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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Encouragement (02/23/12)

TITLE: Tough Love
By Rachel Phelps


“Just toss the ball to me, Grandpa.”

I felt foolish saying the words. By the contortions of his face, I think he felt foolish hearing them. The stroke hadn’t physically affected his speech, but he’d been quieter than I remembered since we brought him home from the hospital.

He looked down at the blue and green Nerf ball in his hand, then across the kitchen table to where Grandma and my mom were busy planning our menu for the week. They were tactfully ignoring our little game. I was grateful for small blessings.

“Not a hard throw or anything. Just a toss.” I tried again. “Your therapist says we have to, after all.”

Grandpa frowned in concentration, glaring at his limp left arm as his fingers kept their hold on the ball.


I hated hearing that word from him. In all my 16 years, I’d never heard him say that about anything. Now it came with depressing consistency through the physical therapy exercises, the brain teasers, the attempts to trade the wheelchair for a walker.

“How about just dropping it, then? Just focus until your fingers relax.”

It took 25 seconds of hard concentration to get all four fingers to open enough for the ball to slide free. I caught it on the first bounce, raising it in celebration, only to lower it immediately at the look on his face.

Trapped. That was what it was. He looked positively trapped in his own kitchen — in his own body, really. For a man who had spent his days tinkering on tractors and maintaining his fields, sitting here in the kitchen while his son and grandsons prepared for planting was stifling.
“You’re doing great,” I told him, striving for a tone that wouldn’t insult him.

He pursed his lips and looked out the window. I waited, ball in hand, to try again. He didn’t look back at me. Nervously, I glanced at the recipe session, wondering if they had noticed my failure. Cajoling Grandpa into doing his physical therapy had become my personal project since we arrived, and in the last three days I’d had only minimal success. I was beginning to feel as hopeless as he did. I think we all were.

Grandma looked up. She gave me a tired smile, but cut her eyes to Grandpa, frowning.

She half-rose from her chair. “Earl, do you need to —“

“Yes.” His tone was desperate.

She grabbed the plastic container from the sack by her side and was around the table by the time it took me to drop the ball and take one step. Grandpa wouldn’t look at me as I helped pull him to a standing position and steadied his left side. Grandma got his pants down and held the container as he urinated.

I knew getting him to the bathroom was impossible now, but how I hated this. As if losing his mobility wasn’t enough. He wouldn’t look at anyone for a good half hour after, and only spoke in gruff, single-word sentences.

“Done?” Grandma asked briskly.


His tone broke my heart. Grandma, however, ignored it.

“That’s not what I asked, Earl.”
“Yeah. Don’t know why you bother with a big baby like me,” Grandpa mumbled as we went through the steps of getting him cleaned and back into his wheelchair. “Should just let me die.”

Grandma’s jaw set. She set the urinal down on the side table and oh-so-slowly put her hands on her hips.

“Now that’s enough of that talk. You didn’t die and you’re not going to. We’re all working as hard as we can to get you better —“

“Shouldn’t —“

“— whether you think we should or not. What we need is your help. I can’t do those exercises for you. I can’t practice walking for you. The only thing I can do is make sure you don’t mess yourself. You think that doesn’t make me feel useless?”

Grandpa looked down at his hands. The left one was shaking.

“You’ve got three people here who will do anything to help, but you’re going to have to meet us halfway. Now stop your pouting and get back to those exercises.”

She turned and grabbed the urinal, flashing me a smile. “You’re doing great, honey. Keep it up.”

She disappeared down the hall. My mom followed. I grabbed the Nerf ball and held it up. His face was red, but something of his stubbornness was back.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Guess I’d better be.”

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This article has been read 496 times
Member Comments
Member Date
C D Swanson 03/01/12
Oh my heavens this was so real it gripped my heart! This is a scene that I have witnessed so many times in nursing homes.

You have managed to capture the true essence of "frustration and humiliation" that patients go through after a stroke. Especially, older men who were the "head of the household" and feel so "stripped of masculinity."

I loved it, and I simply adored the ending. Powerful job of delivering the "MC's internal conflicts" in a subtle way.

Thank you for this.

God Bless you~
Francy Judge 03/01/12
What an excellent example of encouragement! I loved how naturally the dialogue flowed to capture a very realistic scene. Perfect ending.
Linda Goergen03/01/12
This is an amazing piece…masterfully written and so realistic it felt like I was right there! It grabs your emotions and doesn’t let go until the end…which BTW was a terrific ending! Loved it!
Helen Curtis03/05/12
Excellent writing! It fitted the topic perfectly and was raw and confronting to the reader. How much goes on behind closed doors that we are oblivious to, that a word of encouragement would make all the difference to. Well done on a great piece of writing.
Sarah Elisabeth 03/06/12
I was trying to eat as I read this, had to stop swallowing when I choked up almost on the first sentence. Heart breaking, wonderful writing. There are differents types of encouragement. Sounds like Grandpa needs both offered.

You nailed this story and the topic!
Laura Chambers 03/07/12
I guess we all need that kind of love sometimes...great story. :)
Allison Egley 03/07/12
Oh, this is awesome. So heartfelt and poignant. You could really feel everyone's emotions.
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 03/07/12
I have tears in my eyes. A stroke can do so much damage but I think one of the worst is when it affects the part of the brain that controls desire or willpower, or even encouragement. This was spot on topic and done with the honesty and dignity it deserves.
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 03/08/12
Congratulations for ranking 11th in Masters and 17th overall!