Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst Michael Hayden, a retired four-star US Air Force general, formerly headed the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. His daughter-in-law, Jessica Powley Hayden, helped him to focus his thoughts and put them on paper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
My life has changed.
Just six months ago, I was jet-setting across this country, giving speeches and interviews, engaging with the public on matters of domestic and international politics.
Last October, my wife, Jeanine, and I left our home on Sunday night for a week of stops in Pittsburgh (one night) Arizona (one night), San Francisco (one night), Ohio (two nights), and then a day in New York, followed by a train back to Washington. And we loved it.
We had the opportunity to attend a conference on the First Amendment, engage in discussions on pressing matters with leaders like Google’s Eric Schmidt, speak to 4,000 people in San Francisco, and sit down with Fareed Zakaria, Samantha Power, and Steve Hadley in Columbus, Ohio.
A couple of weeks later, Jeanine and I flew to France and made our first trip to Normandy, a place of great significance for the French and American people. We treated ourselves to the splendor of French food and sights in Paris. Upon returning home, we took two of our young grandchildren to see a play in McLean, Virginia.
It was our typical, busy, full life.
And then on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it all changed. That morning, as I was preparing for the day, I suffered a stroke. It came from nowhere.
Sirens. Paramedics. A racing ambulance. Hovering doctors. Family gathered in the emergency room. Tears. I was emotional and I was scared. Over the next two days I didn’t know whether I would live or not. I kept asking myself, “Am I going to be alright?”
The answer to that question is not an easy one.
But there are some things I do know.
There was a team of amazing first responders and doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital who saved my life. My wife, my children and my family have steadfastly been by my side every second of this journey. They have supported me in big ways and small. I still feel a sense of wonder and joy at the spring blossoms and the gorgeous green trees that line my backyard today. The world, filled with all its challenges and struggles, is also still filled with an abundance of love and joy. These things I know.
And yet, sometimes the questions seem to outnumber the certainties.
What is possible for recovery?
Will I ever be able to use my right arm?
Will I be able to read fluidly?
Will I one day again stand before an audience?
It is humbling to face these challenges that were once so routine. To dress. To eat. To walk. To read. To recall the names of loved ones.
On Sunday afternoons when my family gathers at our home, my 4-year-old grandson often gravitates toward me to play. Sometimes we play games like Sorry or Spot It. (He wins.)
After watching the film “Boss Baby,” he has taken up the habit of writing memos. He collects old notepads from my office and practices his letters. Six months ago, it was a game for him. Today, we play together, and I find myself learning basics of language from him. He is playing, but he is teaching me that the letter “B” looks this way; that “G” comes before “H.” I am learning the alphabet all over again. I am learning numbers all over again. I am walking beside my 4-year-old grandson. And to be honest, that’s frustrating.
I get meaning from the small steps I make. It gives me hope for what I will be able to do in the future. I continue to make great progress, but today may be the best I’ll ever get and that’s all there will ever be. I continue to struggle to speak fluently. It is better, and frankly, I assume it will be better tomorrow than today. But it is not a given or a guarantee.
I am grateful that the stroke did not take my ability to understand and process and that my higher-level thinking was not affected. I am grateful my memory is strong. I am grateful to be a part of an aphasia study at Georgetown and for my therapists who have helped me come so far. I am grateful for my friends and colleagues who continue to call and visit and speak with me. With every conversation I become stronger.
I am grateful for the small moments of joy. Like when my grandson was feeling ill and curled up in my lap for comfort.
But, mark my words, I am going to beat that kid at Spot It someday soon.