To Fold Or Not To Fold
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I stared across the table towards her, feeling a mixture of pity and uncomfortableness. Her listless eyes pointed down at the playing cards in her hand, but she appeared not to perceive them.

“Judy,” my Uncle Jim tried to focus her attention, “do you wanna bet or pass?” She blinked her dry eyes a few times and shifted her gaze to the poker game unfolding on the table in front of her before absentmindedly looking back at her cards.

“Oh. Pass I suppose,” she stated meekly as she feigned a smile before lowering her sunken eyes and subsiding back into her recently all-too-common catatonic state. Judy never added money to the pot now and would fold if someone else did. She saw the cards that were dealt to her and decided they were not worth betting on.

I remember my grandma Judy before. I remember her vibrant expressions and playful witticisms; her rosy cheeks and cheery mood that made it impossible not to smile when I was with her. The grandma I grew up with would always unequivocally state, “I’m fantastic!” when anyone asked how she was doing. But that was before. After the stroke my grandmother suffered, she no longer exhibited the sharp, sunny disposition I knew, and, at most, “I’m okay” was the best she would offer. Even that was a lie. While mental and physical therapies promised to give her back at least a portion of what fate had taken, Judy refused to attempt to better herself. The trauma of abruptly nearly dying in a windowless hospital room and the feeling of powerlessness that ensued forced her to spiral down into an abysmal depression. She became apathetic and found no reason to get up even on the brightest day. It appeared she felt betrayed by life and now seemed determined to let herself die. She stopped eating and her already lean frame took on a ghastly, famished look as if life and death had each pulled their hardest to claim her for their own but only managed to stretch her as thin as humanly possible. She existed as one deceased and dwelling among the living, a ghost caught between this life and the afterlife and consequently rendered emotionally comatose. Depression wrapped Judy under such darkness that she could not see the cards in front of her face, offering her a good hand if only she would play the game.

It felt unfair, somehow. It, what did I mean by ‘it’? ‘It’ was the stroke, ‘it’ was the depression, ‘it’ was the idea that one of God’s kindest creatures was subjugated to myriads of pain saved for the worst of sinners. ‘It’ was everything. Judy had cheated death, but life had cheated Judy. She had been allowed to live only to despise living, robbed of all her betting chips but forced to see the game continue.

Collateral damage often occurs when a bomb drops and the explosion’s force radiates outward from the detonation point and causes damage to nearby objects. The bomb dropped directly on Judy the night of the stroke as my grandpa rushed to phone the ambulance. The blast had struck him moments after it had stricken Judy. The force of the explosion rippled outward through high-voltage telephone wires as he called to let others know while he fought back wave upon wave of tears. The force made its inevitable journey to where I live and devastated my house. The fumes from the explosion filled my head and fogged my thoughts. How could this happen? Why did this happen? I talked to grandma a week ago and now in a week she might not even be here. How could this happen? I was part of the collateral damage from Judy’s stroke and it felt like being blindside tackled by a 300 pound defender.

In times of crisis, I turn to my religion to gain perspective on life and my infinitesimally small niche in it. One of the most difficult and beautiful verses I find in my book of faith is tucked away within Thessalonians 5:18 which encourages one to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I tried to find something, anything, that I could be thankful for in this situation. That my grandma survived the ordeal seemed a mockery more than a miracle at the time as she often verbally wished death upon herself those initial months following the stroke. Give thanks in all circumstances. This simple duty that previously filled me with inspiration now left a bitter taste in my mouth when I looked at the living ghost of my once joyful grandma.

If I had truly received perspective from that wonderful snippet of wisdom I would have given thanks then, thanks again and again, for the future that Judy could still build and for the strength she would receive to fight through her debilitating depression. Too parochially had I focused on the cards in Judy’s hand at the moment that I failed to realize there remained a whole deck of opportunities she would still get to choose from. Give thanks in all circumstances. I offer endless thanks now that Judy lived to suffer through her depression and physical impediments and mental challenges after the stroke because it meant she could still fight. It meant she could live life as it was meant to be lived. It meant I could still hug my grandma to let her know I love her. It meant she could recover. It meant everything.

After years of being graced with her smile, my family banded together to support Judy as much as we could. Eventually, she agreed to go to therapy and found, to her astonishment and as the answer to our prayers, that she improved significantly. Our prayers stopped short of miracles, however, and, while Judy has recovered wonderfully, she never can return to her old self. Life has dealt her a new set of cards, one not many would envy, but Judy certainly remains in the game. When she tells me “I’m okay,” I believe her now. Her eyes appear glazed over often, but just beneath the surface I see them radiating with hope, the stuff of life.

I believe there is something to be thankful for, something good, in every situation, no matter how unlikely the prospect appears. Some may argue to the contrary, citing experiences so unilaterally malicious that nothing ‘good’ could possibly result. ‘How could I think my grandmother having a stroke was good? Am I glad she suffered a stroke?’ Of course not, but that doesn’t mean my family and I, and most importantly Judy, could not salvage good from the devastation the explosion had wrought. I would argue that the growth we experience as human beings from the obstacles thrown at us, whether directly impacted by the malady or wounded in the collateral damage, can be nothing less than good. My family and I grew to appreciate Judy more after having almost lost her. Our collective support of her brought my family closer together. Judy overcame her depression and is now always the first one up in the morning, smiling to brighten the day. We can’t choose the cards life gives us, but if we look at them in a certain light, we can always perceive a winning hand.

Over a year after I witnessed the shell of my beloved grandmother wilted at the family poker table, I again sit across from her playing a game of Texas Hold’em. She raises. I match. She flips over a pair of aces to my pair of tens. Lost again.

“Another win grandma, you must be feeling pretty good,” I offer casually.

“I’m okay.”

“Yeah,” I smile, “and that’s fantastic.”


Street Talk

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