Rob Foster proudly points to some of his woodworking designs at his Maple Shade home: a coffee table in the living room, made from a trash-picked door; a family birthday board hanging on the wall; bedroom corner shelves that hold deceased pets' ashes; chair rails gracing the perimeter of the rooms.
In his garage-turned-workroom, Rob, 46, uses a power saw with all the strength and deftness required. No small feat for someone lucky to be alive.
Seven years ago, at age 39, he had emergency bypass surgery. After coding on the table, he had another surgery. Then he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. Nine days later, he woke and couldn't move his left side. A former firefighter and emergency medical technician, Rob knew it was bad.
"I thought, 'This isn't the plan I had for my life,' " he recalls.
The doctors warned his parents he'd probably remain in a wheelchair. He spent the next two years in therapy, learning to walk, talk, and tie his shoes. "It was huge," he says, when he was able to write his name again.
Because he'd always been a handy guy, Rob agreed to try woodworking as part of his therapy at Independence Rehab in Cherry Hill. He made birdhouses and flags. He liked it.
"He started building things when he was discharged," says wife Ellen Foster, 46, a schoolteacher. "The first project he took on was a sign for my sister's chiropractic office."
Ellen, who is from Philadelphia, met Rob nine months after his stroke, and they married in November 2012. In April 2013, the couple saw a house listed as a short sale on Trulia. It was just what they wanted: simple, 850 square feet, with two bedrooms and a bath.
"We kept riding by it," Ellen says. "You could say we stalked it."
Rob, who hails from Delran, knew the area from working as a landscaper. "I've always liked Maple Shade. It's a great neighborhood."
Empty for a year, the house needed a lot of work. The water heater was broken. The front walkway puddled after a rainstorm. The backyard grass was so high that the air-conditioning unit wasn't visible. Other than a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree," the front planting beds were barren. Still, they wanted it, and three months later, the house was theirs.
Rob installed oak floors and painted the walls. He built a fence and the wooden deck that includes a fire pit, Adirondack chairs, and swinging love seats. He laid patio pavers and planted daylilies, hostas, and bushes in the front and backyards.
Standing alongside his backyard bar, Rob says he loves hosting barbecues. "On the Fourth of July, I can sit here and watch the fireworks over at the high school."
Ellen says her favorite part of the house is the living room. "We spend a lot of time together in there."
A brown-and-taupe sofa and matching love seat anchor the room. An aquarium adds a soothing quality. Ellen, who is Jewish, says it was important to her that she and Rob sign a ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, affirming their commitment. Framed, it hangs nearby. Photographs of the couple and family decorate shelves.
The master bedroom has oak furniture stained a sable brown. A hook rack holds Ellen's medals from half-marathons. On a recent afternoon, Embers and Halligan, two of the couple's cats, lounged on the comforter. They share their masters' affections with another feline, Bunkers (the cats' names hark back to firehouse terms), and with Lola, a beagle-basset hound mix.
Ellen marks school papers at a desk in the office. A shelf holds Rob's 30-year-old firetruck collection. A replica of a horse's skull hangs above, a nod to his cherished black Mustang in the driveway.
Rob is most content doing wood projects in his workroom. Benches and tables are neatly arranged around tools and power devices. Hanging from the rafters are his collections of vintage license plates and fire hats.
He says he's about 95 percent back to his old self, notwithstanding some occasional numbness on his left side.