Stroke of Revelation
No one in my family or in Len’s family ever got divorced. There was no precedent for it. Besides, I loved Len and putting up with his difficult nature was not enough of a reason for me to cut and run. I viewed him as a cactus flower, prickly to get close to but full of potential with a good heart, if the needles didn’t get you first.
I thought he had some good qualities. He worked hard and provided well for his family. When he was able to put work aside, he could be funny, witty and clever. If there was big trouble brewing like when Joel was falsely accused of shop lifting in New Canaan, or when my mom needed a psychiatrist pronto because she was in a psychotic melt down, or when we were in Indonesia and found out Adam had an emergency appendectomy and we needed to get a flight home ASAP, Len always came through when no one else could. He helped minority business owners, doling out free advice and setting them up with corporate contacts to help their businesses flourish. He won awards for this. He helped young entrepreneurs learn skills to create sound, healthy businesses. He was committed to immigrant business students, helping them overcome language and cultural issues so they could become more competitive. He helped his brother-in-law switch careers from teaching to IT work when he was in a financially perilous situation. He bought his parents a condo so they could be close to family in New Jersey. He had a good sense of humor and could laugh at himself.
Len was a mixed bag of wanting to be a good person, while also feeling conflicted because of his complex needs.
Moving to North Salem in October of 1979 marked the beginning of a shift of power between us. Before then I usually did what was expected of me. But the debacle of the transfer to California opened my eyes to a lot of things. It was my insistence that brought us back to New York, which ironically moved him up the career ladder. I now decided what town we would move to, picked out the house and what schools the kids would attend. I had my own power. Len’s new job introduced me to other corporate wives and they talked about their marital strategies, and that helped me feel less isolated and taught me how to hone my own.
From 1979-1992, I stuck it out through thick and thin. I went to the corporate parties, I entertained his colleagues regularly, I put up with his ridiculous work schedule, which had him traveling 70 percent of the year, and I even moved to Dallas, Texas without complaint in 1986 when Len was promoted as CFO of Frito-Lay.
Things weren’t perfect between us but I wanted to be a team player. We were in couples counseling and talked about separating several times but every time we got close to the edge, Len and I would both back down, not wanting to end the marriage. What I wanted was for him to try harder, which he would do for a while, then in time he would revert to his old ways. We were always trying to put the round peg into the square hole.
When we moved to Texas, I was looking at it as a new beginning for all of us. Working at Frito-Lay would mean less travel and more regular hours for him, more family time for all of us. We moved there on my birthday, June 13, 1986. I was thirty-five and Len was almost forty.
Len started working at Frito-Lay before the kids and I moved there. He seemed very happy with the change of jobs, but as soon as the kids and I joined him in Dallas his mood shifted and he became miserable.
I questioned him about this and he blamed it on his new boss. There was friction between them. Len was viewed as an outsider from the New York office and not to be trusted.
It was true that Bill Korn didn’t like him. I saw it that spring when we were on a company trip to the Bahamas. Len and I were supposed to hitch a ride back to Dallas with the Frito-Lay contingent on the company jet. I heard Bill tell Len the flight left at 1pm the next day when actually Bill knew the flight was going to take off at 12:30pm. When Len and I arrived at the airport, the jet engines were blasting and ready to go for take off. We had to run like lunatics in sweltering heat, hauling our bags and dodging other parked small planes down the tarmac to catch the flight. When we got on board, Bill had a smirk on his face a mile wide while the other executives looked downward, too embarrassed to look us in the eye. Bill was hazing us and it pissed me off!
Living in Dallas went from the hope of a new beginning to more of the same, only worse. We bought a Dallas-style house with a pool on a golf course. The rooms had towering ceilings and large windows overlooking the excess. Our bedroom had an upholstered ceiling in mauve fabric and at night I would stare up at it from our makeshift white Formica platform bed and wonder, “What the hell are we doing here?” The bathrooms were carpeted in white plush and had bidets. The kitchen had polished oak cupboards up to the ceiling, which required a ten foot ladder in order to reach the upper shelves. It was a crazy house symbolic of a crazy time.
The kids went to the local affluent Texas schools that were academically good but conservative bastions of the elite, instilling racist values, football nuttiness. The schools used corporeal punishment. It took me a few weeks to realize the schools were a nightmare.
Joel hated the high school and kept threatening to run away. Rachel loved junior high and transformed from a low-key unassuming New England twelve-year-old, into a make-up-and-hair-crazed preteen whose materialism blossomed when she told Len and I she wanted a Jaguar for her 16th birthday, just like her friends. Adam at age seven, thank god just went with the flow.
The Texas lifestyle hit me broadside once I arrived. At the local grocery store women wore mink coats, diamond bracelets and coifed blonde up-does to shop in. They reminded me of Tippy Hedron in The Birds.
Across the street from the golf course behind our house was a Polo Club with matches we attended out of curiosity once. The Frito people loved to go to the matches and the women wore over-sized hats trying to look British and entitled.
Life there was pretentious and ridiculous. It felt like Disneyland for adults, who spent money ostentatiously. Men drove menacingly around in pick-up trucks, proudly displaying their rifles in their rear window gun racks while legally drinking beer. Everybody was cheerfully southern until you turned your back, then watch out. If you were from the northeast, no one trusted you.
Every night Len came home at 6pm, which was a first, but would then spend hours telling me what a horrible place Texas was, that he hated his boss and his job. Len’s misery trumped everyone else’s. He never stopped complaining and brought our family morale down like a lead balloon.
On top of it, a wife of one of the executives, a born- again Christian, spread rumors that Len was a corporate spy sent to Dallas to shake things up and fire people. Maybe he was, I have no idea, but her rumors spread into malicious gossip about the kids and me. To her credit she did call me and confessed her “sin.” It was all too weird.
I also had a nagging feeling that Len was not being honest with me about something. For the first time in our marriage I felt a tinge of distrust with him. I couldn’t put my finger on it but his continual unhappiness seemed excessive. Add to that the bad schools and Texas culture made me want to take the kids back east to the sanity of friends and family in Connecticut where we used to have community.
Len also agreed I should leave, and we considered this a separation. This seemed to make him happy. We bought a two family house in New Canaan for the kids and me. We kept our plans quiet but once human resources found out I planned to leave Dallas with the kids, they gave Len another promotion back in New York as Treasurer of PepsiCo!
I couldn’t seem to get away from this guy! I thought I had lost Len, that our marriage was too far-gone to save, but once the kids and I made it back east Len pursued me relentlessly to not separate and to rebuild a new life together in Connecticut. Things were a muddy mess.
It was 1987, Len shifted into his new job as Treasurer and we settled together again. Life became a dull roar with me focused on the children and house renovations. Len loved his new job. It gave him all the prestige and power that he had been working for. The kids were back in familiar schools and renewing old friendships. I thought we had weathered another storm.
All was going well until January of 1989. We had now been in our new home in Connecticut for two years. One day, in late January, I was looking for the kids’ birth certificates for school in the metal file box that housed all of our important papers. I found three grey velvet boxes of jewelry at the bottom: a pearl necklace, a pearl bracelet and a gold pendent with the receipts from Lord and Taylor. I thought I had discovered a present that Len planned to give me for Valentines Day. I felt thrilled, and looked forward to a much-needed romantic expression from him.
Feb.14th came and went. The only thing Len did was to take me out to dinner, no surprise jewelry at dessert. I was in shock. It made no sense to me. I looked back in the box and only found the receipts!
I confronted Len. He denied everything and refused to talk about it, but I had the receipts.
This stalemate lasted for several weeks, until he disappeared one weekend in late March. He was supposed to be away on a business trip in Dallas, but when I called the hotel to reach him from Friday to Saturday, they said that he never checked in.
I was beside myself with worry and called his secretary at her home trying to figure out what happened. On Sunday night, he came strolling in with a tan and told me he ended his affair.
“But where were you?” I said, “I was worried sick!” “How did you get a tan when it’s only March? Who were you with?” I blurted out, “It was Shana wasn’t it!”
Shana worked under him in Texas and often acted rude toward me, making me feel jealous when I was around her. Over time I knew it had to be her that he had an affair with. I saw her once in his office playfully talking with him, not knowing I stood outside and heard everything. He wouldn’t give up her name but when he left PepsiCo and his secretary gave me his A list of most frequently called numbers, her name was at the top! It re-opened the can of worms between us but he would never admit to it.
Len said that Sunday that the affair was over and we should move on! I told him to move out. He clearly didn’t expect me to stick to my guns, but I did. It was painful.
We lived separately for eight months. Len and I went to counseling. Joel lived with Len for a while, which was a disaster since his father was never home. Rachel was fed up with the situation and wanted to go away to boarding school. Adam started to have problems at school socializing.
Things were not perfect before, but at least our lives felt stable. Now they didn’t. Through out the eight months of the separation Len wanted things to work out between us, again. I could see that financially and emotionally the kids and I would suffer from a divorce, so I caved in hoping he was sincere. I knew it was our last chance to try to right this sinking ship. I committed to giving it all I had.
From 1989-1992 we lived happily in New Canaan, Connecticut. Rachel left for boarding school and flourished academically and socially. Joel graduated from high school, started a rock band with friends and worked in construction, doing roofing to pay his bills. Adam who always did well in school struggled with his peers, but loved video taping his family and friends, and would regale us with the videos he staged.
Len was still on the rise at work. His job as Treasurer of PepsiCo took him to international economic symposiums, offered him speaking engagements, teaching positions at two universities and brought him into the inner social circles of some very powerful people like Pete Peterson and Roger Altman.
Len seemed to be poised for his dream job, CFO of PepsiCo. The three years after our separation were good for a while, but in time, as always, things began to deteriorate. As much as we both wanted to make the marriage work, Len didn’t know how to be a kind, loving, involved father and husband on any regular basis. I didn’t know how to leave the marriage since I only knew how to be a mom and wife. Len and I were running on fumes.
In December 1991 Len got the flu. He had a fever off and on for days but refused to stay home long enough to take care of himself. At Christmas that year he hadn’t recovered. When we opened presents, he acted angry and insulted us all by not liking anything he received. His normal testiness seemed out of control. I chalked it up to his flu.
Then on Sunday December 29, in the afternoon, Len collapsed. He was trying to go upstairs but fell backwards on the floor and couldn’t move.
He looked to me like he might have had a small stroke because his right arm and hand were stiff and curving inward. I called 911 and his doctor. His doctor said he thought it unlikely he was having a stroke because he was only 45. I knew what I saw but no one listened to me. Once the ambulance came, he seemed to have recovered his ability to stand and walk, but went in for tests anyway.
Len got furious with me for calling the ambulance. I went with him to the hospital and he just kept ranting and raving at me about over-reacting.
He stayed overnight, did stress and blood tests, but no scans. The doctor gave him antibiotics for his flu symptoms and sent him home on Monday.
Friday, Jan 3rd Len went back at work. He ran at the track that morning at 5am in the bitter cold and dark before going to a meeting in Manhattan. He complained of a headache before he left. I gave him two Bufferins.
By 9:30am I got a call from his secretary. Peggy said that Len had collapsed in a coffee shop in the lobby of the building in Manhattan. The details were sketchy but she said he was being taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Greenwich Village.
I had no idea what was going on. I thought maybe he would recover as quickly as he did before, so I went to the hospital optimistically thinking things would be okay.
They weren’t. Although it would take two weeks to confirm it, Len suffered from a massive ischemic stroke on the right side of his brain. He had no family history of stroke, there were no blocked arteries and his young age made it all the more mystifying. The doctors concluded he had a weak artery that randomly collapsed, stopping blood flow to the brain, then returned to normal.
When I got to the hospital from Connecticut, an hour away, Len was still having small episodes of convulsing in between totally lucid moments where he recognized me and ordered Pepsi products for the ER nursing staff, always the Pepsi salesman.
Len’s stroke was tragic. He could speak but couldn’t walk for months and lost all ability to move his left arm, hand and leg. It was the most difficult time of our lives. My children pulled me through this ordeal. I wanted to be strong for them, to stay optimistic and be someone they could lean on. Their needs kept me going.
During Len’s long recovery I suffered panic attacks, lost forty pounds, and had to deal with what came next. Len stayed in the hospital for three weeks, then a rehab facility for two and a half months. He learned to walk again but was angry and hostile over what had happened to him. He was especially angry with me, and the kids. I became his full time care person but I needed help.
Once Len came home I hired an aide. Len couldn’t get dressed by himself, drive, walk steadily, do stairs alone, button his shirt or get food for himself.
Joel was 21 and living out of the house with a girl friend. Rachel, 17, attended boarding school as a senior. Adam was 13. Everyone needed something from me, but mostly I had to take care of Len first.
Bill Banks answered an ad in the local newspaper I placed for part time aide help. Bill was 6’4, African American, from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Norwalk, and liked to tell stories about how his “pops” took him fishing as a boy. He said he had been a gang member and a drug dealer, but had turned his life around. He found religion, wanted to be a good family man and felt God had called him to come help Len.
I interviewed him with my brother-in-law present. We both felt he seemed sincere and we checked his credentials. Once Len came home from rehab in April, Bill came to help us.
One of the motivating forces helping Len to want to walk again and get well was an invitation he got from PepsiCo that for a gala event in honor of Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa in May.
After his stroke Len felt very depressed and didn’t want to participate in rehab. A few people from work came to visit him out of curiosity and you could see they were beginning to understand that he might not come back, and that his seat of power was open. He wanted to show everyone he was ok and improving even though he wasn’t. When he got the invitation he began to work hard at his recovery. It motivated him to want to heal.
When the date in May arrived Len, Bill Banks and I got dressed for the black tie party and took a limo to PepsiCo. There was literally a red carpet to walk down when we arrived. The limo pulled up in front of the headquarters. The red carpet led to a huge white reception tent outside the main PepsiCo building where Gorbachev and his wife greeted people in a receiving line.
The three of us got out of the limo. Bill came with us because Len insisted on walking the red carpet, but his walking was shaky and awkward. He needed Bill to assist him. As we walked the red carpet, I could tell it was a long way for Len to go. He was sweating but determined to make it.
As we got closer to the tent, all his colleagues, many who had not seen him for months, stared in disbelief. Someone told me later that there wasn’t a dry eye in the group.
Len went from a powerful, fit, young, fast-tracked executive to a shadow of his former self. I felt numb from the emotion of it all.
Bill Banks stood in awe of his surroundings. As we walked into the tent, Gorbachev and his wife walked out of the reception line and hugged Len and I. They spoke in Russian and through their translator said that our coming was a great honor to them. They hugged and kissed us Russian style. Cameras flashed wildly, illuminating the tent. Bill Banks had the thrill of his life when he shook hands with Gorbachev. If only Gorbie knew he was shaking the hand of an ex-drug dealer and gang member. It was just the beginning of things to come.
Bill traveled with Len and I for PepsiCo events that spring. He was wined and dined along with us. He got to travel on the company jet with Don Kendall. Bill loved to laugh and talk with everyone. When we flew over Kendall’s ranch in Montana and the pilot did a few circles over his property, Bill laughed and grinned like a schoolboy, and said to Kendall, “If only my pops could sees me now.”
Bill was a good buffer between Len and I, too. After his stroke Len had no social filters anymore and said awful things to the kids and me. As I buttoned his shirt and put on his tie, his frustration mounted because he needed my help, and he would tell me how stupid I was and that I smelled bad. Oy! One time I hauled him up by his necktie and screamed at him, “You smell, too!”
I lost my cool a lot. But Bill’s presence helped, for a while.
Bill convinced Len that the whole family should go to his Pentecostal Church in South Norwalk. He said, “God sent me to you and I thinks my pastor can helps you heal and make miracles.”
I was all for miracles so one Sunday Len, Joel, Rachel, Adam and I drove to the church. But the church was on the second floor of a tall building with no elevators.
Len couldn’t walk up that many stairs, so a contingent of young, large black men put Len in a chair and precariously carried him up a very narrow long staircase. When we got upstairs, they ushered us into the sanctuary with white folding chairs in neat rows, some with tambourines on them. Every three rows stood a woman dressed in a white uniform with white gloves looking like a nurse. I found out that these women were to help church members who got so full of spirit they might faint.
The music sounded raucous with drums, organs and tambourines keeping time. People sang their hearts out, the preacher barked out his halleluiahs and praise be to gods, while we sat there, the only white faces in the crowd.
Bill seemed proud to be with us and kept taking us Sunday after Sunday, until Len and I had to testify.
That Sunday the kids didn’t come. The preacher called Len and I forward to give our testimony into the microphone. Several large men and women in white surrounded us. We were suppose to say what we wanted God to heal for us then the preacher would press the heel of his hand on our forward head dramatically and push us back into a swoon.
I went first and wondered if I would fall back or not. I didn’t move much even though I asked God for a miracle to heal my husband and family. The preacher just smiled and called me “Sister Dale.”
Len hardly tried at all. When he testified into the microphone he just thanked everyone for their support and put his head down. The preacher blessed him but there was no swooning.
It was a big let down for us. We never returned. Bill started to slack off, too. He got restless working for Len. The glitz of the travel and taking Len to work everyday was not much fun anymore. Bill stopped coming on time and then stopped coming at all. I had to let him go. Months later his sister contacted me. She said that Bill was in jail and needed five hundred dollars to get out in time for Christmas. I sent him the money but asked him not to contact us again. I felt badly for Bill, but I knew his world was even more complicated than mine. I helped him as much as I could.
Taking care of Len became a full time job. After the May party, he was able to go back to the office. Working was a way to become normal again.
Once Bill left, I had to drive Len the half hour to work, park the car, get out the wheelchair, get him into the chair, roll him up the winding pathways to the backdoor of the corporate headquarters with his duffle bag on his lap as I held his suit on a hanger. He did a supervised workout at the gym and then people there would dress him and get him upstairs to his office.
They took his job as Treasurer away from him, giving it to one of his rivals. PepsiCo didn’t know what to do with Len because the Disabilities Act had just been approved making it unlawful now to get rid of someone in his situation. I hired a lawyer anyway to protect our interests.
PepsiCo still paid Len his old salary and bonus, but demoted him to jobs like over seeing the cafeteria and grounds.
It tortured me to still have to participate socially with everyone at events. Len didn’t want to miss any of them. People would stare and not speak to us. I had to cut up his food for him and often he ate too fast, as though he was starving, and start choking at the table. People acted polite, but you could see they were horrified.
Our relationship changed from bad to worse. Len saw me as his mule. He expected me to do all of his bidding. I felt stuck, like an animal in a cage. Ethically I couldn’t leave a sick spouse, but our marriage was over.
Then the worst of the worst happened. In December of 1993 Len and I went to visit his parents in Florida. It was our first trip there since his stroke. His elderly parents were emotionally distraught over his illness and this was an opportunity to show them that he had improved.
We stayed for a few days and had one of the best times ever with them. In fact, they even ate dessert with us, which they never did, always too concerned about sugar and calories. When we left they hugged me like they never had before, and were kind to Len.
Then five days later they died suddenly in a head on car crash as they were turning left across traffic on their way to the grocery store. Tragedy struck again. Friends, family and people from Len’s office rallied around us.
I remember feeling very sad but also relieved for them. They died quickly and together. Lillian was 78 and Sam was 86. Part of me thought that they wanted to go this way. Len was devastated and kept calling himself an orphan.
On the afternoon of their funeral, once we were home, I had a life-changing spiritual event happen. It was like a biblical visitation, a message sent from heaven! Spontaneously, I felt myself rise up out of my body surrounded by light and love. Then I heard Lillian and Sam, telepathically say to me how proud they were of me and how hard I worked to make things better for my family. Then a whoosh of love filled my heart like a breaking wave and they said I should think about living my own life now. They said life was for living, and I was dying on the vine. It felt wild, crazy, completely disorienting, but so real I couldn’t shake it. It was a revelation!
For days, weeks I walked around feeling the glow of light and love inside of me. I knew that Sam and Lil had given me a huge gift. It was impossible to tell people about it but I knew it was real.
I didn’t know where to start to turn my life around, but I went back into therapy and to a 12-step program for co-dependency. I finally recognized what had been keeping me in my marriage for too long. I was co-dependent!
Once I understood that, I dedicated myself to fixing it in a healthy way. I went to meetings several days a week. I got a sponsor and worked hard doing all the steps. I went back to school and got my BA.
Then I told Len in January of 1994, that I wanted a divorce, but agreed to stay with him until we had the right help in place. Leaving Len broke every rule in my book, but I was beginning to find out that my rules were broken to begin with.
I moved us to a house with no stairs and a garage apartment so Len would be safe and have space for someone to live with him after I left.
Adam was still in high school and I had to wait for him to graduate, but while I waited I finished up my degree, too. The revelation from Sam and Lil’s death was a gift and defied all logic. It was a spiritual awakening. Somehow it allowed me to throw off the yoke of generations of guilt, servitude and powerlessness. It was a miracle! I was free! I had to be brought down to my knees to see it but I was free!
Len didn’t fight me about anything regarding the divorce. He just accepted things as they came. I made sure he was well cared for and a friend of mine moved into the house with her daughter to live with him. It was the best possible solution and both Len and my friend thrived.
It was incredibly hard to leave Len then but I kept hanging on to my 12-step formula, which primarily said, “Whatever logic seems right in your gut, is probably wrong. You have to re-educate yourself to a new way of thinking because the old way is sick.” So every time I felt myself falter, feeling guilt, confusion or remorse, I just put in the new way of thinking and it worked.
By the time I left Len it was December of 1996. I had put in almost five years of caring for him after his stroke. I moved to Portland, Maine with Adam. We started a new life together.
I became a new woman, in a new world, and fearless. I thought my biggest challenges were behind me, but life had its own course and current. I was just learning how to go with the flow.