The Rockwood Files: Shaken

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

When I felt the house shudder last night, it was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as if the house was a large metal gong and someone smacked it with a mallet, causing rumbling sound waves to reverberate up through the walls. The shudder only lasted two or three seconds, but it got my attention. I looked out the window to see if the storm had caused the house to shake. But there was no loud thunder clap and no gusty wind to explain it – just a gentle rain.

Here in the middle of the United States, we don’t expect walls to shake unless there’s a tornado ripping through the living room. Unlike people on the West coast, we tend to assume that the ground is a stationary thing.

When we watched the news this morning, we learned the shaking was caused by an earthquake originating near the center of our state – more than a two-hour drive from where we felt it. With a magnitude of 4.7, it didn’t cause injuries or damage, but it did shake our sense of safety.

It’s the second time in the last month I’ve felt shaken. The first time came a few weeks ago when the phone rang on a “just like every other day” Friday morning. My mom was on the other end of the line and I could tell instantly that she was using her best “don’t alarm the children” tone of voice.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, I’m here at the hospital in the waiting room, and your dad is having a CT scan done on his head,” she said.

“What? Why? What happened?” I demanded.

“Well, it may be nothing, but I’m afraid he might have had a mini-stroke,” she said, still trying her best not to cause a panic.

But it was too late for that because, at the sound of the word stroke, my heart jumped into my throat and I felt the cold grip of fear in my chest that makes it hard to breathe.

“I’m on my way,” I said, and I flew into my closet, threw clothes into a duffel bag and then sprinted to the car. I called Tom and told him what was going on so he’d understand why I vanished so quickly. He would have to pick up the kids from school and keep everything going at home. I had three hours of interstate between me and my parents, and all I could think was “Get there. Get there. Get there.”

My mom called me a few times during the car ride, urging me not to drive too fast and keeping me updated on what was going on with Dad. I tried to hold it together but I did a bad job of it. Part of me knew I needed to calm down and just deal with whatever was happening. But the other part of me was a 6-year-old girl again who couldn’t begin to comprehend that anything could ever take down her Dad. He was invincible, wasn’t he? He was the strongest man on Earth, right? The little girl in me panicked and wanted to shut her eyes tight until the scary part was over.

I felt a little better once I got to the hospital because at least then I could do something – ask the doctor questions, watch the blood pressure monitor, get him an extra blanket. But I knew in my gut something was wrong. The nurses asked Dad what year it was, who the president was, and if there were steps leading up to his front door. And even though he tried to joke his way out of not answering, the truth was that he just didn’t know the answers or couldn’t communicate.

When I looked into his eyes, I had the unsettling feeling that even though he was awake and trying to talk to me, he wasn’t really there at all. And I had no idea if he was coming back.

After lots of tests and what seemed like an endless 24-hour wait for the doctor to give us test results, we finally got answers. A neurologist told us that, thankfully, Dad had not suffered a stroke. But he did come way too close. A spike in his blood pressure had caused the extreme confusion and the difficulty understanding and answering questions. After some medication adjustments, his blood pressure came down and he started getting better. By the end of the second day in the hospital, he was back to his usual wise-cracking, ornery self – convinced that my mother and I had made way too big a deal out of it.

But it was a big deal. His close call was like last night’s small earthquake – a reminder that we all live on an emotional fault line. We don’t know when life will move in a way we didn’t expect and weren’t ready for. We walk around assuming the earth won’t move under our feet and then it does. We know change is inevitable but we can’t stand the thought of change that might make us crumble.

All I know is that, right now, the walls are standing. The ground is still. And Dad knows who the President is again, even though he doesn’t always like his politics. For all of those gifts, I am so very, very grateful.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.