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Michelle Williams: The Family That Wouldn’t Give Up Hope

After his massive stroke, the doctors had all but given up on my father. But not us, not his family.

Singer Michelle Williams.
Credit: Larsen&Talbert

We were all there, the whole Williams family; every relative that lived close to my parents’ Illinois home had gathered around my dad’s hospital bed. Mom is one of eight, and almost all of them are ministers, so you can imagine the prayer that was going on in that room.

Help would have to come from God, because the doctors had already talked to Mom about withdrawing life support.

“We don’t think he’s going to make it,” they said.

Gospel music filled the room, but there was no response from Dad. No expression on his face, no change in the slow, anguished breathing, no fluttering of the eyelids, no grip in the hand I was holding. My music group, Destiny’s Child, had just finished our final tour.

I’d been home the month before to throw my grandmother, Dad’s mom, an 85th birthday party and had seen all the family then.

What a happy time that was. Running errands for Mom and Dad, picking up my nieces from school, babysitting, cooking up some mac and cheese and banana pudding, my favorites, just like always.

Now everything had changed. Dad had had a stroke, his second one, and unlike with the first, it didn’t look as if he’d recover. I remembered that first stroke as if it happened yesterday. My whole world stopped. 

I was a freshman in high school. Mom had gone down to a church convention in Memphis for the weekend. It was a Sunday morning and with Mom gone, Daddy got us ready for church. He didn’t say anything, just tapped me on the shoulder and gestured. Nothing unusual about that.

Mom was the one who made noise in the morning, calling down the hall, “Get yourselves dressed, children, we’re heading out the door in five minutes!” Dad was quieter. Did I notice that he didn’t say anything in the car either? No. He just dropped us off and drove on. I figured he had an errand to run.

During worship he would be up in the sound booth, doing the audio, like every Sunday.

But at the end of the service he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Not at coffee hour or Sunday school. It was Granny who showed up in her car to take us home.

“Get in, kids.” She looked worried, but you could see she was trying to hide that from us. “Your daddy’s in the hospital,” she said “He’s had a stroke. Your mom’s on her way back from Memphis. I’m sure everything will be fine. The doctors will take good care of him.”

Daddy evidently knew something was wrong as soon as he woke up. He couldn’t hear well. Found it hard to talk. He took us to church and then drove straight to the ER. Someone there must have called Granny.

I hate to think now of the danger he put himself in, driving like that after a stroke, he should have called 911.

I don’t think he knew what was going on, but checking into the hospital was the right thing to do. And dropping us at church first? Well, God always came first in our family. Still I think God would have understood. The sooner you get medical help at the merest sign of a stroke, the better.

I should know. I’ve become an ambassador for the American Heart Association’s Power to End Stroke campaign and I make a point of letting people know things like that. But that’s now and this was then.

Dad had all the risk factors for stroke: diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking even though he didn’t smoke that much. Mom’s a nurse and after Daddy came home she had a battle plan. No more pie à la mode. No smoking. A list of exercises.

His hearing came back; his speech was okay, but the way we ate changed totally. Goodbye salt, farewell butter. Mrs. Dash made her first appearance in our kitchen, along with grilled chicken–not fried–and lots of salads. Daddy was only in his forties. He had to stick around.

I’m sure glad he did because he got to see me make something of myself in the music business, winning Grammys, writing hit songs, singing all over the world. I owed a lot of that success to him.

On Mom’s side, I was steeped in gospel. I sang “Blessed Assurance” as a solo in church when I was only seven.

But Daddy exposed me to a lot of other music. He was the neighborhood’s go-to guy to DJ a birthday party or barbecue. Down in the basement he had stacks of milk crates full of vinyl–jazz, hiphop, pop, rock. Ray Charles, Bon Jovi, the Winans, Chaka Khan, Carman and Commissioned.

He took me to my first concert. He was also a real history buff. His father had served in World War II and Korea, and Dad could recount all the important battles. You should have heard him rattle off all the names in the Bible too, from Abraham on down.

I wrote about Mom and Dad in my songs. In “Purpose in Your Storm,” I put down a lyric, “Daddy told me things will happen, go on ahead and cry.” Like what all those prophets from the Bible foretold.

And for my mom: “Mama’s been where you goin’, it’s gonna be all right. He’ll never put more on you than you can bear.”

I wrote those words in 2003 for my album Do You Know, a year before Daddy’s second stroke. (It turns out that if you’ve had one stroke there’s a strong likelihood you’ll have another, especially if you don’t make any lifestyle changes).

Standing in his hospital room now, holding his hand, praying my heart out, I wondered if those lyrics were really true. This seemed like more than any of us could bear. How would he bounce back from this? How would we?

I heard all my aunts’ and uncles’ prayers, the gospel music playing. Mom was storming the heavens. We couldn’t lose Daddy now. Please, God, was all I could say. Please.

And then I looked down at Daddy’s feet. No way! It was his toe. His big toe. He was tapping his big toe! Not out of rhythm, not randomly, but right on the beat. I stared for a long time, counting. There was no doubt. No doubt at all. He was still with us.

Heaven would have to wait a while longer for this DJ. It was a long haul, but Daddy made great strides. He learned to walk with a walker; he was able to write again.

He still never got speech back, but he knows exactly what’s going on, following every conversation, taking it all in and letting us know what he thinks. I like to tease him, telling him, “You stuck around because you’re nosy. You don’t want to miss anything.”

Most Sundays he sits with Mom instead of in the sound booth. He raises his hands when we sing in church, something he had to work hard at in physical therapy, letting it out for the Lord.

And he’s got this prayer closet he goes into at home. He’ll maneuver behind the sliding doors with his walker and then sit there for the longest time, talking to God.

It’s been almost 10 years now that this survivor has been with us. We’ve had some scary moments. Not long ago he had to be rushed to the hospital with pneumonia, which is another complication that often afflicts people who’ve had strokes.

I’ve said my own prayers. I ask God to heal him completely, bring his voice back, let him walk, let him dance, let him spin. But in the end, I leave it in God’s hands, say a prayer of thanks that I still have my dad, and pray, Your will be done.

When I sit with him and sing a favorite song, I can see how God’s will has been done, in his life and in mine. And I’m so grateful for that, which is why I decided that what God wanted from me was to speak out on the subject of stroke and stroke prevention.

All it took was a tap of the toe.

Read Michelle’s tips for recognizing the symptoms of a stroke.

Watch as Michelle discusses stroke prevention and treatment.

This story originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Guideposts magazine. 

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