It had been a very productive year. I was getting stronger and healthier. I had just returned recently from a vacation in Mississippi, where I had gained even more confidence. But I had one concern: my brother Jonathan had recently invited me to Texas for Thanksgiving. While I was excited about coming down for another family vacation, it worked against my financial plans. I was on track to be three months ahead of my bills by the end of the year. Because I had worried about finances since the stroke, this had been an important milestone on my path to peace of mind.

Having very little control over my income, I really felt like skipping Thanksgiving. I was tired of feeling like a charity case. I wanted to come into 2020 not having to ask family to lend me a thing. But what created the dilemma for me was knowing how important it was for Dad. While I was in a coma, Dad had told my brothers how important it was to see us all get together as often as possible. He was now approaching 80 years old, so seeing us become closer had become even more of a pressing desire for him.

Jonathan knew my finances were tight and offered to buy my ticket. But I told him that it wouldn’t be necessary. I could afford to buy it myself. It would mean that I couldn’t pay for things as soon as I had planned, but I could fit the ticket into the following month’s budget. I would purchase the ticket at the end of October, then the following check could be used for vacation spending. Even if I were to fritter it all away, my bills were already satisfied through the end of the year. Telling Jonathan that I could pay for my own ticket made me realize that I was already as independent as I sought to be.

One of my primary worries before moving into my own apartment was whether I would be able to take care of my dog. Over the months, I had taken Mary out three times a day virtually without incident. I had especially feared bending down to pick up after Mary and falling over, but I did it on a daily basis without losing my balance. I also worked on my leg religiously. It became stronger, leading to even greater confidence.

I had proven myself to be capable of handling Mary’s daily needs The only question was whether I could take care of her health needs. Her health insurance was automatically withdrawn from my bank account; I had to take her to the vet twice a year in a community car that I rented by the hour. The same neighbor who drove me to the vet also helped me to administer Mary’s pills.

Then one day, the neighbor started having schedule conflicts. After a week, it was past time for me to give Mary her monthly pill. So one morning, I decided to pill her myself. I punched out a pill and called her over. I pried her mouth open and released the pill down her throat with the same hand. As soon as I thought the pill was safely in her digestive tract, I clamped her mouth closed. After I was satisfied that she had probably swallowed the pill, I released her mouth. She coughed and spit it out. I was a little dejected, but I scooped up the pill, dried it off, and tried again. This time, I shoved it even farther down her throat. I clamped her mouth again. After a few seconds, I released it. This time, she she yawned a little bit, but she didn’t spit it back out. I felt so proud.

It snowed the next day. Although snow can be a challenge for my footing, I wanted to take Mary out to the backyard so she could play in it. I’m usually not able to go out into the backyard once there is a lot of snow because they don’t shovel anywhere but the front of the building. But there was only a dusting on the ground, so I was able to go out.

Once Mary reached the basement door and saw white stuff on the ground, she became very hyperactive. I worried that she would get too excited and pull me down, so I kept her leash short and walked towards a table. The patio wasn’t too slippery, but I didn’t want to risk falling. Once at the table, I secured myself by holding the back of a chair. Snow had frozen to it overnight, leaving me no choice but to sit on it.

After I was safely seated, I let Mary’s leash out. She rolled around a little, but she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself that much. It was probably just the fact that she could tell that it wasn’t much snow.

I was much more confident walking onto snowy ground to pick up after her than I had been last year, but I still had some anxiety. I set my cane down, pulled a plastic bag out of my jacket pocket, spread the bag over my fingers like a glove, then walked over to the spot where she had pooped. The waste was clumped together and sitting atop the thin layer of snow, making it easier to scoop up than it would’ve been in warmer weather. I spread my feet, went down, and gathered it up in one scoop. I stood up and walked very carefully. I didn’t feel as though I was going to fall, but I didn’t want to grow overconfident and slip. I threw the bag away and walked back to the building, breathing a sigh of relief once I made it back inside.

Soon my flight was a week away. I made a list of a few things to do so I didn’t forget anything. It was all pretty mundane stuff – which days I wanted to shave my head, how many blog posts I needed to write, how many groceries to buy. A lot of people would describe me as being “anal” for actually putting all of these on a calendar, but this was a way for me to maintain a sense of order. I scheduled when I was going to hand Mary over to the dog sitter, what time my ride to the airport was supposed to arrive at the building, what time I was scheduled to arrive at the airport, and my flight times. While I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary to schedule every event of the week leading up to the trip, doing so would alleviate my anxiety. Knowing that I could cross items off a list would give me one less thing to forget every day my trip drew nearer.

With everything I needed to do typed into my calendar, I was able to relax and enjoy the days. I went out to eat at my favorite Caribbean restaurant; my final workouts became more intense yet more satisfying; I even planned out my workout goals for the rest of the year. Knowing that every event was accounted for freed up my time because I always schedule twice as long as any event will actually take. Even though there appeared to be more to do each day, Mary and I spent much more time together and went out as many as four times a day.

Reducing worry about my schedule probably seems silly to the average person. But consider this: I almost died of a stroke due to high blood pressure. Then I gained about thirty pounds of fat. My doctors put me on an aggressive diet and prescription plan. While I was doing physical therapy several hours each day, it was nothing like the amount of exercise I was used to getting. I was now cutting calories and exercising on my own again. Reducing stress factors such as worrying about whether I was going to get x, y, and z done before flying out was just one more way to ward off a potential stroke.

As I had done before, I found an elderly resident to take care of Mary while I was gone. It allows her to stay in a familiar building, and it gives retirees companionship. To make sure he was going to have no problems with her, I took her to visit his apartment and had him walk with us a couple of times. Since Ron doesn’t use a cane, he was able to walk her places I could not. I felt this was also important in helping her to enjoy her time without me.

The evening before my trip, Ron and I walked Mary in the backyard one last time. I let him do all the walking while I handled the cleanup. He fed her turkey meatballs and let her wander up and down every hill. The last thing we did was climb the steps to the upper patio. We sat down at one of the patio tables and let Mary root around in a pile of leaves. There was the rustle of the leaves, the sideways red-orange light of the evening sun, and the unseasonably warm November breeze. I wouldn’t need to worry about a thing. For a moment, it was perfect.

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After several days recovering from lung and ear problems, I was finally at full strength. I went down to the gym ready to start pushing myself hard again. When I got down to do leg press, I started warming up with a 10-pound weight. I breezed through two sets of 25. Since that was unbelievably easy, I decided to try 35 pounds. This was more weight than I had done on just my left leg since my stroke. I pushed and the weight went up slowly. It wasn’t terribly difficult, so I repeated it nine more times. When I finished, I was panting and proud.

Leg press was scheduled to be my last exercise of the day. I kept pushing myself, I could probably do another set. But not having gone this hard in years meant that my leg might be too weak when it was time to bend down and pick up after Mary. But it worried me more to think about how slow my recovery had been. So I rocked back and did another set. My leg gave out after eight reps, but I was satisfied with myself.

My leg didn’t feel weak once I finished the workout and cooldown,or during the ride home But as soon as I got home and ate lunch, I suddenly felt drained. I went to bed and slept for two hours. I might have continued sleeping until after dark, but someone woke me juMst after 4:00. When I realized how late it was, I decided to get dressed, go downstairs to get my 5:00 pill, and take Mary out.

Since I knew it was going to be cold outside, I pulled on my shoes and grabbed one of my winter jackets. The fingers of my left hand hadn’t regained their dexterity, so I would have to have them tie my shoes and zip my jacket downstairs. I was about to leave my apartment and get on the elevator, but I remembered something I had to get. I whirled around and started toward the bedroom.

I moved so quickly that I forgot how loose my shoes were. I started falling to my right, corrected instinctively, but then fell to the left. This time, I couldn’t catch myself. I came crashing right down on top of my modem. For a second, I couldn’t move. I caught my breath and rolled over on my back. My side hurt, but there was no blood, and I didn’t think I broke anything. I rolled over and crawled to the bedroom so I could stand up, using the bed for stability. Once I was back on my feet, I went downstairs to get help with my shoes and jacket. I planned to take Mary out for the evening, then I could go to the hospital if I needed to go.

My biggest worry was that I would fall over while trying to clean up after Mary. It hurt to walk or even to breathe, so I felt as though it wouldn’t take much for me to lose balance. Squatting down put immense pressure on my rib cage, so any movement could shock my muscles enough to give out. I kept imagining myself fallen over helplessly in the backyard, waiting for someone to help me up.

I formulated a plan: I would try to make it through the night. If I could, I had an appointment with my ILS worker. He could just drive me to the hospital. If I didn’t stop hurting that night, I could call 911. Regardless of when I decided to go, I needed to take Mary out for the evening. She couldn’t make it through the night if I went into the hospital indefinitely. As long as she went out at 8:00 pm, I could make arrangement to have someone take her out in the morning.

I hooked Mary’s leash on and walked to the door. Before leaving the apartment, I did three practice squats. Once I was satisfied that I could bend down safely, I led Mary outside. Walking was still painful, so I didn’t venture out onto the grass. Instead, I sat at one of the patio table and let her wander around on her own. We stayed out for fifteen minutes. This was long enough for Mary to do everything she had to. I took her back upstairs and took off my jacket.

I checked myself all over to see whether I had any injuries. My lower left side still was on fire. Each time I breathed, it hurt so much that I gasped. I noticed that there was purplish, congealed blood over my left ear, but I didn’t notice any deep cuts. My neck hurt slightly when I turned my head to one side. Nothing felt too serious, so I went over to get ready for bed. I climbed into my bed and rolled over on my back. It hurt to breathe, so I tried not to breathe deeply or move around at all. I let the CPAP machines do most of the work. My sleep wasn’t restful that night, but I did sleep.

I woke up before 6:00. My side still hurt, so I didn’t want to move around too much. I stayed in bed until 6:30. Then I slowly got dressed. That’s when I noticed that my right thumb hurt too. It was so sore that I needed someone to help me button my jeans. The assisted living worker came up with my 7:00 meds. After taking my meds, I took Mary out for her morning walk. Once I was back indoors, I felt loose enough to take a shower and dress myself. Now all I had to do was wait.

My rib cage was still hurting when my ILS worker arrived early in the afternoon, so I asked him to drive me to the hospital. I didn’t feel as though I was in any danger; I just wanted to get any testing done so they would be able to give me something to alleviate the pain. I also wanted to get all diagnoses out of the way so I could be discharged before 5:00.

The triage nurse was from northeast Wisconsin. He saw the yellow on my hat and warned me that he couldn’t treat me if it was a Vikings hat. I told him that it was a Pittsburgh Penguins hat, but I could bring in something with a Vikings logo next time. When he told me his hometown and graduation year, I asked him if he knew a couple of people who had gone to college with me. He said that he didn’t, but that really wasn’t the point of my question. I have several friends in health services. It is my aim to make people’s shift as stress free as possible. You tend to get better care when stopping by your room is a pleasant experience for someone who is routinely overworked.

I weighed in at 242.5, fully clothed. He said that he would list me at 240 even. I decided to call myself 241 so it would give me incentive to keep working. My systolic blood pressure was in the 140s, but that was probably due to walking a lot and from the stress of pain. I assumed it would come down after I was resting in a room. They sent me back out to the waiting room. I was relaxed now: any time I make it to a medical facility, I know I’m somewhere where treatment is only a few feet away, so it puts me at ease.

It was a busy day in the emergency department, so it took them about an hour to get me to a room. Someone eventually came out wheel me to radiology. When we got there, he wanted to start by x-raying my left elbow. Because I hadn’t been sleeping in my arm splint, we couldn’t get my arm to lay flat. He ended up taping my arm down to the table. It was very tense at first, but it relaxed eventually, and he was able to get the pictures he needed.

The next thing he needed was front and side pictures of my ribs. Although this might have been difficult a year ago, I was now able to stand up and walk without requiring a cane. At various times, he asked me to turn, walk away, or walk toward the panel. I was never in any danger of losing my balance. I could have stood, turned, and walked as much as he needed me to.

When they finally took me to a room, the medical assistant put a robe on my bed and left, telling me that I could put it on in private. At first, I was a little upset: someone else had always tied the gowns on for me because the stroke had made tying them myself impossible. Now I realized that this was an opportunity to try doing it for myself. I put the two lengths of string in my left hand, looped one end around twice, and pulled it tight. Now I slipped my left arm through the sleeve, and pulled the gown over my head.

The doctor came in shortly. She told me that my x-rays were negative. She gave me a prescription for ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation. I went home and took it easy for the next few days. I got to spend more time with Mary, but by that weekend, I was back in the gym. My life was so much more manageable because of all the time in the gym. I wasn’t about to let a little thing like bruised ribs keep me from attacking my goals.

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I almost died of a stroke in 2015. That year, I spent almost three months in hospitals. During that time, I began doing a lot of physical and occupational therapy. The process was painful and exhausting, and my progress seemed agonizingly slow, but it was progress. I emerged from the hospital able to walk again, and that seemed like magic. I hoped to be recovered after a year. After a year of going to therapy three days a week, I was getting better, but it was clear that I would be nowhere near fully recovered in one year. So in 2016, I moved from Mississippi back to Minnesota, hoping to improve my chances.

In November of that year, I finally became eligible for insurance in Minnesota. I wasted no time starting rehabilitation at a local hospital. Walking continued to improve with physical therapy. My therapist even helped me to transition from a quad cane to a regular cane. Occupational therapy focused more on performing everyday tasks like dressing myself. However, the occupational therapist often helped me with exercises for my hand and arm. I stropped showing significant progress after April of 2017, so therapy ended. I was happy that I had come farther since returning to Minnesota, but it was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

May 18th would be the second anniversary of my stroke. I wasn’t fully healed, but I at least wanted to be back in the gym by then. Since my insurance would allow me to work out at most local gyms, I went to the closest one I could find. The first time I went, I was a little intimidated. Every gym I had worked out in since the stroke had been a physical therapy gym. The machines were designed for people who had difficulty moving; there were grasping bars everywhere; you could always find a professional to help you. Here you were on your own. If you couldn’t operate a machine by yourself, you needed to do another exercise that day. The one thing I worried about most was falling. I wasn’t afraid of injury; there would be plenty of strangers rushing over to help me. I just didn’t want to be embarrassed. Or worse, I didn’t want anyone suggesting that I didn’t belong here.

For the first month I worked out, I could barely use any of the machines. I had to walk around to the few I thought I could use and make determinations through trial and error. It took me around three trips, but I came up with a rotation of maybe six exercises for the legs and back. In an hour, I would get through three or four of these before it was time to go back home. I was barely able to move any weight those days, and many mornings I would wake up and cancel my trip because it was mentally draining to even think about trying to lift weights. But overall, I was encouraged that I was doing something physical again. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was doing more than anyone else expected.

I worked out for the rest of the year. I gained confidence as I lifted two or three days per week. In August, I went home to Mississippi for a month. While there, I joined Planet Fitness, so I could continue my recovery. After a month, I flew back to Minneapolis. Since I had recently moved out from the house where I had been living, a friend let me sleep on her couch until I could find my own place.

After I got settled in, I transferred my Planet Fitness membership to Minnesota so I could continue the same workout routine I had started in Mississippi. I had gotten quite a bit stronger now, but I was still not equipped to live on my own. One day, I was rushed to the hospital because I had difficulty walking. While I was there, I spent more time pondering what I would do about housing and trying to live with my dog than concentrating on trying to get better. The second day I was at the hospital, a physical and an occupational therapist came by and worked with me. On the third day, they told me that I was being moved to the inpatient physical therapy ward for a week.

While I was in the hospital, my friend Karine kept Mary at her home in Sleepy Eye, Minn. After I was released, I went out to live with Karine and Mary. When I got there, I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I also began going a gym in New Ulm – the largest city in the county. I got to each of these places because there was a ride service for disabled citizens in that county. Any independence I have gained is because insurance pays for gym memberships and there is a ride service for the disabled in every county. After a month, I was discharged from therapy. I flew home to Mississippi to finish out the year. I wanted to get strong enough to live on my own.

After I arrived back in Minnesota, I ended up back in the hospital. This time, they released me to a transitional care facility where I would receive physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day. After my therapy plan was done, the county helped me to find an apartment with public housing, and I moved into a building in the shadow of downtown. This would be the first time I lived alone with Mary. I was worried about finances, physical recovery, and taking care of Mary.

I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I complemented this by going to the gym two days a week. After Mary moved in, I began taking her out a minimum of twice a day. I still worried about falling and dropping her leash, so I would only take her out in the enclosed area behind the building. I felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace, but this was how 2018 ended – exercise, walking, trying to budget, taking care of Mary.

With the new year of 2019, I had some specific goals I wanted to meet. If I could have waved a magic wand and healed my body entirely, I would have. But I knew recovery was going to be a long-term project, so I came up with a few incremental ways to progress.

One of the first big obstacles I had to get over was using my crutch … as a crutch. Having received a new stabilizing leg brace meant that walking was going to be much easier. It would help me lift my toes automatically when I strode. It would allow me to walk without my ankle wobbling. Knowing that I had all these things working for me as I walked meant that I didn’t need my cane to stay upright. In February, I designed a pair of personalized shoes that could fit over my brace. The day they arrived, I took them down to the basement to practice walking. Scared as hell, I took ten small steps. I slowly pivoted and walked back to the chair.

Now that I knew I could do it, I practiced walking to the mailbox, the community room, the lobby – any short distance, just to get used to the sensation of walking without a cane. By the end of the year, I was walking around other people’s houses without my cane. I felt that I had largely mastered walking indoors unaided. I would still use the cane in larger indoor spaces, but I would try to discontinue that in 2020, when I mastered outdoor walking.

The new brace and shoes helped me walk and work out much better. However, the brace did severely limit my range of motion. I couldn’t point my toe with it on, nor could I slide my foot to reset it while performing squats. Furthermore, as long as I was always wearing a brace, my ankle wouldn’t redevelop the ability to stabilize my foot. So I designed a pair of shoes that I could work out in without wearing my brace. I ordered them a half-size larger than normal so the difference wouldn’t be so dramatic for my right foot, which was never the foot wearing the brace.

The first time I wore the new shoes, my left foot did slide around a little inside the shoe, but I was able to get through the session. My other major concern had been whether the toes on my left foot would drag without the brace to lift them. They didn’t. Wearing the brace had apparently trained my brain to lift my toes with each stride. My ankle felt highly unstable, but I didn’t fall, and I was highly pleased at how much better my foot moved during the workout,

What I really enjoyed was how much easier squats were without a brace. With the brace, squats didn’t feel natural. Without it, my ankle was free to move because my foot was always planted firmly. Soon I was putting up so much weight that I wondered if my right leg was doing most of the work. To counteract this tendency, I decided to try doing lunges. This way, one foot was forward while the other was behind.

The first time I did lunges was draining. Every rep I did with my left leg forward, I felt like I would pass out. I switched and did a set with my right leg forward. My toes felt weird because they weren’t used to being in that position. I tried to drive my body upward with my foot. With my left leg in this new position, I could feel all of the muscles activate, from my calf to my glutes. As awkward as these workouts felt early on, over time, they were just what I needed to regain confidence and leg strength.

When I first started walking Mary, I would take her to the edge of the patio. Then I would sit at one of the tables and let her wander out onto the grass. I would venture out to pick up after her, but I was terrified of going out too far. I made it my goal to be able to walk Mary to the wall and go up the steps to the upper patio by the end of the year.

After six months of walking without a cane, working out without a brace, and doing lunges until I choked, I started walking up the steps forward and coming down backwards. I started walking Mary all over the backyard. By just going to the gym every week, and focusing on nothing but the specific set of each exercise,tiny steps had added up to my reaching every goal I’d set for myself in 2019, it was time to think about what I wanted to get out of my body next year.

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I was feeling really good about how strong my body seemed lately. My workouts were going extremely well; I was getting around town easily; I was even finding a reason to get out of my apartment each day. The only thing that wasn’t going according to plan is that I wasn’t staying awake all day. Contrary to my plan to stop taking afternoon naps upon returning home from Mississippi, I was still feeling sleepy after my daily trips to the gym. A year ago I had taken this as proof that my body was recovering; now it felt unnecessary.

One thing causing my sleeping problem was that my CPAP machine wasn’t working properly. The mask needed to be replaced; I had had it for over a year. Since it wasn’t adjustable, it was losing its elasticity. Where it had fit tightly over my nose before, it was allowing so much air in that I wasn’t sleeping comfortably. I would have to twist and turn in bed just to get the mask to stay on my face long enough to fall asleep. Inevitably, I would roll over at some time during the night, causing the mask to slip off and me to wake up gasping.

There was also a problem with the humidifier chamber. One day I had to pry it open its hatch to fill it with water.. After I finished filling it, it wouldn’t shut. It took me fifteen minutes to finally force it closed. It worked all night, but I had the same problem the next night. When Allene came to visit, she noticed that it was off its track. She realigned it so it would open and shut properly. It worked correctly after that, but that didn’t resolve my sleep issue. Luckily, I had made an appointment for a sleep consultation.

I took my CPAP machine as instructed so they could download its data. They soon called me back to the exam room and took my vitals. My weight was still in the mid 240s, but my blood pressure was exceptional. I revised my weight goal for the year to 240 lbs. By the end of 2020, I could easily bring it down to 230. With the amount of stationary biking I do at the gym, I really expect the doctors to put me on a less aggressive blood pressure regimen. Any additional weight loss and physical rehabilitation should be more manageable at that size and flexibility.

The doctor looked at my CPAP report and told me that the unit was working fine. His recommendation was to keep the machine set the same and get fresh supplies. An employee got me a new mask, filters, and humidifier chamber. I went home and took a nap that afternoon. I slept better than I had in a year. Over the next few nights and subsequent days, I slept as much as possible. My brain needed to recharge.

After sleeping most of the next two days, I started waking up refreshed, so I decided to start going to the gym again. This time when I went it was with even greater energy than I had found recently. Getting full nights of quality sleep meant that I no longer woke up feeling like my head was in a fog. I had often felt like climbing back into bed after letting Mary out; now once I was out of bed, I was up for the morning.

I would take a shower, then have a very modest breakfast. After eating, I would find that I had plenty of time before I had to go downstairs to wait for the bus. So I would normally sit on the couch and pet Mary for half an hour. Once I got on the bus, I would stretch my left arm by holding onto the bar. So by the time I hit the gym, my body was ready to go.

I was now warming up with thirty minutes on the stationary bike, then transitioning right into weightlifting. My leg was getting stronger, so I was partnering two heavy leg exercises every session. I started to notice that I was able to lift more weight each week. This translated into the ability to lift my left leg higher. Now when I walked, I almost never worried about falling. I concentrated lifting my left leg with my glutes and hamstring, flexing my calf, and stepping down with the heel. It was a lot to think about, but it meant that I was progressing along the path to recovery.

These workouts were so intense that they felt intoxicating. I would often set goals for weight and number of repetitions, then feel so pumped that I would exceed each. The more I lifted, the more I wanted to lift. I had come a long way over the last four years, but I still had a long way to go. As a result, I seldom saw the need to take it easy. So I usually rode home enjoying the fall colors of the city, but as soon as I got home, I would sleep a couple of hours.

Things were going really well for about two weeks. Then I started waking up with sniffles. The problem with having a runny nose while requiring a CPAP is that the mucus which would normally drain through the nose is forced back into one’s head. So I would spend all day gradually getting better only to place the CPAP mask over my nose and cause the congestion again. Now I had a dilemma. If I didn’t use the CPAP, I wouldn’t be able to breathe through the night. If I used the CPAP, I wouldn’t be able to breathe the next morning. I didn’t want to stop breathing for too long while I was asleep, so I opted to keep using the mask.

After a few days, the morning congestion started causing a sore throat. I decided that I would need to go to an urgent care soon. The only problem was that I didn’t know how long I might be there. If I took Metro Mobility, I would have to be ready to go at my predetermined time, otherwise the driver was required to leave without me. I could opt to take a taxi home, but I was low on cash and didn’t want to spend the money. I started calculating: If I go to the E. R. instead, maybe I can get my insurance company to pay for a taxi home. If I wait until my Medicare reimbursement check arrives, I can afford it outright.

I figured if I went to urgent care, they’d give me a couple of breathing treatments, then give me prescriptions for steroids and antibiotics. That was when I remembered that I owned my own nebulizer! I could give myself a few breathing treatments and hopefully not require a trip to a medical facility. So I called down to the assisted living and asked them to give me a breathing treatment. After ten minutes, my chest felt less congested. Since my breathing was still a bit labored, I asked for another. When the second one was done, I felt like moving again. I jumped in the shower for a few minutes and emerged feeling good as new.

Over the next three days, I would use my nebulizer three times a day. The congestion went away and I started to feel good again. I even went back to the gym a couple of days in a row. I didn’t work out as hard as normal; because I had recently been ill, I went about half speed. Then one night, I woke up with a stabbing earache. I knew exactly why: When I get respiratory infections that are only treated with steroids, I will respirate hard enough to blow the infection out of my airways. But it will gather in my ears and lead to an ear infection. Then I have to get antibiotics. I struggled through two nights until I had another visit scheduled with my ILS worker. Then I had him drive me to the emergency room.

When they took my vitals, not only was my blood pressure excellent, but I was down to 243 pounds. I had lost 15 pounds this year! This weight gain had started to feel permanent after the stroke. But then I had lost about 12 pounds through great effort. I had stagnated around 246. When that was my weight at the sleep consultation, I felt more disappointed than I like to admit. But now that I was only three pounds away from 240, my spirits were lifted again.

The physician’s assistant came and and examined my ear. She determined that I had an external ear infection. She wrote me a prescription for antibiotic ear drops. After two days of treatment, I felt good enough to go back to the gym. I was determined to lose the three pounds by the end of the year. And who knows what else the future holds?

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The last day Allene and Izzy were in town was an overcast day. When we took the dogs out, there was a chilly morning breeze. It reminded me of those days when winter starts whooshing in. We got the dogs back inside quickly so we could be comfortable again. Shortly after I had taken off my jacket, a neighbor at the door three-pack of beef jerky he’d promised to bring by for Mary. I thanked him sincerely. It never fails to amaze me how generous people are with Mary. At least once a week, someone stops by with a toy or treats for her

That afternoon, Allene and I went out for an early dinner at a popular Venezuelan restaurant . The place has a heated patio, and I wanted to sit there for the novelty of pretending to sit outdoors in Minnesota on a fall day. We ordered drinks and yucca fries for an appetizer. After we finished those, we ordered arepas for entrees. Allene wondered if we had ordered enough food. But I advised her that the arepas were deceptively filling.

We both enjoyed the understated kick of spicy pulled pork and black beans, surrounded by the turquoise light of the thin tent. The autumn air seemed dangerously close to the cozy dining area. Allene told me about what she was going to do with her next two paychecks. I told her about my plans to get and stay ahead of my expenses by the end of 2020. We had each faced unique challenges over the last decade, but on this early autumn afternoon, everything seemed possible.

The morning of Allene and Izzy’s depareture was sunny. It was so pleasant that I wanted to take Mary to the upper patio. This time, I tried to step up with proper form. It wasn’t difficult, but the farther I went, the more of a challenge it was. Nonetheless, I was determined to get all the way to the top one step at a time, always with the left leg first. The idea was to strengthen my hip with each step. Soon I arrived at the top of the steps. I was proud that I wasn’t even winded.

Mary was thrilled to be up there again. I went over and sat down at a table so she could explore. She ran all over, sniffing and trotting along. Allene had her digital camera, so she busied herself by taking pictures of the dogs and the skyline. Eventually it was time for Allene to get on the road back to Milwaukee. Going over to the steps, I turned to walk back down in reverse. With each step, I swung my leg backward and felt the step beneath me with my toes. Walking backwards was so much easier now I was regularly doing lunges. After we got to the bottom, Allene handed me my cane so we could go up to the apartment and bring down her things.

As we said goodbye, I felt much better about my rehabilitation. I told Allene that I would be physically healthy enough and financially able to come visit her next spring. If I was able to move my leg in every direction and control my foot better now, with four months of hard work, who knows what I could accomplish? I was dedicated to having an active fall and winter.

After suffering the stroke, one of the hardest things to get back was the feeling of control. I had to rely on other people to drive me everywhere. In addition to that, I also felt more vulnerable in public, because my eyes and body didn’t work as well as they needed to if I ever had to defend myself. To top that all off, I was never financially secure. So one of the biggest things about my recovery was regaining spatial awareness and just becoming comfortable with moving around in the world by myself.

Just as retraining the body to complete certain simple tasks requires exercising individual muscle groups before they can work together as a whole, I’d had to work on different aspects of moving and control before I truly felt comfortable handling myself in public. Obviously, exercise was a big thing. I focused primarily on building a strong left leg. Even with less control, if the muscles in the upper leg were strong, they would help me to balance. While I really wanted my arm to recover as well, I felt it was more important to establish the legs. If I was no longer worried about falling, I would feel more confident moving around the city.

Getting myself accustomed to going out and handling money was also a major part of my recovery. Before I started trying to go out regularly, I worried constantly about mishandling money and having things stolen from me. To counter these fears, I began going shopping at least once a week. For the first few months, I used my debit card for every purchase to avoid dropping my change. After a while, I began getting cash back from registers. I would save money to use in the laundry machines and use the rest to make smaller purchases. This allowed me to practice making cash transactions, but it also helped me to practice budgeting.

After over a year of purposeful work and managing my own shopping trips, I started to feel like I was mastering things. I would text message a shopping list to myself. When I got to the store, I would use a push cart so I could practice walking. When I was done, I would pay for and bag my own items. My left arm was even strong enough to hold the plastic bags, so I didn’t worry about losing what I’d bought. After a while, going out and doing things alone was just something I no longer gave a second thought.

I was getting stronger from all of the exercise. I was losing body fat on my sides as well; this meant that I was becoming more flexible. It occurred to me that I could improve my balance by walking around while carrying various objects on different parts of my body. Since the independent living department routinely did laundry and cooking me for me, I tried to bring food, laundry, and detergent back to my apartment in one trip.

I slung the laundry bag across my body, so the clothes were on my left hip. This would force my body to adjust to uneven weight. Next I put the laundry detergent in my left hand, forcing my hand to simultaneously open wider and still grip. Finally I grabbed my bag of food in my right hand. This effectively eliminated the use of my guide hand. I walked out of the assisted living office feeling tall and confident. As long as I walked steadily and with correct posture, I wouldn’t trip. This was one more way that my body would learn to right itself.

Now that I was becoming more comfortable moving around the city independently again, I wanted to be of service to other people. For years I had felt like the new person in town in the Midwest. It happened initially when I had begun college in northeastern Wisconsin in 1994. It continued when I moved to the Kansas City metro area in 2000. I moved to western Wisconsin in 2001 without knowing a soul. Then I finally found a place I liked enough to stay when I arrived in Minneapolis in 2002.

In all of these scenarios, I was walking into a social situation where I didn’t know more than a single person. These people typically didn’t go out as much as I liked to. If they had comparable social needs to mine, they were all largely being met. They had their social lives, and I didn’t want to feel like a parasite. I had also been looking for a job most times I landed in a new area. My hosts would already be working, so I had to map out job searches and learn about job markets by myself. Socially and professionally, I felt as though I was building everything from the ground up. Having been through that several times, I vowed that I would always try to be an indispensable resource when others were new in town.

My first opportunity actually took place over a period of about three years. I met Lacey and her family the year after my stroke. We originally met on Facebook, then in person a few months later. Lacey and her husband had a toddler. It was actually their plan to move to Minnesota by the time she started grade school. They already had relatives in the area, so I didn’t think they would need any help from me to get started. Nonetheless, I told them that we should get together after they moved up.

I moved back in 2016. By 2018, I was teasing Lacey about how she was never moving out of Mississippi. The one afternoon in September of 2019, I saw where she mentioned having moved to Saint Paul. Although I was on vacation at the time, I told her that we should get together after I got back. We all met at the top rated Indian restaurant in the metro area. Lacey brought several family members, including one who has lived here for decades. Everyone there was originally from Mississippi. We reminisced about home, but we were all happy to be gone. It was such a good time that we talked about getting a Mississippi group together for Christmas or New Year’s.

My next opportunity came with Nick, someone I also knew from Mississippi Facebook groups. He and his significant other, Kricket, moved to south Minneapolis, less than two miles from me. Because of their location, I had them meet me at my favorite tacquerɨa. When we met, they told me all about how they loved living in Minnesota.

I began telling them of all the places they could get to by taking the 21 bus – to Workforce, to get a state ID, to get to Uptown for jobs in the hospitality industry. Running perpendicular to it was the light rail. It could take you all the way to Mall of America, if you were looking to work retail. If Nick wanted to meet me on a weekday, I could show him where to bank or apply for state health benefits.

We had a great conversation and even better Mexican food. The more time I spent teaching them how to get certain services in the area, the more I heard myself in the third person. I was listening to someone who no longer worried about transportation, security, or independence.

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My last month of travel and social outings had gone better than I expected. My leg strength had improved so much that I never fell. I could routinely lift it so high that I no longer dragged my foot constantly. When I did drag my foot, it was due to absent-mindedness. I might stumble, but I would always recover before I fell. Not dragging my foot also meant that I was more energetic. When you drag your foot, it generates a lot of friction. The force needed to move it forward expends a lot of energy. Without having to put in nearly as much effort, I found that walking no longer tired me out.

Not only did this allow me to stay out longer and enjoy myself more, but it also made my time in the gym more productive. Not having to put forth so much energy walking from one workout station to another meant that I had more in reserve when it was time to lift. I was excited about engaging in more intense workouts. I didn’t increase the weight for any of my workouts during September because I didn’t want to risk injury while on vacation. But now that I was back, I was more than ready to attack the weights.

Being back in Minnesota after a month meant that I could go back to my favorite gym. I was so happy to be able to do lying leg curls after a month away from the exercise. When I had started doing them two years ago, I could barely do one set of ten. Over the years, I had gradually worked my way up to the point where I could grind out three sets. Now that I was back, I felt my leg go up a little higher. My hamstring felt so strong that I was able to push out a fourth set. Now when I’m sitting down, I will practice extending my leg and pulling it backward.

I started doing more weight on the leg press, too. Before and during my vacation, I had only worked out pushing the weight of the empty sled. This time, I only warmed up with the weight of the sled. After my warm up set, I added ten pounds and did two working sets. This went so well that I added ten more pounds and did two more sets. I committed to this exercise two days per week. I figure that I can go up ten pounds each week. Even if I don’t gain a lot more control of my lower leg, this should definitely improve strength and stability.

The last major modification I made to my workout was to add time on a row machine to my rotation. Like the one in Mississippi, my club here had a machine that placed the weight at one’s feet. But unlike Mississippi, this row machine had an elevated platform. Rather than being flat on the floor, the feet are at an angle. This adds a greater degree of difficulty since it requires the use of many more leg muscles to balance one’s body. The first day I used this row machine, I spent a lot of energy just trying to keep from falling off the machine. But I committed to using it every day I went down to the gym. It would force me to use leg muscles that had gone dormant.

Mary has always been on a health plan. When she was a puppy, she was on a specialized puppy plan. After she matured, she rolled over to an adult plan. Then when she had her summer check-up, I asked about dental coverage. They told me that it would be $300 for a teeth cleaning; but if I added it to the plan, the upgrade would only be $13/month. No matter what my health or financial status, I always wanted Mary to be healthy, so the upgrade was a no-brainer.

I was due a dental exam and cleaning, so I scheduled appointments for Mary and me on the same day. I asked my friend Rob to rent a car. We dropped off Mary at the vet, then I went home and got ready for my visit to the dentist’s office.

When I got to the dental office, I had to fill out new patient paperwork. Because of my double vision and my fingers, I hadn’t filled out forms by myself. There was usually someone else there with me. Since there was no one else there, I took the clipboard from the receptionist and resolved to fill it out by myself. I sat down, balanced the clipboard on my lap, squinted my right eye, and began writing down my answers. It was a little difficult to make sure all my answers were on the correct line, but soon I was finished. When I was done, I handed in my form and waited for my name.

The cleaning went well. The staff were pleasant and efficient. They were obliging, even pausing to take pictures for my blog. I normally make my dental appointments by calling the insurance company and asking for a list of providers. This time, I think I have found someone I want to keep coming back to.

I wanted to pick Mary up around noon, but the vet had informed me that, because they would have to sedate her, she wouldn’t be ready to go until after 5:00 pm. Instead, I got dinner and wasted time until 6:00. Mary was still a little woozy when we picked her up. Rob had to lift her up and place her in the truck. After we got home, I took her out to use the restroom. When she was done, we came back up and sat on the couch.

Before I went home, I had committed to leaving the building at least once per day. I’d felt that amount of activity was important for my rehabilitation. But I would often find myself napping after workouts. Now that I was back, I wanted to rebuild my energy. My plan was to do this by trying to stay active all day, forgoing naps. I might be tired at first, but I would ultimately be walking around with more energy.Today had been long and productive. I let Mary stretch out across my lap. We were both on the path to healthy futures.

The following week, my friend Allene came back to visit. I was happy to have the company for a few days, but Mary was even more delighted. Whenever a human comes into my apartment, Mary’s energy goes up. She dances around in circles, then climbs all over the person. If I can get Mary to sit still long enough, I try to get a few pictures. It usually doesn’t work out, but it’s satisfying just to see how happy she gets.

After a brief shopping trip, Allene and I returned to the apartment with another surprise for Mary: Izzy, Allene’s dog. Mary hadn’t seen Izzy in over two years. Once roommates, they sniffed each other before Mary was ready to play Tag! Izzy, being older, played a little, but had no interest in wild play.

The next morning, Allene and I went out for a short workout. I didn’t need to spend all day in the gym; I just wanted my body to get used to moving all day without a nap. I did one explosive movement for the upper and lower body respectively, while book ending the session with a fat-burning cardio workout designed to get the metabolism moving. A lot of days, I might have felt disappointed that I didn’t workout to muscle failure, but I reminded myself that getting the muscles moving is a victory in itself.

When we were done at the gym, we went home and took the dogs outside. This was one of Izzy’s first times in an elevator. Each time she had to get on, she took her own leash in her mouth and dragged her feet in an attempt to stall. Once inside the elevator, she would lean against the wall or Allene’s leg. I can only assume that the swaying of the room caused her a great amount of anxiety. Mary had been riding elevators since she was two years old, and now rides this one an average of six times a day. For her, it’s just a routine part of life.

Once they were outside, Mary tried to chase Izzy and play. Izzy didn’t like the chilly weather. She used the restroom and hustled back indoors. Mary and I followed, as we had the keys to the apartment. Once she was warm again, Izzy was ready to play. She charged and boxed with Mary. This was what I wanted to see. Until I can begin taking Mary to the dog park again, I want to make sure that Mary has all the opportunities she can get.

Allene and I went out to dinner in the south metro area that evening. Unlike the days when we were broke, we looked at the menu and didn’t need to calculate how much anything would cost. As we laughed and reminisced through a long dinner, I told her about how it used to take me several attempts to stand up from the table after dinner. When we were done this time, I stood up with barely any assistance from my right arm. I walked out into the cold Minnesota night without a care. It had been a long, arduous journey to this point, but every step seemed effortless now.

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Having a stroke at a time when I was working two jobs spelled a drastic change in income. It meant going from a position of always having disposable income to one where I was constantly having to choose between food, transportation, and having a social life. I would go grocery shopping as soon as I received my disability payment. I would try to keep the bill under $100, since I was simply trying to supplement my Meals on Wheels. The $75 monthly metro Go-To card was good for around two or three weeks’ worth of rides. This constantly left me worrying about money the last half of the month.

Over the past three years, I had found ways to cut some of these expenses. For one thing, the county assigned someone to help me with basic tasks like cleaning, showering, cooking, and dressing. I taught myself how to do these things for myself during my first year back. So I was able to use these hours for transportation needs. This eliminated my out of pocket costs to go places.

Since I wasn’t driving my car, I sold it in December of 2018. I took the down payment and paid my rent and phone one month in advance. I set up the sale for three additional installments. With these payments, I was able to stay comfortable, though it inevitable that my expenses would catch up with me. But because I really wanted to make it to the semi-annual family get together, I bought my ticket and trusted that something would work out.

A month before my vacation, I had to go to the county services office to drop off paperwork for my medical insurance. While I was there, a clerk asked whether I had been receiving my Medicare reimbursement checks. When I told her that I didn’t know what she was referring to, she explained that, because I was paying for a Minnesota insurance plan, Hennepin County would reimburse me every month for the amount Medicare was withholding from my disability payment. I asked her if I could get any retroactive repayment. She told me that she could probably do that. Now I felt pretty confident. I could enjoy my vacation, confident that there would be a check or two waiting when I returned.

My return flights went smoothly. I got everywhere I needed to go early and safely. When I landed in Minneapolis, I waited for the other passengers to exit the plane before I did. Then a wheelchair agent sped me to baggage claim, where we discovered that my luggage was still on the ground in Dallas. This might have upset me in the past, but I was at ease. I went out to the curb to wait for my ride. Although my CPAP machine was still in Dallas, I slept more peacefully than I had in years.

The next morning, I began the process of getting everything back to normal. The first thing I did was get up and check the mail. The Medicare reimbursement checks from Hennepin County were there. Not wanting to risk disaster, I tucked both checks inside my wallet. I went immediately back to my apartment, where I got dressed, called a cab, and went directly to the bank to deposit the checks.

After I came home from the bank, I called up to the dog sitter on the fifth floor and made arrangements for him to bring Mary home. An hour later, he walked into my apartment with her, and she bolted towards me, licking and rollingall over me. It was so genuine and unabashed. I felt so loved. Whenever I am going to be out of town, I ltry to lessen her anxiety by leaving her with someone who will do a lot more with her than I’m able to. But it’s always rewarding when she shows me how much she missed me.

To help with the transition, I left Mary’s travel crate in the middle of the floor. I left it open with her toys inside. She was free to come and go as she pleased. I wanted her to realize that she had her own space. This was her home and she should feel comfortable. It would reassure her that everything around her was stable. This was probably more about my guilt, but showing consideration doesn’t harm anyone.

Taking care of Mary and me had been a struggle for me since I had moved back to Minneapolis. Whenever I went out or ordered food for delivery, I had constantly worried about whether all the money would run out before the end of the month. Now I was in the position where I no longer had to worry about money. If I so desired, every penny for the next three months was disposable. I would work to get farther ahead, but I didn’t have to. I felt so relaxed.

I decided to take myself out for sushi. My favorite Japanese restaurant in the area would open for happy hour at 5:00. I called a cab and timed it to get me there after they were open. I ordered several rolls and sake, satisfied that I easily had enough cash or credit to order whatever I wanted. The most difficult part of the evening would be walking up and down the steps to the restaurant’s door, which tapered in a way that presented challenges in aligning my feet. When it was time, I stepped carefully up and into the restaurant without an issue. I was walking into a new realm in the journey of my recovery.

That weekend, the Nerds of Color were getting together at Mall of America to see the movie, Joker. I’m not a big fan of the Batman franchise or its related characters. However, I wanted to keep pushing my recovery. Going to a movie at the mall would mean that I would have to do a lot of walking. It would also entail having to search and navigate new terrain, since I had never had to go through the valet entrance. I would also be challenged to practice speaking and scanning with my eyes.

I called Metro Mobility and told them what time the movie started. I agreed to have them drop me off about half an hour early, but after thinking about it, I realized that this might cause me to be late for the movie. Since I had no idea how to get from the bus to the theatre, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off two hours before showtime. That would give me plenty of time to get lost or to stop and rest while still getting to the cinema on time.

When Saturday came around, I went down to the lobby to catch the bus. When it arrived, I told the driver that I had never taken Metro Mobility to the mall and that I didn’t know the way to the entrance. He calmed my fears, reminding me that he would be walking me to the entrance. If he got me safely inside the mall, I could wander around safely until I found the cinema. The bus got me there even earlier than I had planned. I had to walk over a hundred yards to get to the front door. This would have felt daunting before, but now that I was no longer dragging my left foot, I made good time.

Once inside, I saw the courtesy desk where they rent out wheelchairs. The last time I had been to the mall, I had rented one. Not only did I not require one today, but I was also unescorted. I asked the security officer where the nearest elevator was. He pointed to it, noting that it only went up to the third floor. Once there, I would need to walk to an elevator that could take me to the top floor.

I arrived at the third floor food court. It was massive, and I had no inkling where the elevator might be. I scanned the room, feeling helpless, before finally deciding to just start walking toward the restrooms. When I made it to the restrooms, I saw a custodian. I asked her where the elevator to the fourth floor was. She seemed to point me to somewhere at the edge of the food court. After several minutes, I made it where I thought she had been pointing. The door did not lead to an elevator. I wanted to cry. But soon the same custodian appeared and pointed down the hall. “It’s on around there.”

Now I had to walk down a long walkway, past several stores. This would have worn me out a few months ago, but I was in better shape and I was determined. I was very slow, but soon I arrived at a corner with escalators. I asked a worker in one of the stores where the elevators to the top floor was. He directed me down another corridor, but I recognized now that he meant the main elevators. I remembered what they looked like from visits years before my stroke, but I didn’t know I was so far away from them.

I took a deep breath and made my way in the direction of the main elevators. It didn’t seem nearly as far now that I knew exactly where I was going. Before long, the massive glass elevators came into view. I walked up to them felling triumphant. I pushed the UP button. It seemed to take forever to finally arrive. When I got to the top floor, I followed the signs for the cinema, around three turns and down several long corridors. And it was here that I finally started to feel a little tired. It just seemed like I would never get there.

Then I finally saw the theatre counters. I needed to sit down, but there were no seats. I had paid for my ticket through someone else, so I worried that I wouldn’t be able to go in and sit down. I walked up to the counter and asked the attendant if there was somewhere I could sit until my party arrived. He told me to just go right in.

The cinema was very fancy. There was a bar that stocked everything. I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was still 90 minutes before the start of the movie. I ordered a beer because I hate sitting somewhere and just taking up space. I didn’t have to worry about the price of the beer. Money was no longer my primary concern. I couldn’t believe how quickly I had made it there, either. I was entering a new phase in life – one where I wouldn’t be obsessed with time, endurance, or money.

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My time back in Mississippi had been devoted to working out and walking around with family. I typically gain weight any time I visit the Deep South. With all of the rich culinary delights, it’s hard not to. Before the stroke, I would lose about ten pounds before my annual trip home, knowing that I would add them back during the two weeks I was down there. I loved the fried catfish, crawfish, and oysters that seemed pretty ubiquitous, and I would always return to Minnesota with the waistline to reflect that. You just couldn’t often get that kind of seafood in the Upper Midwest.

Dad enjoys cafeteria-style dining. So when Sharon and Ivory came down the following weekend, we all went out to one of Dad’s favorite restaurants. The last time I had eaten here was two years ago, during the period where I was newly out of the hospital and still in a wheelchair. One person had had to push me through the cafeteria line while another pushed my food tray. I felt powerless having to look up and point at the food I wanted. I didn’t want to be a burden.

Presently, I had the leg strength to stand in line until the restaurant closed. It was empowering to look down at the arrayed food and clearly tell the staff what I wanted. When they handed the plates across, I was able to take them myself. I switched my cane to my right hand so I could push my own tray along the line as I headed toward the register. It sounds trivial to me as I write this, but there are no adequate words to express how humbling not being able to walk and push my own tray had been. Whatever I was feeling now was the opposite of humiliation.

That same week, I had gotten sick. I had begun developing a cough. I wasn’t coughing up anything, but it was constant enough to hinder my sleep. Since it also seemed worse when I slept, I asked Dad to help me sterilize my CPAP mask and tubing, and buy some cold & cough medicine. Finally, I decided to take some time away from the gym to rest. None of this seemed to help much, so on Saturday, I had Dad drive me to urgent care.

When we arrived at the clinic, Dad asked me if I wanted him to drop me off at the front door. I said no. Despite the fact that I was sick, I knew that walking across the lot would be easy. When I got to the front desk to check in, one of the employees recognized me immediately. She exclaimed over how good I looked, because I hadn’t been able to walk very well the last time I was there. When I got back to see the doctor, I told him that it was probably the annual lung infection that I get every fall. With the difference in climate, it probably happened a bit sooner. It’s normally resolved by a breathing treatment and a prescription for steroids and antibiotics.

I told the doctor that a shot was preferable to an oral 5-day script. So when the nurse came back, I started pumping my right fist to produce a visible vein. Then she asked me to stand up.

“Why do you need me to stand?”

“’Cause I gotta shoot you in the butt.”

I had assumed it was going to be in the arm. The last time I had been shot in the butt, I’d experienced pain and stiffness for a couple of days.

Dad and I checked out of the clinic and went to the pharmacy. As they handed me my prescriptions, I thought of why I was so thankful to be living in Minneapolis again: the office visit and pharmacy bill cost me zero dollars. When I had been a Mississippi resident, the whole affair cost me $200 The affordable health care, along with free gym memberships and free rides from the county made it easy to keep advancing my recovery. Peace of mind helped me concentrate on daily commitment to rehabilitation. I went home, took my first dose of pills, took a long nap, and dreamed about working out again.

Because my brothers decided to come back to town a second time, I wasn’t able to go to the coast for the final weekend of my vacation. As a result, I couldn’t meet up with a lot of my friends. My friend Marcus and his wife Fontreia did come up to have dinner with me on Sunday. I had only met Fontreia once, the last time I was in town. They were just dating at the time, but they had married during the past year. I was looking forward to seeing them again.

They picked me up at my Dad’s house. Coming down the steps and walking the length of the driveway was simple now that I could lift my foot easily. Getting into the car and walking into the restaurant was simple. We ate at my favorite New Orleans style restaurant in Jackson. I ordered the oyster po-boy with remoulade and tabasco sauces. We also ordered drinks and an assortment of appetizers. The food and drinks were perfect – an ideal dining experienced for my last night out.

Fontreia and Marcus are an interracial couple. They know several people who harbor prejudices about other races and them as a couple. However, they are both grounded, educated individuals who have cultivated a welcoming community of like-minded people. We spent the evening discussing topics as varied as politics, race, faith, and atheism. Fontreia remarked at how much healthier I looked. I told her how different benefits in Hennepin County accommodated my rehabilitation needs. Marcus has lived in Chicago before; we tried to convince Fontreia that visiting Minnesota during the snowy months really wouldn’t be that bad.

We laughed and talked for about two hours. Just like with the other outings, it felt good to be energetic and fully engaged. We drove home talking about the next time we could get together. I walked back up the steps, went to my bedroom, and fell asleep immediately. I love how I don’t realize how tired I am until I arrive at home later. Physical fitness and high spirits allow me to thoroughly enjoy the moments with loved ones.

The next day was Monday. Since I was feeling fairly healthy again, I decided to make it my last workout in Mississippi. I did a generous amount of time on the stationary bike and followed that up with fifteen minutes on the hand bike. All of this gave me a good amount of cardio, so I was breathing more freely than I had in a week. With this increased oxygenation I had the energy to get a great workout session in. I did a couple of leg strengthening exercises, and I even added some back exercises with the purpose of stretching my left shoulder. When I finally walked out, I was ready to travel again. I was looking forward to getting more muscle relaxant injections in a week.

I spent Tuesday packing my suitcase slowly so that I could make sure I was ready to go. The next day, I got up early so I could eat, buy souvenirs, and leave Jackson by 11:00 am. That would get me to New Orleans three hours before my flight took off. Dad thought that was far too soon, but I wanted to make sure that we could make it on time, even if we encountered the unforeseen problems.

We made good time, and by noon, we were already at the Louisiana state line. We stopped at the welcome center to use the restroom. The last time I had stopped at this welcome center, I was still using the wheelchair. My brother had wheeled me up to the sculpture of the state map so I could take pictures. Proud of my continued progress, I walked over to it again. It felt like I had struggled a lifetime to get to this point. A journey of years had led to this confident series of steps.

By the time we made it to the airport, it was still hours before my d timeeparture. We checked in at curbside. The agent told me to wait on a nearby bench so they could have someone bring out a wheelchair (at this point, the only time I take a wheelchair is so I can speed through airports). So Dad and I sat down and chatted about how much fun the visit had been. I told him how much confidence I now had about traveling by myself. Next year, I would no longer need a cane to walk outdoors, either. We said our goodbyes before I turned to go into the airport.

Going through security was pretty automatic by now. I slipped off my belt and shoes. The agents told me that I could keep my leg brace on, but I told them that it was to slippery for walking without a shoe. So I sent the brace through the x-ray machine. They were skeptical about my ability to hold my left hand above my head, but I assured them that it was no problem. I walked into the full body scanner and held my arms high above my head.

The agent helped me get dressed and sped me to my terminal. Once we got there, I told him that I wanted to eat – local cuisine, if he could help it. He advised me that there was a Copeland’s in the terminal “Perfect.” When we arrived at Copeland’s, I got out of the wheelchair, placed my order, and stood in line. Even though I was indoors, I was still sweating. It would feel like autumn when I was back in Minneapolis in a few hours. My shrimp po-boy was up before long. I sat back down in my wheelchair and found an agent to push me to my gate.

I made it to my gate with almost two hours to spare. Getting out of the wheelchair, I sat in a regular seat again. I closed my eyes and bit into the sandwich. This was the last time I would be able to eat in New Orleans for months. I finished eating and waited for them to call my name for early boarding.

When they called my name, I got up to walk down the jet way. The gate agent asked if I wanted a wheelchair. Again I refused it. I walked down to the plane and found my seat. Once there, I placed my cane in the overhead compartment and sat down. I held onto my seat belt with my left hand and pulled the buckle end across my lap. Now that I was safely strapped in, I stared out the window and waited to return to my life.

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I woke up the Sunday morning after a full weekend with my family. I had walked so much and visited several historic places, and I had done it all without stumbling or growing tired. I had wanted to start my day with a workout before getting together with my brothers and their wives one last time. I asked my dad what time he would be going to mass in the morning, but before he answered, I realized that I was being overzealous. I would have to come home, jump in the shower, and get ready to go out and meet them for lunch. Rather than put Dad through all that, I might as well sleep in and have a leisurely day.

We met up at a restaurant on the northern edge of town. It had occurred to me to have lunch there so Sharon and Ivory could jump right on the interstate and head back to Saint Louis. I was so happy to be surrounded by everyone and thrilled to have more than enough money in my checking account to cover my expenses for the entire vacation. Since my stroke, I had sometimes been short for money when we got together. Living mostly on disability insurance meant that I might require help covering my portion of the bill. My family were helpful and weren’t condescending about it, but I still felt like a charity case.

I had paid enough of my bills in advance, plus I was expecting to have two Medicare reimbursement checks waiting for me once I got home, so I could just enjoy myself without worrying about how I would afford next month’s bills. I had even timed my return flight to coincide with the date of my September disability payment. That way, I could afford baggage fees, meals, and a taxi home from the airport even if I had managed to spend all the money in my account during vacation. That wasn’t the plan, but the feeling was liberating.

Now as we sat around the table, I listened to them talk about travel plans and when they could visit one another again. I wanted to be in a position where I didn’t have to plan my trips so meticulously. My goal was to be three months ahead of all bills by the end of 2019 and six months ahead by the end of 2020. It would require a lot more fiscal discipline, but once I was at that status, it would feel like I was living a comfortable retirement. I could easily afford a flight to Mississippi, Missouri, or Texas any month I felt like it.

I had been watching Dad play with Parker for three days now, She adored her grandfather. She was friendly with me, but I felt like I owed it to her to visit at least twice a year. It could be like when my brothers and me were growing up: we didn’t see Mama’s side of the family that often. But we saw them regularly, and it was always magical.

The next morning, it was back to business as usual. I got up early and had Dad drive me to the gym. By the time I got there, I was still feeling a little tired. I jumped on a stationary bike and started pedaling to wake myself up. I didn’t care for the bikes at this location. They weren’t comfortable to sit on, so it was a chore to ride for twenty minutes on a good day. But if I made it to five minutes, I could push myself to go to ten minutes. If I was feeling good after ten minutes, fifteen and twenty minutes were pretty easy.

I made it to ten minutes, but I was still feeling a little tired. I wasn’t ready to start lifting weights yet, but I wanted to find a new machine to work out on. There was a hand bike at this location. Although I had used the hand bike in almost every occupational therapy program in the last four years, there hadn’t been one at any of the fitness clubs I belonged to. But the last time I was here, I had seen one and planned to factor it into my workouts.

In therapy, the hand bike had been hard for me. My left shoulder hurt every time my arm was extended, and it was hard to maintain momentum because it was hard for my left arm to keep up with my right arm. The whole affair had felt like a battle. This time, I experienced no pain. I cranked up the resistance, expecting to at least have a difficult time maintaining rhythm with my left arm.

But hand bike was easy. With greater mobility in my arm and shoulder, every revolution was natural. My left arm could extend my farther, and I could even feel a little activation in my triceps. The last time I’d attempted this exercise, it was all I could do to make it to five minutes. This time was so much easier. I turned up the volume on the video I was listening to and tried not to look at the clock. Before I knew it, I was at ten minutes. After I hit fifteen minutes, I stopped and sat back, breathing hard. I was proud of myself.

I was motivated now, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I began setting up for lunges, as setting up a workout station down to the centimeter has always been one way I focus on days when I feel out of it. After setting up, I slid into place to begin. Right as I was about to start, I heard someone call my name. I looked around to see my friend Keri. She greeted me warmly, not having seen me since before I moved back to Minnesota three years ago. She told me how proud she was of all my progress.

Seeing Keri was just the motivation I needed. It no longer felt like an anonymous workout. Now it felt like someone was watching me. I banged out three sets of lunges on each leg. After that, I went on to do two more leg exercises and two upper body ones. It ended up being the second best workout of my trip. By the time I was finished, my energy was up. Keri came over and found me while I was seated at a table, waiting for Dad. I was happy to tell her how much more the workouts meant when I people were cheering for me.

I was going to be home for three weeks, so a lot of my visit would be learning how to do home chores again. Sure, it might seem mundane, but these were things I hadn’t wanted to spend time doing in occupational therapy. Since the assisted living staff normally did my laundry at home, I decided to do it myself while on vacation. I didn’t have a laundry bag in Mississippi, so I had to carry it in a plastic basket. This had been too difficult for me to carry in the past; I’d needed to walk with my cane, so I couldn’t simultaneously hold it in my right hand.

Now that I had been doing so much leg work, I just decided to carry the basket with one hand. I picked it up, surprised at how light it was. Not wanting to trip, I walked slowly. It didn’t take me long at all to get to the laundry room. From that point, it was a simple task. Bending down and reaching my clothes was no different than picking up after Mary each day.

A day or two later, I was eating burgers with very finely chopped onions. No matter how carefully I ate, a few fell on the floor. Ordinarily, I would have asked someone else to clean up the mess for me. But I stopped, remembering that this was going to be a trip where I reestablished a lot of my independence. I asked my dad to get the vacuum for me. He plugged it in and brought it over, ready to vacuum up the onions. I told him that I wanted to do it myself.

It was a one-handed task. Balancing was easy, I ran the machine back and forth, confident that I could put weight through either leg because I could move and reset either foot without much effort. The lunges had made me feel a lot more comfortable putting my legs in various positions without worrying about losing balance. The task was so easy that, after I got all of the onions up, I felt like I wanted to run the machine for another hour.

One thing I wasn’t able to do was take my pills on my own. I hadn’t brought a pill planner, nor was I able to open all the bottles. Opening the smaller bottles wasn’t hard, but the large ones were a challenge. I couldn’t grip the lid with my right hand, and I couldn’t grip the bottle with my left hand. I tried turning it either way; I braced it against the bed; I tried to grip it with a towel. Nothing seemed to work in helping me open the pills. It reminded me of the day I had the stroke. I kept trying to twist it off, but it only spun around and around in my left palm. It was so disheartening.

Then one afternoon while Dad was napping, I decided to try one more time, I gripped the pill bottle in my left hand, then tried twisting off the lid with my right hand. Again, the bottle just spun. So I turned the bottle upside down. Pressing the lid against my palm, I pushed down on the bottom of the bottle and twisted hard. I felt the lid click and twist off. My relief was boundless. I was quickly moving toward the point where I would be living completely independently again.

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Our road trip through the Delta had felt like a journey through epic times. We would enjoy a family get together in town the next day. My father’s only living sister, Aunt Ruth, came down from Memphis on Sunday. Her son Emmett had driven along with his lady friend. We all met at Dad’s house then settled on lunch at a Mexican restaurant near downtown.

During our meal, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had been at a large family gathering and had really felt like interacting again. I had struggled just to drag myself to a chair the last couple of times we were together. My strategy for those meals had been to find a table relatively close to the restroom, hunker down, and try to get through the meal without having to go more than once. I would be tired from dragging my left foot by the time I sat down, and talking was even more of a labor. I had enjoyed the idea of dining out with family, but it was constant work and only made me feel slightly less alone.

Going out to eat with family was now fun again. I didn’t need them to park right next to the entrance or help me up the steps. When we got inside, we had such a large party that our table was very close to some of the booths. It felt amazing to be able to tiptoe in and out of narrow spaces that would have been impossible one or two years ago. I laugh and joked, happy that I could project my voice or even keep up with the rate of conversation. Gone were the days when I would have to take in a gulp of air at the beginning of every sentence then listen as other people impatiently finished my sentence for me.

At the end of dinner, I asked Aunt Ruth if she could take a picture of the table with my phone, since she was on the end. She wasn’t able to get the perspective with herself in the shot. So I got up, walked to end of the table, and took a selfie so you could see everyone behind me. I purposefully didn’t try to get everyone’s attention. I wanted to get a more spontaneous looking shot. Some people are eating; some have their backs turned; others are talking; only a few have looked up and paused for the camera.

I feel like this communicates the ease with which I was moving that day. I was in the middle of eating when I stopped to snap a picture. Without grabbing my cane, I stood up, sidled past Aunt Ruth’s chair, walked in front of the table, spun and clicked. It didn’t require planning my movements to avoid a fall. I performed all the calculations in my head so quickly that I didn’t distract most of the family from their activities. In the picture, it almost looks like I “photo bombed” in. Like I had the speed and balance to just dart into someone else’s family photo. It only looks so effortless because of years of grinding work.

After we finished eating, we stood around outside trying to figure out what to do next. Since he hadn’t been there before, Jonathan suggested that we go to the civil rights museum. I had gone when it opened two years ago, but I had required a wheelchair to get through it. Back then, I had only been lifting weights for a few months. I could walk, but my legs had been too weak to get through the museum on my feet. I had vowed to walk all the way through the museum the next time I went. This was my chance.

We had to walk several hundred feet to get from our vehicles to the museum. Everyone else walked at a normal pace to get inside from the heat. I walked the majority of the way alone. I had just shaved my head the previous day, so sweat ran into my eyes. Every minutes or so, I had to stop and wipe my face. Walking didn’t tire me out; it just annoyed me how slow I was getting to my destination. The best method was to look down and concentrate on something that could take my mind off the task at hand.

As the security officer swung open the door to let me inside, cool air hit me in the face. It was wonderful. Because Dad was a member of the museum, we got free admission. They brought me a wheelchair, but I refused it. Dad told me that I might need it in order to keep up with the group. So I reluctantly agreed to take it.

As we went past the first exhibits, I listened to Dad telling everyone about it and realized how natural he was as our guide. I have a degree in history and can describe the times and concepts just as well, but you could definitely tell how adept he was from years of lecturing in the classroom. He walked back and forth, pointing and gesticulating. He would pause or emphasize his points in ways that conveyed the most important information.

After we had stopped three times in the first exhibit, I decided that keeping up with the group was not going to be a problem. I asked Jonathan to hold my wheelchair in place. I stood up and balanced with my cane, allowing the expected jolt of involuntary tone to temporarily straighten my leg. After the surge, I was able to start walking. I strolled slowly, letting the other pass me so they could hear Dad. I had been here before and was capable of guiding myself. I wanted to have time to linger and take individual photos of certain exhibits. I could easily catch up with the group if I lagged too far behind.

Whenever I visit a really good museum, I struggle with which part to tell my readers about. I love taking pictures of the larger, more striking displays. While I thoroughly enjoy communicating my awe, I am leery of my tendency to say too much. I want the visitor to the museum to still have opportunities for surprise. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is no different. I could spend an eight-hour day there and never run out of things to read. So I think any description will just add to the reader’s enjoyment.

Upon turning the first corner in the museum, the visitor sees a series of immense black panels. They are made of glass and chronicle the names of hundreds of lynching victims. The first time I saw these obsidian hanging scrolls, there were so many in the room that I didn’t even notice that there were also two behind me. The scrolls bear testament to the scores and scores of people who died at the hands of hateful men determined to stop progress. They could not stop freedom’s sun from rising.

This time I noticed that there were several smaller panels scattered throughout the museum. One titled “RACIALLY MOTIVATED KILLINGS” was divided by years Scanning 1955, I located the name, Emmett Louis Till. This adolescent boy was tortured and killed by white men for the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman. The obvious “real” transgression was not respecting the color line. “That boy don’t know his place” was a charge that could get any black man killed in the segregated South. A careless faux pas was often something that the tenuous white power structure would not brook.

It is nearly impossible to fathom what these people endured. It must have been sheer terror knowing how arbitrary the rules of segregation could be, yet they were enforced swiftly and often with deadly consequences. It was in this stifling environment that African Americans finally reached the limits of acquiescence. The murder of the youth inspired a wave of defiance among black Mississippians that helped to usher in the modern day civil rights movements.

One of the things that seem present in every civil rights museum is the segregated schoolhouse. There are scale models of “White” and “Colored” classrooms juxtaposed to show the disparities. Many people can convince themselves that Separate But Equal wasn’t really that unfair. But exhibits like these show in graphic detail the material differences between what each set of students had to deal with.

There are other factors that hinder a student’s ability to learn: Did she have anything to eat this morning? Did he have to come to school in the winter with no socks? Is one parent incarcerated? Now imagine upon making it to class under these conditions – often byproducts of segregation themselves – and having inadequate learning materials and a crumbling building. Sure, a motivated student can learn under stark conditions. But a child living in the wealthiest society on earth shouldn’t be asked to – certainly not when there is a demonstrable ability to build a proper school for white children in the same county.

A couple of rooms away there is a mock up of a jail cell. This is often the destination of civil rights demonstrators. The walls are littered with the mugshots of many students the state of Mississippi rounded up and housed like livestock. Segregation was enforced so strictly that when extrajudicial lynchings didn’t work to intimidate people out of demanding change, the power of the state could be brought to bear down on them.

Whether in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum or here in Mississippi, these jail cells communicate to me in powerful ways. I will sit in the shadows and contemplate that long line of ancestors stretching all the way back to slavery. Whether they resisted with arms or performed the far less lauded task of ensuring that their descendants would survive. It is because of them that I can walk the earth a free man. I am forever in their debt.

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