My husband phones me in my home office, one floor above his office. His speech is slurred. "You sound funny," I say. "What's wrong?"
There's silence, and then he says, "I can't write. My hand isn't working."
I fly down the stairs to his office. "What do you mean your hand isn't working?"
He looks up at me from his desk. "I can't sign my name."
My heart turns over. Warning bells go off. "Call the doctor."
He shakes his head. "I probably slept on my arm the wrong way. I'll call in the morning if it's still numb."
I race back upstairs to my computer and Google stroke symptoms. Numbness, slurred speech.
Ten months earlier, my husband had a heart attack. He believed it was indigestion and didn't want me to call 911. We went right into our denial dance that night.
He felt a heavy pressure in his chest, but other than that he was fine, so it had to be indigestion, he said.
I followed his lead. Of course, indigestion! If he had indigestion there wouldn't be the chance of a heart attack, no cause for alarm, everything would be OK.
Finally, he said maybe I should drive him to the hospital, just to be safe. We were on a mini-vacation in the mountains and staying in a hotel; we walked a long corridor to the elevators, then rode down to the lobby.
When I saw the night clerk, reality broke in. It was half-past midnight. I'd have to ask the clerk for directions to the local hospital. Instead I told him my husband was having chest pains, and the clerk called 911.
Two days later, my husband had a quadruple bypass that saved his life.
So you'd think I'd have learned something: that I'd ignore my husband and call 911 no matter what he says. But instead, I try to be rational with him; I feel I have to prove to him that he might be having a stroke.
I print out all the information I just got off the Internet and make him read it, including the part about calling 911 immediately.
"You can drive me to the hospital," he says finally.
We get into the car, and I back out of the garage. We live on Pacific Coast Highway, it's rush hour, and as I wait for a break in traffic, he finally gives in and tells me to call 911.
"I hate all this drama," he says when we hear the sirens five minutes later. Then six saints from the Santa Monica Fire Department arrive with their firetruck, ambulance and paramedic van.
Despite the delay -- arguing about whether to call the doctor, printing out stroke symptoms, fooling around for about 30 minutes before dialing 911 -- my husband dodges the bullet one more time. It's a minor stroke, and after two days he comes home from the hospital and can write his name again.
We were lucky, and maybe we finally learned something about how our denial works. We're intelligent people, but we think what we want to believe -- that it's simply indigestion or a cramped arm, and there's no need for alarm.
Barbara Abercrombie's latest book is "Courage & Craft." She teaches in the Writers' Program at UCLA Extension and writes a weekly blog: www.WritingTime.net.