me, but I’ll soon find out.’
So I took the test and she handed it back and she smiled at me. I worried, is she smiling to let me know everything is okay or what? I got an 88% and yeah! I thought, hey, I’m ok now. I can remember.
My mind works and there are certain things I still can’t do, but I will. Just give me a list of words like that and ask me what they mean and I won’t be able to tell you. I don’t know. But put them down with multiple choice and I will know them. Our final exam had a list of words from psychology and I told her… I almost started crying in class…”I don’t think I’m going to pass because I can’t do those words. I can’t remember them.” And she said, just try.
She showed me how they were going to be laid out. She said, “You got those and you got 60 multiple choice and you got three essays to write.” And I said, “Well, I can do the essays and the multiple choice, but I can’t do the words. I know I can’t, but I’m not going to get myself all freaked out because of that one thing.”
So the day of the test came and sure enough I couldn’t do it (laughing); maybe I got two of them. But you know I really didn’t care. I know I got the other ones. I type on a computer just like I talk (laughing). But I do wear a dragon – the head piece – and I do have an Echo pen and I use it to record all my classes: everything she says.
I use anything that is around to help me. I don’t feel like it’s less of me to use them. I think it’s helping me. It’s gotten to the point where I can write a little bit. It is not as good as I used to, but it’s better than my husband’s. (laughing) So I wish I could put into words how I feel.
At the college…. I was asked about school, why at my age? So I told them the story about Billy. I said if my grandson can do it (he’s diagnosed with Down Syndrome and is an honor student), I can do it, right?
And then they said, well what’s the difference between high school and college? I looked at the man and said, you’re kidding me right? And he realized what he said then. I said, well to tell you the truth, I really don’t remember high school, but I think that’s because of my stroke (laughing). I said but I love college. I think every person in this room if they are here, then they really want to come. I said you can’t be thrown in jail for trying, so try.
I know what it is like to have that feeling that you are supposed to do something and if you never do it, when your time comes, you’re going to be very unhappy. But that’s what I’m going to do: I really, really want to speak.
I use a cane but I think that’s just because of my age (laughing). And people look at me. Do you ever notice that when you are around people who don’t know you and you have a disability, they’re kind of gentle? You feel like, hey you know, get with it. I am probably doing more in my life than you are in yours.
I have a great family; they give me a lot of support. My son lives in Rochester New York and he comes up as much as he can. He calls me every day. And my daughter – she is over at my house now. She is studying and the grandsons will come over when she is over. My husband calls me like 8 times a day. When I was studying for my exam, I said, “Please don’t call me. I’m trying to study.”
Jacquie: You’re trying for a degree in psychology?
Sara: Yes. I want to do it by the time I’m 73. I’m 71 now so boy do I have to study. But it can be done.
My brother has been through a terrible ordeal: he had cancer. He’s been free of it now for 9 years. We are strong stock. Do you know what he told me? Before I had my stroke – when he first started to recover – he said, “You know, I see the world all different now. I look at the world different.” I said, “Really?” “Really,” he says, “I see it all different.”
I could not understand what he meant. I had my stroke. Now I know what he meant. I called him up after I got home. I said “I know what you meant because I see it different now too.” And he says, “Well, we are the lucky ones.” “Yup, we are.”
I think all people with any disability – whether they got it like mine or another way – see the world different because they are all more understanding.
Before I started school, my grandson comes over and he sees so much good even in the bad. I told my daughter to let him live here (laughing). He always sees the big picture and I get it now. I thought then we all should think like that; everybody should have a disability (laughing). The world would be fine.
My husband doesn’t understand. He will get worried about something and he will go, “Oh god!” I say, “Don’t let it get to you. It will work out, it will work out.” And he looks at me and says, “How could you say that? How can you say it will work out?” I say, “Well, I’m not God, but he is up there and he will make it work out. It might not be the way you like it, but it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
He just looks at me and says, “I don’t know how you do it.”
And I say, “You wouldn’t want to know how I do it. You just listen to me- that’s the way it goes.”
But life is funny isn’t it?
Jacquie Scarbrough of Harwich Port is an advisor, counselor, researcher, teacher, activist, learner and a bit of an artist.
She has a master‘s degree in social policy planning and another in educational media and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. She also studied life coaching.
Jacquie has directed university level research to support social policy decisions and has taught psychology at the college level.
She has been a media consultant to non-profit and educational agencies and an environmental activist.
Jacquie studied the educational, economic, social, family and personal consequences of higher education for poor women, coordinated “women’s expo” on Cape Cod, and in 2000 started the Cape Cod non-profit for women in transition, WE CAN.
She was program director, counselor, and grant writer at WE CAN from 2001-2008, when she retired.
She then became an adult learner advisor at Cape Cod Community College and began the adult learner center.
Jacquie has also been an active volunteer on Cape Cod: WECAN, school councils, United Way Needs Committee, Barnstable County Health & Human Services Advisory Council, Lower Cape Forum for Community Agencies, CAREER (Cape Cod Alliance of Education and Employment Resources), Women in Transition program, and Women’s Expo.
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Stroke Peer Visitation Program
The Stroke Peer Visitation Program expands the range of services Spaulding Cape Cod offers for stroke survivors and their families.
The program is offered in conjunction with National Stroke Association and is intended for people who are not able to attend hospital or community-based support groups.
Specially trained volunteers provide support and education through home visits. These visits may also be made to stroke survivors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
For information about volunteering or arranging a visit call Spaulding Cape Cod at 508 833 4043
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