Fifteen years ago, Lynette Lamb’s life was forever altered when her husband, Robert Gerloff, a residential architect, suffered a severe stroke at age 45. The stroke, which caused irreparable damage to the left side of Gerloff’s brain, abruptly ended his career and left him with a paralyzed right arm and significant aphasia, or loss of the ability to understand or express speech.
Lamb, a longtime magazine editor, was forced to step into a role she never expected — working her full-time job and managing all aspects of the household while caring for her and Gerloff’s two young daughters and supporting her husband as he struggled through months of intense rehabilitation.
Lamb is a longtime friend, so I heard firsthand accounts of her struggles over long lunches and coffee dates. Despite their raw and painful origins, her honest, open stories were usually punctuated by her loud, boisterous laugh.
As the years passed, and Gerloff gained a measure of hard-won independence, Lamb began the slow-and-painful process of writing about her husband’s stroke and its significant impact on her own life. In the years before the stroke, while she worked as an editor at a number of magazines, including Utne Reader and Minnesota Monthly, Lamb figured that one day she’d write a book. She just didn’t know what the topic would be. Then it was rudely handed to her.
“Like most writers I always wanted to produce a book,” Lamb told me. “It was a goal of mine. It just took me a long time to do it. You have to have subject that you feel compelled to write about — or at least I did. You’ve got to have something stuck in your craw, and you want to — or need to — express it.”
This spring, after years of writing and rewriting, Lamb fulfilled her longtime goal when she published “Strokeland: My Husband’s Midlife Brainstorm and its Ambivalent Aftermath,” a book that’s part memoir, part caregiver support guide. As anyone who knows the author well would expect, “Strokeland” is a no-holds-barred account of post-stroke life that replaces the expected saccharine accounts of personal heroics with the unvarnished, sometimes painfully awkward truth. Life can be messy — and beautiful — and Lamb wants to make sure her readers understand that fact.
MinnPost: This book has been a long time coming. When did you first start writing about Rob’s stroke?
Lynette Lamb: I didn’t do any writing about the experience at the beginning. Then, two years after Rob’s stroke, I wrote an essay about the reality that most people who have severe strokes never fully recover and go back to the lives they were living before. It was published in Minnesota Alumni magazine and reprinted in MinnPost.
MP: You were really in truth-telling mode, weren’t you?
LL: Around that time, Gabrielle Giffords had spoken something like two words in public and everybody was saying, “She’s back! She’ll be back in Congress soon!” I wrote another essay that was published in the Star Tribune that said, basically, that after someone has a stroke or a major brain injury, people want to think that everything is going to go back to normal, but it’s not always going to be that way.
I wrote the essay and the op-ed early on. Then I didn’t do anything else for a long time. The kids were little. I was working. I was taking Rob to the doctor. I didn’t have the mental energy to immerse myself back into the early days after the stroke. I didn’t want to go back there mentally or emotionally.
MP: So what inspired you to finally start working on this book?
LL: Seven years ago I went to a memoir-writing workshop in Taos. I worked with a teacher there for a week and wrote bits and pieces. In the years after that I would sign up for a memoir-writing class at The Loft or somewhere else to create more material, but it was just bits and drabs. There wasn’t a lot of coherence to it. And I wasn’t saying to myself or to anyone, “I’m writing a book.”
Then two or three years ago I took yet another memoir-writing class. It was like I was stalling in a way. As a journalist of 40 years, it was a stretch for me to write in a more personal way. Writing scenes or dialogue doesn’t come naturally to me. It was hard to have these teachers giving me feedback. Finally, a year ago, COVID hit and at the same time my freelance work dried up. I was stuck in our apartment building with not much to do.
I thought, “I’m going to start pulling together this stuff and write more.”
MP: Your book is written as a series of short memories and vignettes. Why did you choose to write it that way?
LL: That was not intentional. It’s just the way I roll. That’s just how things came to me. For instance, I’d write the little scene about Noel, a friend who dropped Rob after his stroke, or the “fork, comb, key” scene with the speech therapists at Sister Kenny, and I’d see it as an independent piece. That’s how I thought of it and how I created it. I knew it would be better for a first-time memoir to have more of a coherent flow rather than being made up of vignettes. But that’s what just worked for me.
There’s a book I like called “Three Dog Life.” The author’s husband chased their dogs into Manhattan traffic, was hit by a car and was brain damaged. Her book was written in shorter pieces. I thought, “That’s the way I’m going to get my book done. I’m doing it that way.”
MP: “Strokeland” definitely isn’t “Harry Potter” sized. It can be read in a day or two. Was that approach intentional?
LL: Almost every writing teacher I had told me that memoirs need to be 60,000 to 80,000 words long. This one is only about 30,000 words. It’s a slim volume. It felt complete to me.
MP: Why did you decide to self-publish the book?
LL: I know that most of my friends who’ve written books have sought out publishers. Sometimes it’s taken years to find an agent and a publisher and then they have to rewrite the whole thing just to make their editor happy. I thought, “I don’t want to do that.” I want to do this because I want to have my story and Rob’s story out there. I want to have it written in a coherent form and I want it to be available and to possibly be helpful for other stroke families and partners or maybe even health-care providers.
MP: Was there a message that you were hoping to convey?
LL: What I wanted to make clear for loved ones and caregivers is that when something like this happens, especially with any kind of disability that involves someone’s brain, the individual who had the injury will be a different person than they were before. That’s just the way it is. That reality can be tough to accept for some caregivers and it turns out to not be possible to maintain that relationship. I do not judge them because it’s not what you signed up for. Obviously, situations like this happen more often when people are older. Then it is less surprising if someone gets Alzheimer’s at age 85. Their spouse or partner maybe not be as startled. At midlife, though, that is a shocking and sudden transition.
I hope that this book might also help friends of people who’ve had a stroke. I’ve had an acquaintance of mine tell me that they found the book useful to understand what was going on in terms of what Rob could do socially and what he couldn’t.
I think this book could be helpful because it’s not all flowers and roses. It’s more honest. The books that were the hardest for me after the stroke were the ones like “My Stroke of Insight,” in which the author makes a nearly complete recovery. Everyone told me to read it. They said it was inspiring. But it was not helpful to me. It felt frustrating to me, and to many of my stroke-partner friends.
I’m hoping this book could be more helpful for someone who’s experienced what I experienced. But they might want to wait a bit to actually read it. It is such an overwhelming time. Sometimes in those first few months, you just cannot take anything in.
MP: You talk about experiencing ambiguous loss after Rob’s stroke. Did you go through the five stages of grief?
LL: I don’t know. What are the stages again? I never bargained because I had that doctor who said right out, “Here’s what it is.” It was really hard to hear that, but it was very useful to hear it because I didn’t go through a year of thinking, “Pretty soon he’s going to be all better.” I never lived in that fantasy. So I could never do denial. He’s was there, lying in an ICU bed, comatose and then, later, silent and not able to move.
MinnPost: Why do you think it is important to play the role of brain-injury myth buster? That’s a big part of this book.
LL: I think it’s easier if you know the truth from the beginning. The idea that people have a serious health crisis like a stroke and then they completely recover, that was one piece of the book “My Stroke of Insight” that just enraged me. I know she was able to almost fully recover, but that doesn’t happen with most cases of severe strokes. That happy ending is not available to most people.
I also wanted to question the idea that the caregivers, if they stick around, are often considered heroic and courageous. The reality is we’re all more complicated than that. I have had tons of times where I’ve been full of self-pity and selfishness. I think it’s all in the book. There were times when I wanted to run away, when I yelled at my kids or was inpatient or unfair to Rob. Caregivers should get to grieve and long for their life the way it was before the stroke.
MP: Was it frightening to be honest about things like having the impulse to run away from it all or considering divorce?
LL: It was. It was scary, to be honest. But I wanted to be honest. I feel vulnerable, but I wanted it to be in there because I felt that my story wouldn’t be useful if it wasn’t really honest.
MP: Were you concerned that there were times in the book where your honesty might hurt somebody’s feelings?
LL: Not too much. I changed some names — and I tried to tread lightly with people who were still alive.
MP: What about your family? Did you let them review the book before you published it?
LL: Rob read the whole book, So did my girls. I said they could change it if they wanted to before it was published. The girls made a few requests or comments, but not much. They are the only people mentioned in the book who read it before it was published. They are the main characters, especially Rob. He’s been nothing but supportive and proud of me, which says a lot about him.
MP: Since his stroke, Rob’s really made a point of encouraging you to get out there and live your life.
LL: From the beginning, he’s always been supportive of me. He said, “Yes: Go to India,” or “Go to Guatemala.” He’s never resented it.
I know that some caregivers don’t get that kind of encouragement to go off on their own and travel and have more freedom after their partner’s stroke. Their partners would like them to be with them always or need them to be there. We’re both fortunate that Rob is very independent. Still, to this day, if he needs to go to the doctor I will go with him. He can’t always understand what they are saying. He can’t explain what the issue is. I’m the interpreter. I handle all the finances. I can’t take off for Borneo for six months, but I can be away for two weeks.
Now that the girls are gone, if I go away, I might have a friend check in to make sure he’s OK. He goes to the grocery store. He fixes simple meals. He takes total care of the dog. He’s very independent. He has worked very hard. What he has said to me multiple times is he really did it for the girls. He wanted to improve as much as he could for them. He knew I’d be fine, but he wanted to be there for them when they were growing up.
MP: How do you think Rob’s stroke has impacted the kind of young adults your daughters have grown up to be?
LL: I think that they are much more mature and much more sensitive to disability and the human condition than I was at their age or most young people are. They just don’t take things for granted. They don’t take healthy parents for granted. They’ll joke about how they’ve spent way too much time in hospitals and emergency rooms for people their age. They’ve had to step up a lot more than most young people.
MP: Do you ever think that the reason it took you so long to write this book was because as a journalist it’s hard to write about yourself?
LL: That’s probably one of the reasons it took me so long. I’m a famously fast writer. I can crank out a 2,000-word story in three hours. But when it came to personal stuff and pulling out these memories and writing about them it was painful. I cried during a fair amount of the writing. I don’t like doing that. I prefer to be happy and laughing. So that’s the main reason it took me so long. I didn’t want to go there, but I’m glad I did.
Copies of “Strokeland” are available at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Subtext Books or on Lamb’s website.