In a piece that stares down tragedy and refuses to give up, Jen Agg recounts the agonizing weeks following her husband’s stroke, which took place at the onset of the pandemic. This is a gripping essay about being strong for someone else, but it’s also a piece about the devils and angels in the medical system: those who think dashing your optimism is some sort of sadistic duty vs. those who understand their role is to offer not only medical help, but most importantly, kindness and hope.

I started describing a stroke as a twenty-car pile-up on the highway of your brain’s quickest route. Recovery is the next car getting off the highway just before the devastation and twisted-up metal of cars blocking the road, except it’s night time, and the power is out, and it’s a thunderstorm and actually, turns out there is no road. So one car slowly and timidly draws a new path where there never was one. Your brain is resourceful this way, but it’s slow going. After a while, all the cars start taking this newly formed exit and your brain learns a whole new way of communicating with your body.

At first it was the destabilizing uncertainty: would it be a bad day, or a rare good day? How could I keep both our moods afloat when I was working really hard on the basics of our survival while maintaining an unbreakable facade of hopefulness? Was there effort in that? I don’t remember. Roland was sad a lot at the beginning and I knew I couldn’t let that sadness drown us both. Many of life’s challenges force reaction and demand a change of perspective, but particularly with health issues, you have to really be committed or the ugliness of it can win. I absolutely refused to let it. This was not going to be the thing that unwound our love—a love born in a fireball of attraction, bonded over a shared enemy and nurtured over decades of simply never being bored of each other or running out of fascinating things to talk about while remaining enthralled with each others’ faces.