I landed back in Minnesota around 11:00 am on the last Friday in 2017. After over a month in the warmth of Mississippi, I was returning to a real winter. When I had left in November, I hadn’t even needed a winter coat. I returned to a string of days where the high was below 0º. My friend Willa picked me up from the airport, and my first order of business was to get into a heavy coat.
As usual, I had to wait for all of the other passengers to exit the aircraft. Then I handed my backpack to a flight attendant so I could walk to the front of the plane by steadying myself with the help of the seat backs. Once I was outside the aircraft, airport staff brought a wheelchair down the jetway. Watching the hundreds of individuals scampering to their destinations as I was wheeled to baggage claimmade me a little melancholy. Would I ever be able to stroll through a terminal again? I took great pride in the fact that I had been able to stop the routine use of a wheelchair all on my own; it still felt like a defeat whenever I needed to use one, regardless of the circumstances.
By now, Willa had found me. I had asked her to bring my heavy jacket so I could safely change in the warmth of the building. The skycap pushed the wheelchair all the way there instead of stopping at the door. I was so thankful at not having to walk. Transferring from the wheelchair to the car was easy, and soon we were headed to Willa’s so I could see my dog.
When we drove up to Willa’s house in Northeast Minneapolis, there was snow along the walk. Ordinarily, stepping from the street onto the curb and walking on the slippery layer of thin snow would have been something I wanted help with. However, I had just spent the last three months doing relatively intense weight training. The amount of weights was not high, but I had been in the weight room the majority of days each week. My muscles stayed primed at all times. I made it up to the front door effortlessly.
When we got inside the house, Mary’s kennel was in the front room. I sat down on the couch to give Willa space to open it. I was used to Mary greeting the closest people first before stopping to see me. This time, she ran directly over to me. We shared the longest embrace we ever had. We had never been separated for more than a month.
I had often joked online about how Mary stops missing me an hour after I leave. She usually lives in such stimulating environments that there is always something to distract her. Usually there is at least one other dog in the home, so she spends most of her days frolicking with a playmate. As much love as a dog gets from caretakers, I suppose, there is nothing like seeing your owner or another dog. We stayed at Willa’s for more than an hour. I spent most of it hugging and petting her. Neither of us wanted to let go.
Now that I had gotten my coat and seen Mary, it was time to go to get something to eat and to go to a hotel (I had still not found an apartment, so it was my plan to stay in a weekly hotel and to take the first apartment I saw). My friend Allene called me while we were on the road and offered to let me stay at her place. Since it was already around 5:00, I figured that I might as well not pay for a hotel room that night. Instead, Willa and I stopped at a coffeeshop. We ate and drank, and I made the final edits to a blog post.
By the time we made it to Allene’s trailer park in the suburb of Farmington, it was already dark as midnight. When Allene opened the door to let me in, the dogs rushed over excitedly. They hadn’t seen me in four months, but I am certain that they could even recall the years before my stroke, when I was athletic and able to roughhouse with them. There was a winter temperature advisory, so we didn’t leave the house that night. Instead, we ordered pizza and watched TV. Since I had just spent over 24 hours traveling, I didn’t mind not going anywhere. I was content to lie comfortably on the couch, not worrying about a schedule.
I slept reasonably well that night and didn’t wake up until midmorning. I received a call from one of the Craigslist ads to which I’d responded. The price and the timeline were perfect, but when I asked if they accepted dogs, he said no. It occurred to me that while I might be able to find a place for me to live, it would me much more difficult to find one accepting of Mary as well. I began stressing about where we would live all over again.
Allene had planned a going away party for a coworker who was self-deporting back to Ontario, because she couldn’t get her work visa extended. When we went out that night, I didn’t need them to help me get into the SUV, nor did I need to be let out at the front door. Making it into the restaurant didn’t exhaust me. I noticed that I was dragging my left foot even less than I had been doing recently. Falling down was almost no concern these days.
After we were led to our seats, I didn’t need to check where the restroom was, because incontinence wasn’t an issue. My voice was loud and varied enough to communicate with a table full of strangers. Whether I was relaying information or delivering a punchline, I didn’t have to repeat myself once. Every time I had gone out after my stroke, my voice or my body had been compromised. It wasn’t the evening. No one had seen any problem with my presentation, but it bothered me. I never felt like I was really conveying myself effectively. Now that the unnatural gasps, slow speech, and frequent trips to the restroom had been eliminated, I felt like Allene’s friends were getting something similar to the real me.
When I met Allene, she was a coworker who dreamt of going to college someday. She had eventually gotten into a nursing program, and she had struggled through several setbacks. A week before I was supposed to fly back for her graduation, I suffered the stroke and had fallen into a coma. It felt satisfying to see the growth Allene had achieved while I was away. Socializing had often been a challenge for her, but she was laughing and talking with her peers without a care in the world. When we dropped off her coworker at the end of the night out, it felt like we had finished wrapping a perfect gift.
The next day, I was ready to check into the weekly motel. I called the front desk before going over. The answering machine picked up, listing Monday through Saturday hours. It was Sunday. But it was also New Year’s Eve, one the busiest days of the year for hotel bookings, so I called again. I still reached the answering machine. This time, I hit the option to reach an operator.
I explained my situation.
She told me that the office was closed.
I asked her if there was any way I could meet someone.
She said there was no way.
I was at a loss as for what to do. Then Allene offered me a free night’s stay she had earned with hotels.com. We booked a room for me, with the assumption that I would book a week the following morning. Now, it would be over a week before I had to have an apartment.
Willa came down to drive me over to the hotel that afternoon. She also brought Mary. Because I was special needs, the desk clerk told me that she could briefly visit me in my room. Willa unloaded my suitcase and led Mary to my room. She ran to get me some food and left Mary with me. We cuddled until Willa came back to take Mary home.
Now I was left alone. I had spent very few nights without roommates and family since I had left the hospital. Dad could help me to cover my living expenses for a few months, but my deeper concern was whether I could live on my own. I went to bed watching a retrospective of the 2017 top news stories. I wondered what changes the New Year would hold for Mary and me.
I awoke before 9:00 on New Year’s Day. No one was there to assist me, so I washed up immediately and dressed myself. After carefully placing all my belongings in my suitcase, I walked down the hall to get breakfast. On my way there, I passed the pool room. The sunlight from the frigid world outside glistening on the surface of the pool reminded me of how I would sit in the hot tub after a winter workout and stare at the icy world a few feet away, relishing the contrast created by an inch of glass.
I walked on down the hall to breakfast in the lobby. The hotel manager helped me to fill my plate with eggs, sausage, and waffles. As I sat down I noticed that nationwide news and Facebook were abuzz with stories of freezing temperatures gripping the country. Before my stroke, this would have also caused me a great deal anxiety. But since the stroke, winter seldom bothered me because I was generally going from doorways to heated vehicles at curbside. It wasn’t really possible for my body temp to lower significantly in less than a minute. Now winter weather is just a novel topic of conversation.
Before eating, I called the weekly motel to make sure I could check in. Someone answered at the front desk this time. He said that I could check in any time before 4:00 pm. I told him that I would be there before noon. Then I hung up and ate.
Once I was done with breakfast, the manager said that she could bring the luggage cart to my room at checkout. I went back to my room, freshened up, then called the front desk so I could check out. Once my things were in the lobby, I called for a Lyft. The driver placed my suitcase in the trunk then tried to help me. “You can get in,” I said to him. I was able to climb in the car and buckle my belt independently now. We drove through the frozen dawn toward my future.