Anyone observing the half-dozen revelers cruising the Mississippi River aboard a rented boat on a luminous midsummer evening might have figured they were marking a special occasion, what with the laughter, obvious camaraderie and glasses lifted in a toast.
In fact, on July 16 Lynette Lamb and Robert Gerloff staged what the Minneapolis couple have come to call their "Strokeversary." It's their unique ritual that recalls the day in 2006 when Gerloff, then a healthy 45-year-old husband, father and accomplished residential architect, suffered a massive ischemic stroke, an event so cataclysmic that it altered almost every element of their lives and future.
In the first few years after Gerloff's stroke, they gave an instinctive nod to acknowledging the July day that is the threshold between the before and the after. But pretty quickly, they added tangibles — "a cake or dinner or small party," said Lamb.
"We've done the boat ride a couple of times. It helps us think about that day, the passing of time, what our family has accomplished and survived."
As Lamb recalls in her book, "Strokeland: My Husband's Midlife Brainstorm and its Ambivalent Aftermath," Gerloff's blood clot to the brain struck without warning. It first threatened his very survival and then brought his "entire rich and promising life to a halt," limiting his ability to communicate and ending his career. It transformed Lamb into an unexpected caregiver and left her with the hands-on responsibility of managing his needs while parenting their two young children.
This year, joining Lamb and Gerloff in their Strokeversary drift downriver was a couple who remained loyal longtime friends, as well as Lynette's sister, Mary Beth Lamb, and the couple's daughter Julia; their daughter, Grace, is a graduate student in Michigan.
"It's easy to get caught up in what he can't do. It's good to focus on all the hard work he does and the progress he's made, how he never gives up," said Julia Gerloff, who was 6 at the time of her father's stroke.
Now a 21-year-old college senior, Gerloff is interning at an architectural firm, intrigued by the career that brought her father satisfaction and acclaim.
"He sparked that interest and it's nice to have that connection. He's eager to hear what I'm doing," she said. "My dad is a very calming presence. He's a listener and a watcher. On the boat I was chatting away, but he was taking in nature and wildlife, absorbing the surroundings. He's the one who spotted a great blue heron; when I'm with him, I see things through his eyes."
Model of resilience
On the boat, talk inevitably turned to the day 15 years ago when Gerloff was quite literally felled by his stroke, found unconsciousness on the bathroom floor.
Lynette frantically phoned her sister to meet her at the hospital. Mary Beth arrived in the midst of the terror and trauma to hold Lynette's hand and provide a bit of comic relief; on her way to a pool party when she got the call, Mary Beth showed up in the ICU waiting room in her swimsuit and cover up and never changed out of it during the interminable hours when they waited to hear if Gerloff would survive.
"Lynette will say she's no hero, but she is to me, and so is Rob, and I don't use that word lightly," Mary Beth said. "They are a model of resilience, overcoming adversity and accepting reality every day. They've raised their family with grace and courage and I'm fortunate to have them in my life."
After years of rehab and physical, occupational and speech therapy, Gerloff relearned how to walk and can manage many tasks, from personal care to tending to the dog. That triumph is tempered by his persistent aphasia, described as the loss of the ability to understand or express speech, which leaves Gerloff frustrated.
For this story, Gerloff was asked for his thoughts about their annual marking of the day of his stroke. He told his wife, "I like to celebrate every anniversary but mostly I think about how I want to talk better."
To Lamb, the comment reflects her husband's lifelong tendency to be an overachiever.
"He isn't content to rest on his laurels and appreciate how much progress he's already made," she said. "All he can think about is how much farther he wants to go."
Facing grief and fear
In her memoir, Lamb, a longtime magazine editor (lynettelamb.com) lays bare the reality of her side of the partnership, with all of its grief, fear and loneliness. She cops to her anger, admits she's fantasized about fleeing and frankly details her mental and physical exhaustion. She writes about exiting support groups that did not offer the kind of support she craved and shares her disgusted disappointment with old friends who stopped showing up in the face of Gerloff's profound changes and irreversible disability.
Most of all, she has resisted creating a falsely rosy narrative around her stubborn love for her spouse. She tells their story without any subtle self-lionizing of her own difficult role as "the sole functioning adult" in their household.
"Lynette speaks the truth and she always has; she's not one for artifice," said Mary Beth. "So many people think they're supposed to be perfect and they hide anything that isn't. Lynette is willing to be vulnerable. She and Rob are authentic and that's their strength."
Lynette Lamb has read — and was left discouraged by — books by caretakers who were willing martyrs, or about stroke survivors who made complete recoveries, something that occurs in a mere 10% of cases. She notes the "American mania for happy endings" doesn't reflect the hard truth facing many diagnoses, like theirs.
"In the first few years, I had my elevator speech for when people asked, 'How are you doing? How's Rob?' The book is my longer answer to that question," she said.
Since self-publishing "Strokeland," Lamb has begun to speak to civic forums, book clubs and church groups. She's touched a nerve with audiences who are ready to hear a raw take on caregiving and her family's nuanced survival story.
While Lamb and her husband are living a life they could never have imagined, they have found their rhythm and created their traditions. While Lamb notes that some people find their annual Strokeversary to be morbid, she thinks it suits them.
"Our family is accustomed to ambivalent anniversaries. We adopted our daughters from China and we celebrate what adoptive families call Gotcha Days. As the girls have gotten older, they recognize — and we do, too — that adoption is not all happiness. As toddlers, they were wrenched out of the only culture they knew," she said.
While nothing could prepare a family for the upheaval of life after such a profound medical event, Lamb believes their adoption experience laid the groundwork for what came next in ways they never could have anticipated.
"Every July, we celebrate the fact that Rob is with us, and is better, but we also recognize the loss that is part of the whole situation," she said. "In the book I say, we honor the happy fact that he still lives and loves among us."
Kevyn Burger is an award-winning Twin Cities writer and broadcaster.