Fr Kevin Neal
3 December 2011
It’s six years since I had the stroke. I remember it clearly – the growing numbness in my leg and my explaining that I’d need to lie down.
I was with a team of lay parish workers on retreat in Whanganui. Fortunately they caught on straight away because they’d have had a fairly heavy weight once I lost the use of one leg.
It wasn’t long before the arm went as well. It all took just a few minutes.
Within 10 minutes I was in the ambulance and on my way to some excellent care. I was aware all along of what was happening though I’d miss most the means of communication.
I remember the ward in Whanganui hospital and wondering what was going on in other wards. The fact was though, I couldn’t move.
They say it’s a bit like a hard disk drive on a computer. We’re given a certain number of disks at birth but, with a stroke, half of them slip to the floor.
Different folk lose different disks including left and right sides. I lost the use of right arm and leg – completely. But there was a lot more to it than that.
Lots of other things go too beside the arm and the leg, and you don’t really know that they’ve been. You know you haven’t got them anymore and that you can’t do something, but you don’t remember what it was like when they were there. That was true for me; it may be different for others. Every stroke seems to be different.
After a few days I was moved to Hawera where I stayed for two months. When I left Hawera I still had no real leg movement and the arm was pretty well dead. The arm still is.
Every so often you see a depiction on TV of someone having a stroke and they always make a big thing of the loss of the use of an arm or leg.
I think there’s much more to a stroke than that. The losses come in thousands of big and small ways and, even if you regained the use of your limbs, you could be at a major disadvantage.
Eyesight seems to be a problem for many. One that I faced, among many, was the loss of faith! I just didn’t know what belief was any more. It was only through the incredible patience of a lay minister of the Eucharist that my spirit of belief was rebuilt from the ground up over many months.
Some folk lose the connection between their brain and their tongue. No matter what they think they’re saying, it is just repetitive sound to the listener. I know a few like that and it is a terrible cross – much worse than the loss of an arm and leg.
Then there are bits that go wrong in the brain. Everything seems just fine but there are bits that aren’t working and they are difficult to put into words. Another thing is the sense that you never really feel the same as you did before. Again, I guess it’s different for everyone but I haven’t felt really well for six years now; you put on a brave face.
I was the parish priest of Stratford at the time of my stroke and I had been the parish priest of Hastings and the cathedral too. With memory loss and just plain slow-wittedness, there’s no way I could do even half the tasks required. There is so much I’ve forgotten – it’s just disappeared.
There was a time when I was good for an hour’s talk on any topic at any time. And I enjoyed public speaking. Now I can’t give a Sunday homily, I have to use past notes and read them. Even at daily Mass I have to have every word written down. The names of the pope and bishops are in the missal but under any kind of pressure I forget them.
I used to get around a bit before the stroke. Each year I would visit the parish in Putney, check out the English and Irish relations and of course visit Fr Joe Grayland as year by year he chipped away at his doctoral studies. Each year would reveal something new.
I can’t do any of that now and there’s much I haven’t mentioned. Do I feel cheated? In spite of all the things I can’t do now, all the places I just read about instead of visiting, jobs, speeches and talks I can no longer give, I actually feel gifted. God loves me, just the way I am. And in spite of all that seems missing, the people seem to like it, too.