A Husband’s Serious Illness Strengthens a Marriage


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The couple at the Community Education Center where Terri works.

Credit
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Language, for the Philadelphia playwright Ed Shockley, has always been a saving grace, the funnel through which he poured his intellect and emotion and perspective.

Mr. Shockley, who is fluent in Spanish and Swahili and manages in French and Chinese, gracefully stitched words together on paper, and aloud, to cement his connection to others. Perhaps his favorite saying, “Be of good cheer,” is most telling of his enduring perspective.

“As a kid I saw that — that until the day you die — you should be of good cheer,” said Mr. Shockley, 57, a man who has always made the most of what he was given. “And I decided to do just that.”

He so capitalized on his gifts that from his challenged Philadelphia neighborhood he won a full scholarship as a boy to the vaunted St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, then attended Columbia University, where at 6 feet 8 inches he played on the basketball team.

He is the author of more than 50 plays and has won numerous awards for his work, including a Richard Rodgers Award presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Ed and Terri Shockley with their sons Brandon, 27, left, and Jamel, 17, right.

Credit
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Which made what happened to him in late 2012 even more devastating than it would another man not as wedded to the wonder of words. Mr. Shockley suffered a serious stroke.

The language he so loved left him. The stroke led to a language impairment called aphasia, causing difficulty in speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Each morning he woke unable to retrieve letters, words or even his name. “It took me 30 days to find ‘Ed Shockley,’ ” he said.

But his intelligence remained intact. As did his attitude.

His wife, Terri Shockley, said, “If I have to say one thing I like about Ed, and it really hasn’t changed a lot except that maybe it is more so, he is the most positive person that I have ever met in my life.”

Despite the challenges he and Ms. Shockley have always faced, chief among them a chronic lack of money that many artists face, Mr. Shockley remained grateful for all life offered. A few days after his stroke, Mr. Shockley’s oldest son, Brandon, 27, was astonished to find him on the floor of his hospital room, doing push-ups.

“Dad’s strategy was to walk it off,” the younger Mr. Shockley said with a laugh.

The stroke has by far been the most profound challenge the Shockleys have faced in their 21 years of marriage (their wedding was profiled in a New York Times Vows column on June 12, 1994).

For Ms. Shockley, 63, a former dancer with the New York-based dance troupe Urban Bush Women, the couple’s financial shortfalls were their biggest challenge, and not all that big a challenge after all. For her, practicing their art is the gift that life gives them.

“Being artists, we both aspire, especially Ed, that he will be a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning writer,” said Ms. Shockley, who now single-handedly juggles the running of the Community Education Center in Philadelphia, an arts incubator, classroom, campsite and all-around center for creativity.

“I never thought that was going to happen for me. You get old, that’s the end. You’re probably not going to be famous. But Ed, he has always been a dreamer. He expects these things to happen.”

Considering the often devastating impact of a stroke, Mr. Shockley’s continuing recovery has astounded family and friends. A California filmmaker, Jan Johnson-Goldberger, who is making a movie from a work Mr. Shockley wrote some years ago, “Outlaw,” was amazed when she spoke to him recently.

“I couldn’t believe the progress he had made,” she said. “He sounded just like his old self.”

Mr. Shockley is graceful and articulate, with a rapid-fire intellect only the snap of a finger faster than the delivery. He stands upright and moves and speaks easily.

But the activities the couple enjoyed before his stroke — attending concerts and plays, visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Academy of Natural Sciences — don’t happen right now.

“Ed gets tired every easily,” Ms. Shockley said. “He can’t sit through a play because physically it’s difficult and he’s not going to understand a lot of it because of the aphasia.” She occasionally invites him now to join her for Zydeco dancing for a night out. But otherwise, a night together means relaxing and falling asleep in front of the TV.

The stroke has offered other challenges. One day Mr. Shockley left his backpack on a city bus, which would not have been disastrous except that his computer was in it. Lost were 30 years of work on his opera and more than a dozen plays.

“That was a long day,” he remembered. “I probably even cried that day. But as I thought about it, for me to be angry while I’m alive — I have my wife, my kids, I had just won a best-play award. And I had a great woman who stayed with me. She could have left. And I realized just how lucky I was.”

The issues they had in their marriage before the stroke, which included Mr. Shockley’s aversion to conventional medicine and a stubborn streak as unyielding as his positive attitude, remain unchanged.

They argue when Mr. Shockley refuses to take his blood pressure medication, although Mr. Shockley admitted: “Many times she knows what I should be doing, and I might take 10, 15, 90 days, and I’ll say, ‘you were right!’ I married a woman who is often right.”

Patience, then, has been the attribute Ms. Shockley has perfected. She has dealt with her own challenge, dyslexia, making her more sympathetic to Mr. Shockley’s new perspective.

Ms. Shockley, who was raised in Columbus, Ohio, met him when they shared an apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. They moved to Philadelphia to be near Brandon, Mr. Shockley’s son from an earlier union, and bought a home in Nicetown, an impoverished high-crime area of north Philadelphia. The couple, ever upbeat, embraced the adventure of setting up house, spending time with Brandon and welcoming a second child, Jamal, now 17, when Ms. Shockley was 46.

After Mr. Shockley’s stroke, the couple moved across town and in with his 83-year-old mother, Alice Shockley, often a marriage-wrecking proposal for a wife. But the older Mrs. Shockley has helped their daily life. She cooks for the couple, and has helped Mr. Shockley significantly with his recovery.

“I am a lot closer to her than I would have been otherwise,” Terri Shockley said. “If it weren’t for her, I don’t know what we would have done.”

Indeed, the couple know how fortunate they are living with his mother, particularly because wherever they go, piles of paperwork, clothing and books follow. “I’m much cleaner than Ed, but almost as disorganized,” Terri Shockley said. “We would have knock-down, drag-out fights about this, but these days I give up the argument much more quickly. It seems not worth it, because he isn’t going to change.”

So for them, peace is about being grateful for what they have. Mr. Shockley is beginning to drive again. He is recreating his opera and has been teaching martial arts to a group of special-needs students. Despite disliking Facebook before his stroke, he is now a daily poster. And each day he celebrates a new step on the road to recovery.

“Every day, I know that I am going to find Ed in a good mood, he is going to smile, he is going to kiss me good morning,” his wife said. “I appreciate this even more with the challenges of the stroke.”

She keeps the Community Education Center humming, and when their family is together, there is much laughter, horsing around and general good cheer.

One day recently, as the four of them sat for a portrait on the steps of the Meetinghouse Theater at the center, Ms. Shockley sat with her hand on Mr. Shockley’s knee and her arm through Jamal’s; Brandon nestled into his father’s side.

“As long as you’re alive,” Mr. Shockley said, “everything has to be good.”

Read more: Janis Ian and Patricia Snyder’s Relationship Builds Upon Decades of Social Upheaval



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