On Sept. 27, 2014, my partner Rob suffered a brain hemorrhage. When I woke on that Saturday morning, I heard him stumbling around our hotel room. I opened the blinds, and he screamed. He couldn’t tell me what was wrong — his words came out garbled. I called an ambulance at exactly 8 a.m.
The doctors told me it was unlikely Rob would survive, and if he did, he would never be the same again. I tried to digest that notion, but I couldn’t swallow it. We were on the second day of a vacation in Sydney, and I suddenly felt very alone and incredibly far away from home.
Before this all happened, home was in Hong Kong. We lived a wonderful, whirlwind life. I loved my job in fashion, working with a supplier for major houses. Rob was at the top of his game as design director for an international brand consultancy. Both urban nomads, we had each worked all over the world — London, Manchester, Dubai and Shanghai, between the two of us — before meeting in Hong Kong. Our shared interests in design and creativity brought us together first as friends, and we shared mutual passions for running, hiking, biking, music and gin.
As we began to blur the boundaries of friendship, we realized we were falling hard. We stumbled across a quote by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” We both wholeheartedly agreed. Little did we know that this Taoist notion of love, strength and courage would soon take on a whole new meaning.
After the incident, Rob was in a coma for 10 days, and I refused to leave his side. I wanted him to know he was loved and had reason to fight. I talked constantly. His eyes, flickering as I read to him, gave me so much hope. I wasn’t going anywhere.
When Rob finally woke, the entire right side of his body was paralyzed, and he’d lost all speech. He had survived, yet my heart broke 10 times over. Watching over him, something raw kicked in inside me: The depth of love I felt for Rob gave me courage so great I could feel it in my bones. That quote we had stumbled across resounded like a clanging bell.
We were stuck in Sydney, having to fight daily battles to get Rob the best rehabilitation possible before we could even consider flying home. His sister flew in to help, and together we threw ourselves into making him laugh, telling him stories, reading to him, promising him everything would be OK, radiating love.
As soon as Rob was ready, I put a pen in his hand. Luckily, he’s left-handed. It took a few sessions of showing him how to draw basic shapes before the designs started to flow. Rob still had his talent. Sketching became a daily necessity as he leaned on the power of the pen to express himself and communicate. It gave him hope and determination.
Soon, we set our sights on getting Rob well enough to travel home — though it broke me to realize that home would no longer mean Hong Kong. We would go to his parents in his hometown of Lincoln, England. We needed their support, and even more than that, they needed their son safe and with them.
I suddenly felt selfish, consumed by both grief and guilt because my life had changed that day, too, though it seemed so much less important. I took a breath and did my utmost to let go of everything I had known and trust this new path. The gut feeling kicked in again. Take courage, I told myself. Where he goes, I go. I had to follow my heart. With what little communication we could manage, through hand squeezes and sketches, Rob and I shared our love, our fears and our hopes. We mourned our old life and helped each other to accept that we would have to start again.
I went back to Hong Kong alone, a quick trip to pack up our belongings, tie up loose ends, talk to our employers and arrange for a good friend to ship what was left to our new home. In December, three months after the incident, we finally managed two flights across the world, with medical support, and the drive up to Lincoln.
At first, I tried to keep up my old job remotely, not quite ready to let go. Rob went straight to a hospital, but soon was home with his parents and me. Then, our new life began. While I learned how to live in our new town, our new house, Rob learned the alphabet, learned to shower, learned to dress himself.
As he made gains day by day, I started to question my own mental health, sense of self and belonging. It wasn’t easy — and it still isn’t — to wake up each day in a sleepy city without work or a network of friends.
The past few months have been the hardest. Now that Rob no longer needs my constant attention, I have to find energy for myself, to keep moving and taking steps big and small. I’m in a place — geographically, mentally, emotionally — where I never expected to be, and I continue to grieve for everything I once had.
But each day, things get a little easier. Courage, coupled with unfaltering, unconditional love, is a powerful combination. I found a fight I didn’t know I had. Rob found his strength in being loved — loved so deeply it gave him a reason to keep going. I now understand the one constant, the one solid thing that truly defines me and powers my strength, is love. And I have so much to give.
Syreeta Challinger is the founder of Moments of Sense & Style, a lifestyle studio she launched in Lincoln, England.
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